Wonder Woman

Melinda Gates: “Bill Was Stunned When I Told Him I Didn’t Want To Go Back To Microsoft After I Had The Baby.”

Philanthropist, businesswoman and author Melinda Gates shares the story of her life in her own words.

Melinda Gates: “Bill Was Stunned When I Told Him I Didn’t Want To Go Back To Microsoft After I Had The Baby.”

I grew up in a middle-class family in Dallas, Texas, with two brothers and a sister. I didn’t have a passport until my mid-20s, but what I did have—programming. My parents also started a portable typewriter. One of its best features because my mum made sure of it—was a library card. I have warm memories of trips to the public library with my mum and sister. I felt such an enormous sense of accomplishment graduating from children’s books (Roald Dahl and Judy Blume) to young adult books, and great works of literature (which to me meant Gustave Flaubert). There was always a last-minute scramble to find missing books, because any late fees came out of my allowance, and I worked hard for that allowance.

I spent my afternoons as captain of the drill [dance] team (which was acutally management experience) and my evenings huddled over the family computer learning programming. My parents also started a small property rental business to help save for college, and we spent our weekends together pulling up carpets, cleaning ovens and mowing lawns. It felt like important work, because I knew it was directly connected to our college education.

One day, my father brought home an Apple III computer to help run the business. I spent a lot of time on that computer—teaching myself to code and imagining a career in technology. I liked that I could picture something in my head and make it appear on screen. Coding to me felt like solving a puzzle.

What I’m proudest of, though, isn’t a single product or idea. I’m proud that I found a way to stay true to myself while working in a hard-charging, male-dominated environment.

Melinda Gates

My parents sent me off to college with a special gift: a cutting-edge Olympus B12 portable typewriter. One of its best features was how light it was—just 5.4kg. While I was at Duke University, the personal computer displaced the typewriter. That was pretty inconvenient for us computer science majors because all of a sudden, humanities majors were hogging our machines.

Bill and I met at a work dinner in New York. I was late and took one of two remaining seats. He was even later and took the seat next to me. We hit it off. I was expecting him to be smart, of course, but I was struck by how funny he is. Just after we started dating, Bill suggested that I read his favourite book, The Great Gatsby. I told him I already had, twice. It was one of those moments when we realised we might just be perfect for each other. We still pass books back and forth all the time. We both read A Gentleman in Moscow over the holidays. (Bill was a little ahead of me, so when he started to cry, I was afraid a character we liked was going to die. Turns out, he’s just a softie.)

What surprised Bill, I think, is how much science fiction I read. It all started with A Wrinkle in Time, when I was much younger. When I picked it up at our school library, I had never read anything like it before. I felt a special connection to the protagonist, whose beloved father goes missing while researching the space-time continuum. My own father was an aerospace engineer, so I could imagine myself in her shoes.

Bill and Melinda Gates

I worked at Microsoft during an incredibly exciting time to be in tech. Everything around us was charged with potential. It was the very beginning of the digital revolution and possibilities were endless. What I’m proudest of, though, isn’t a single product or idea. I’m proud that I found a way to stay true to myself while working in a hard-charging, male-dominated environment. Microsoft is where I honed my leadership style. I learnt that I could be an effective manager while also being gentler and more collaborative than some of the other people I worked with. That was a huge lesson and one I’ve carried with me.

While I was pregnant with my first child, Jenn, I told Bill that I didn’t want to go back to Microsoft after I had the baby. Until then, work had been a big part of my life so he was stunned. But since I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to work in tech and that I wanted to be a mum — and most of all, that I wanted to be really good at both of them. I wasn’t sure I could do both well at the same time. We were in the incredibly privileged position of not needing my income, so I got to make the decision to stay home.

Part of it was that, at some level, I assumed that’s just what women do. I grew up in a house with a stay-at-home mother, and, to some extent, I internalised that model. What I wish is that our society didn’t make it so hard on parents. It’s especially difficult in the US, where there is no paid family leave policy. I’m a big believer in paid family leave, and I think that smarter, stronger policies will help lift some of the burden on working parents.

Bill and I took our first trip to Africa in 1993—with stops in Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire). We were there on safari. What struck us, though, were the people we met and the barriers they faced to living healthy and productive lives. It was our first time seeing extreme poverty, and it really startled us. Towards the end of the trip, we decided to find a way to use the resources from Microsoft to help. In the nearly two decades since we started our foundation, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling to the world’s poorest places, meeting women who live there and hearing about their lives.

I spent my formative high-school years at an all-girls school where we were told every day that we could grow up to be whoever we wanted to be. I had a dad who supported my interest in math and science and a mum who worked alongside him in the small business they started together. And I have a husband who was raised by a strong woman and a dad who respects them. But what struck me as I started to learn more about gender inequality and the often subtle ways it manifests itself was that I could see some of those gender norms showing up even in my own marriage.

One of the other mums told me: “When we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands: ‘Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can, too.’”

Melinda Gates

For example, in the US, women spend an average of four hours a day on unpaid work, while men spend about two-and-a- half. Bill and I have been lucky to have had extraordinary help raising our children and managing our lives. But even with the best support we could have hoped for, we’ve still, at times, fallen into the trap of assuming that some categories of work around the house should automatically fall to me.

When our oldest daughter, Jenn, started kindergarten, we found a great school for her, but it was 30 or 40 minutes away. Bill and I both sort of assumed that I was going to be the one doing the driving—since that was often the default assumption regarding tasks related to the kids—but I was nervous that spending two hours in the car every day was going to leave me less time for other important things. So I brought it up to Bill and he decided to take over some of the driving.

Not long after, we both noticed a lot more dads at morning drop-off. One of the other mums told me: “When we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands: ‘Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can, too.’” It turns out that their households had been operating under some of the same gendered assumptions about which chores belong to whom.

My routine while writing my first book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World, was essentially intense periods of reading and writing punctuated by strategically scheduled breaks. Those so-called breaks were actually one of the most important parts of the process. Stepping away from my desk — to work out or take a walk, or even just to stare out the window at Lake Washington — helped me think my way through the tricky parts.

When I needed to clear my mind and really take a break, I would meditate. I’m a big fan of the app Headspace. Solitude was helpful, especially because I made a point of spending time with friends once I emerged.

I learnt that when writing a book about strong women, it helps to surround yourself with strong women, and I’m lucky that that’s something I’ve spent my lifetime doing.

Melinda Gates

Every morning, no matter where I am in the world, I start the day by meditating. If I’m on a work trip, I’ll try to exercise, and then it’s usually off to meetings or a learning trip, which might be to a farm or a clinic, or to see an entrepreneur’s new business in action. If I’m [at home] in Seattle, I wake up around 6:30am or 7am to see my youngest daughter, Phoebe, off to high school. I still drive her once a week, mostly because
I love that time in the car together. My [investment] company, Pivotal Ventures, is theoretically a kayak ride away from home but I tend to drive. If I’m going to my office at the foundation, I turn on a podcast or the radio to liven up the commute.

At the office, I meet with my team, sit in on learning sessions, track progress on our current programmes and evaluate future proposals, then it’s back home to Bill and Phoebe for dinner and maybe some TV. (Recently, that’s meant Silicon Valley, Friday Night Lights or This Is Us.) We’re a family of readers. Bill and I pass books back and forth, and I always try to read what the kids are reading, too. Phoebe and I both like John Green’s books.

Bill and I are about to be empty-nesters. I can’t say I’m entirely looking forward to that but it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to see your kids launch.

Advocating for women and girls is going to be my life’s work. At the end, I hope I can say that because I walked on this earth, life for women and girls around the world was made easier.

There are a number of ways I’m working towards that. One is helping expand access to contraceptives for women around the world. Another is the work I’m doing through Pivotal Ventures. I’m looking into how strategically deployed philanthropic capital could help dismantle the barriers to women’s equality in the US. There is so much energy behind the issue of gender equity right now that I think this could be our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take meaningful action.

By The Telegraph/The Interview People

This article first appeared in the July issue of A.

Related Stories