Melinda Gates: A woman of many sides

Wednesday May 05 2021
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Melinda Gates is a contradiction of sorts. In public, she exudes an air of strong personality; a person who is in charge of her destiny and given her professional training, computer scientist, she casts the image of a steely character with determination to succeed in life.

But, away from the public eye, Melinda is an extremely reserved person, intensely introspective and deeply religious.

She is a devout Catholic who lived under the wings of strict nuns during her upbringing and schooling at Ursuline Academy in Dallas. The academy, which was founded on the doctrine of St. Angela Merici, instilled in her a high sense of humility and service.

Melinda is a strong believer in family, which is why, soon after marrying Bill in 1994, she left Microsoft to spend time bringing up the children.

She explains that marriage is about making sacrifices for the bigger good of the family; putting aside some ambitions as one seeks to better the life of everyone in the household.

And for her, wife to a billionaire husband, sacrifices were many. Melinda’s life is brought out in her debut publication, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World” , published in 2019, where she bares her inner heart. Compassion and empathy define her character. Her passion is supporting the cause of women, who, she believes, hold the key to a fair and stable society.


Women empowerment

“If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings,” she writes in the book.

“As women gain rights, families flourish, and so do societies. That connection is built on a simple truth: Whenever you include a group that’s been excluded, you benefit everyone. And when you’re working globally to include women and girls, who are half of every population, you’re working to benefit all members of every community. Gender equity lifts everyone. Women’s rights and society’s health and wealth rise together.”

It is for this reason that, when they launched the Bill and Melinda Foundation in 2000, she quickly put women top of the agenda. She rallied governments, international agencies and philanthropies to support women empowerment.

The projects she launched were singularly aimed at uplifting women; family planning to improve their health; economic empowerment to put money into their pockets and social emancipation to give them a voice in a male dominated world.

Melinda traversed the world and visited women in the darkest of corners, be it in slums of New Delhi, Bangladesh, Malawi, Mozambique or Korogocho in Nairobi. For example, when she visited women in Nairobi’s Korogocho’s slums, she and was astounded at the level of deprivation but to her surprise, was regaled by their sturdy fortitude to succeed in life.

Similarly, on several occasions she visited and stayed with a Maasai family in Arusha, Tanzania, and learnt first-hand how women live in pastoral communities. The travels greatly informed her thinking and completely changed her orientation to life; learning how women and children who live under painfully unbearable conditions due to socio-cultural, religious and economic circumstances are able to fight their battles and remain humane.

Announcement of their divorce

The anecdotes in her book illuminate the fact that, despite her wealth, she is vulnerable and humane like any of us. She appreciates the indignities millions go through across the world and, therefore, the undying desire to transform lives through charity.

She says: “To bring about a revolution of the heart, you have to let your heart break. Letting your heart break means sinking into the pain that’s underneath the anger .... If you don’t accept the suffering, hurt can turn to hatred.”

The relationship between Melinda and Bill was based on equality. Early in their marriage, Melinda insisted that, at the right time, both of them had to play part in bringing up children. So, when their children enrolled in school, she insisted they had to drop the children in turn. Out of that, however, she inspired a revolution in their neighbourhood.

Other women took the cue and put their husband on a roster of driving children to school. Such anecdotes in her book gives insight into her compelling character. She insists that marriage is based on negotiation and every decision and action must be agreed upon. Perhaps, this explains their decision to put out a joint and simultaneous announcement of their divorce.

In several ways, Melinda parallels Bill. Both are techies. Both are go-getters. Both are aggressive. Both have a passion for excellence. Both believe in philanthropy. But they are also contrasts.

In the book, Melinda shows how she pushed Bill to accept division of labour at the household. Many decisions made at the foundation come from Melinda who has an empathetic streak unlike Bill, a straight-shooter who minces no words when faced with a situation he does not countenance.

At home, Melinda describes herself as being frugal and strict, only allowing the children minimal luxuries to inculcate a sense of modesty in them. She is her own person, a point she aptly enunciates in the book.

Devoted her time to charity

“If you don’t set your own agenda, somebody else will. If I didn’t fill my schedule with things I felt were important, other people would fill my schedule with things they felt were important.”

As captured in the book, Melinda grew up in Dallas, Texas. She studied computer science at Duke University and later an MBA programme at Duke’s Fuqua School.

She started her career at Microsoft as multimedia products manager and that’s where she met Bill, whom she describes as fun-loving, curious and extremely sharp. She would later step down to concentrate on raising the family after she got married to Bill.

She has since devoted her time to charity upon setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. Presumably, this is her next love as she starts a new phase of her life. Instructively, in between, she had set up an independent company, Pivotal Ventures, dedicated to supporting and incubating women techies.

Going by Melinda’s strong belief in the institution of the family, the divorce has stunned the world. It was the antithesis of her conviction, as she writes:

“When people can’t agree, it’s often because there is no empathy, no sense of shared experience. If you feel what others feel, you’re more likely to see what they see. Then you can understand one another. Then you can move to the honest and respectful exchange of ideas that is the mark of a successful partnership. That’s the source of progress.”

But as their joint statement stated, “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives.” Melinda and Bill have three grown-up children, Jenn, Rory, and Phoebe.