The incredible life of Melinda Gates - one of the world's richest and most powerful women
Jul 26, 2021, 12:44 IST
Melinda Gates (neè French) grew up in Dallas, Texas, with her parents — a stay-at-home mother and an aerospace-engineer father — and her three siblings. The family belonged to the local Roman Catholic parish.
The Frenches were intent on sending all four of their children to college, so Melinda's father started a side business for rental properties. "We would help him run the business and keep the books," she said. "We saw money coming in and money going out."
Melinda was valedictorian and head of the drill team at her high school, Ursuline Academy of Dallas. In 2007, the Gates Foundation donated $7 million to Ursuline for the construction of The French Family Science, Math, and Technology Center — a 70,000 sq. ft. LEED Gold certified laboratory and classroom building.
She went on to earn a double bachelor's degree in computer science and economics from Duke University and an MBA from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in just five years.
But Melinda's dedication to her school work did not deter her from a social life. She was a member of Duke's Beta Rho chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. In a 1995 interview, a sorority sister remembered her as a serial monogamist and a reserved dresser.
Melinda has been generous to her alma mater. Her gifts include The French Family Science Center, the University Scholars Program, and the DukeEngage Program. She also served as a Duke trustee from 1996 to 2004.
Shortly after graduation, Melinda was recruited by Microsoft just after the company went public and its stock began to soar. During her time at the company, she served as project manager of Microsoft Bob, Microsoft Encarta, and Expedia.
At a company picnic, Bill asked Melinda if she'd like to join him on a date in two weeks. She turned him down because he wasn't spontaneous enough. Within an hour, Bill asked to take her out that night and she agreed. The pair kept a low profile at work and asked colleagues and family members to respect their privacy.
Melinda calls the couple's first trip to Africa in 1993 the turning point. During a walk on the beach in Zanzibar, they decided to do something about the devastation they'd seen. Thus, the Gates Foundation was born.
In 1994, after seven years of dating, Bill and Melinda married in a secret ceremony on the 17th hole of a Hawaiian golf course after a pre-wedding fireworks display and a performance by Willie Nelson. The wedding tab was reportedly $1 million.
Melinda gave birth to their three children in 1996, 1999, and 2002. Though they won't be poor, the Gates children will not inherit their parents' billions, most of which will go to the foundation. "We want to strike a balance where they have the freedom to do anything but not a lot of money showered on them so they could go out and do nothing," Bill said in 2014.
The Gates children have all been to Africa a number of times for philanthropic work. In 2014, Melinda and her eldest daughter traveled to Tanzania to do a homestay for the first time. In a TED talk last year, Melinda said, "As they get older, they so know that our family belief is about responsibility, that we are in an unbelievable situation just to live in the United States and have a great education, and we have a responsibility to give back to the world."
The Gateses are close friends with U2 frontman, Bono. He has said of Melinda: "Lots of people like him [Bill] — and I include myself — are enraged, and we sweep ourselves into a fury at the wanton loss of lives. What we need is a much slower pulse to help us be rational. Melinda is that pulse."
In 2006, Warren Buffett agreed to give 80% of his multi-billion dollar fortunate to the Gates Foundation. Buffett, a close friend of the family, told Fortune that Bill is "smart as hell, obviously ... but in terms of seeing the whole picture, [Melinda's] smarter."
In 2014, Melinda joined Bill for a speech during Stanford's commencement. She gave advice to students and families about hands-on charity: "Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism."
In 1995, a Seattle Times article predicted that perhaps Melinda would one day head up a Gates foundation. For the last 15 years, Melinda has been the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a private, global foundation with a $40 billion endowment.
Today, Melinda is taking a number of domestic and world issues head-on. Despite her Catholic faith, she has recently worked to expand the availability of contraception for women, writing in a Fortune article that birth control is "too important to let it be a politicized issue."
Melinda describes the legacy she hopes to leave: "On the day I die, I want people to think that I was a great mom and a great family member and a great friend. I care about that more than I care about anything else."