Melinda Gates, née Melinda Ann French, (born August 15, 1964, Dallas, Texas, U.S.), American businesswoman and philanthropist who—with her husband, Microsoft Corporation cofounder Bill Gates—cofounded the charitable Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
French first became interested in computers when a seventh-grade teacher placed her in an advanced math class. After graduating from the Ursuline Academy (a Catholic girls’ high school), she studied computer science and economics at Duke University (B.S., 1986; M.B.A., 1987). She joined Microsoft in product development in 1987 and rose to become general manager of information products. French married Bill Gates on January 1, 1994. When their first child was born, in 1996, she left the company to concentrate on her family and on the couple’s charitable work.
Along with her husband, Gates initiated her charitable endeavours in 1994, largely at the behest of Bill’s father, William H. Gates, but also from the example of Bill’s mother, a devoted philanthropist who had died earlier that year. Their first effort, the William H. Gates Foundation, pursued global health programs as well as projects in the Pacific Northwest, where they lived. Three years later they launched the Gates Library Foundation (renamed Gates Learning Foundation in 1999) to benefit North American libraries, with a particular focus on bringing Internet technology to public libraries. Next came the Gates Millennium Scholars program (1999), which directed $1 billion toward minority study grants. The couple consolidated their charitable interests in 2000 as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with a reported endowment of $17 billion.
In May 2006 the Gateses were awarded Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. In June billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a personal friend of the couple, announced his plan to direct some $30 billion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation in the coming years.
By 2006 the foundation was by far the world’s largest. Counting Buffett’s pledge, its assets would total roughly $60 billion in the next 20 years. In anticipation of its growth needs, the Gates Foundation was reorganized into three divisions: global health (including nutrition), global development, and community and education causes in the United States. Through these changes, the foundation underscored its commitment to solving health problems around the world, with particular emphasis on developing treatments and vaccines for malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis; controlling insects that transmit diseases; and developing superfoods in the fight against malnutrition. Despite the huge endowment and the Gateses’ personal wealth, the foundation funded no program single-handedly; instead, it compelled other organizations, firms, and even countries to help underwrite programs. Their collaborative approach evoked an African proverb cited by Melinda and others at the Gates Foundation: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
In 2016 Gates was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It seems almost unbelievable to say it, but in some ways, it must be hard being married to Bill Gates. OK, on the plus side, there are the billions of dollars. There is the enormous house equipped with every technological device known to man. There are the private jets and mingling with the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Yet, all that aside (and it is a big aside), how does one cope with being forever tagged 'Bill Gates's wife'? Especially when one is a highly educated, successful woman with a reputation for determination and brains at least the equal of her husband's? Notice how even here, Bill's name has been mentioned first, several sentences before that of our real subject: Melinda Gates, rising star of the billionaire philanthropy phenomenon.
But Melinda is now achieving the almost impossible. She is emerging from the shadow of her husband's overwhelming fame and wealth. The picture that is forming is of a woman of prodigious talent and fierce intellect in her own right. In particular, she has a clear agenda on a range of pressing issues facing the planet, from fighting Aids, tuberculosis and malaria in the developing world to homelessness in the US.
Bill may have cornered the brash, tech pioneer market, but Melinda is rapidly gaining a reputation for her more subtle form of highly skilled shuttle diplomacy, charming governments and aid agencies alike as she travels the globe.
This Friday is World Aids Day, which will highlight one of Melinda's key concerns. The fact that the developed world has not been allowed to forget about the Aids epidemic is in no small part down to Melinda's tireless work in the field and now it is Melinda - not Bill - who is creating headlines.
She has been dubbed 'the most powerful woman you know next to nothing about', but that description seems unlikely to last. She is rapidly racking up awards and citations; the Wall Street Journal gave her the number one spot in its list of '50 Women to Watch' and Forbes has ranked her the 12th most powerful woman in the world.
For Melinda Gates, the era of merely being her husband's wife is coming to an end. Now, for good or for ill, she will be judged on her own merits.
Melinda Ann French was born in Dallas on 15 August 1964. Her father, Raymond, was an engineer, and her mother was Elaine Amerland French. The family was solid Roman Catholic and sent their clearly bright daughter to the city's Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls school. She flourished there, under the tutelage of several of the school's sisters who spotted her talent for maths early on. With a nod towards her future in the world of charity, the school's motto was 'Serviam' ('I will serve'). But not even her teachers could have foreseen quite how literally she would end up taking that exhortation.
As a student at Duke University, a distinguished college in North Carolina, she took an accelerated course, achieving a BA and MBA in just five years and was singled out as the star pupil of her class. On one occasion, a professor was marking exams when he realised that one pupil (Melinda) had come up with answers better than his own. He promptly ditched his answer sheet in favour of using her paper.
Not surprisingly, Melinda found a job immediately after graduation, going to Seattle to join the rapidly growing computer technology corporation Microsoft. Her career in the company was an immediate success. She crisscrossed the country as a product manager, visiting Microsoft offices, and discovered a knack for getting people to work more effectively together.
This is a side of her that she is now putting to good use for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable foundation in the world, established by the couple in 2000 to enhance health care and reduce extreme poverty.
Contrary to popular belief, though, the enormous charity does not simply dole out cash (though with $31bn behind it, it certainly could do so). Instead, it works on developing tactics for creating networks of mutual support with its partners in aid and government. This subtle and diplomatic intervention suits Melinda's personality; she is someone who can comfortably embrace people from all walks of life and get them to sit down together, a talent certainly on display on a recent trip to India.
The foundation was faced with a wall of government reluctance and press scepticism after coughing up $258m to help stop the spread of Aids in the country. But a carefully choreographed visit by Melinda won over the critics. She displayed a quiet authority on the subject and a humble ease with everyone involved. She earned plaudits for visiting the red-light district of Calcutta and physically embracing the sex workers there.
It was the sort of PR trip that Bill would have had trouble with, but Melinda is a natural who knows how to communicate effectively. She wears modest clothing, long skirts or slacks in subdued colours, and she is down to earth, open and chatty on even the most personal of subjects (very useful when discussing ways of preventing the spread of Aids). Even Bill bows to her superior ways of handling a difficult situation. 'Melinda bonds with some constituencies more naturally then I do,' he recently confessed.
But one should be wary of crudely splitting the Gates into stereotypical male and female roles, not least because Melinda is far more of a 'jock' than her nerdy husband. Whereas he likes bridge and golf, she is a formidable long-distance runner. She is also a kayaker who revels in the outdoor pursuits so easily available in the wilderness areas around Seattle. At a recent Aids conference in Toronto, both she and Bill spoke on aspects of the disease. Yet it was Melinda who gave the scientific speech, while Bill addressed the issue of ways to help women face the crisis.
Melinda's life-changing meeting with Bill occurred at a Microsoft press event in New York in 1987. The two began dating seriously soon after and, even at a time when 'Microsoft marriages' were common in the fevered atmosphere of the company's explosive growth, being the boss's wife was never going to be easy. At times, Melinda would find herself eating alone in the company's cafeteria, the prospect of dining with Bill's spouse being too terrifying for most of her co-workers.
At any rate, her Microsoft career came to an end with the birth of their first child, Jennifer, in 1996. A son, Rory, and another daughter, Phoebe, quickly followed. But it would have been folly to think Melinda was settling into the role of Bill's (house)wife.
In fact, even before they were married, Bill and Melinda had discussed suitable ways of disposing of his vast fortune and Melinda has been equally involved with Bill in the foundation's development. The pair take frequent and long walks near their home, during which they make many major foundation decisions.
Its growth has been rapid over the last decade. From being known chiefly for plans to put a computer in all the world's schools, it now has a far more ambitious aim: addressing global inequality, an impressive and-far reaching project fuelled as much by Melinda as Bill.
The pair also share a huge desire for privacy. They do not hobnob in public. They are not part of 'society'. Though they mingle with the rich, famous and powerful, they do it mostly in private.
Partly, this is an understandable desire to lead as normal a life as possible and ensure their children are not ruined by wealth. But the obsessive privacy surrounding Melinda (even her former school will not discuss her) is a reflection of how serious she is about her philanthropy and her lack of any desire for fame or personal attention.
Indeed, when Warren Buffett bestowed his $30bn fortune to the foundation, the ensuing wave of publicity was said to have unnerved the Gates, particularly Melinda, because for the first time, the press started focusing as much on her as Bill. She responded by refusing to take part in any but a carefully selected handful of interviews.
The truth is that Melinda has always shown little desire for glory for herself and much steely determination to focus people on the issues she feels strongly about. Even as a Microsoft worker in her pre-Bill days, she was known as someone who concentrated on 'the big picture'. No picture comes bigger or more worthy than solving world inequality and perhaps some of her motivation can be found in the deeply personal.
One of the few intimate details known about the Gates is that Bill's mother sent a letter to the couple when she was dying of cancer, in which she urged them to use their wealth for good. 'For those to whom much is given, much is expected,' she wrote. Melinda has evidently taken those words very much to heart.
The Gates lowdown
Born Melinda Ann French was born on 15 August 1964, in Dallas, Texas, to Raymond and Elaine Amerland French. She went to a local Catholic school before studying computer science and economics at Duke University. Her first job was at Microsoft.
Best of times Her wedding on 1 January 1994 to Bill Gates on an exclusive island in Hawaii. They booked an entire hotel and hired every helicopter in the area to ensure privacy. It worked - the wedding passed off without a hitch. Willie Nelson was the wedding singer.
Worst of times A 1993 safari in Zaire left an indelible impression on Melinda. The poverty and struggle of everyday life was traumatising. 'I came back and told a close friend that Africa changed me forever,' she told one journalist.
What she says 'The premise of this foundation is one life on this planet is no more valuable than the next.'
What others say 'Melinda and I work together on deciding what we want the foundation to do. It's fun for us to go on trips together around the world and see what the needs are.'
Bill Gates on the role of a billionaire philanthropist couple