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Melinda Gates Finds Her Life’s Purpose in Philanthropy

The plan was to give all the money away. This was one thing Melinda French knew when she tied the knot with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in 1994. While she, too, had been a high flyer at Microsoft, holding degrees in computer science, economics, and business from Duke, she had also been raised in a family given to service. Though Gates attended private school, she volunteered at a struggling public school down the road, where she learned quickly that “sometimes things weren’t equal for everyone.”

Gates is now in the business of righting those same inequities she saw as a young girl–and more. As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with her husband, Bill, and father-in-law, Bill Sr., she is working toward the mandate to give “every person the chance to live a healthy productive life.”

Their foundation has made progress by partnering with organizations, governments, and other philanthropists to tackle difficult problems in global development, global health, and the U.S. education system – and by being a voracious learner. Early in the Foundation’s work, Melinda and Bill Gates learned about the rotavirus in an article, beginning their journey to take on diarrhea and its massive death toll for children. More recently, Melinda Gates’ travels have taught her that “all mothers want the same thing for their kids.” This universal desire for healthy and educated children has fueled Gates’ new focus on family planning. Gates reflects: if a mother can “plan and space her children, she has a chance of feeding them and ultimately of educating them.”

For Gates, the time, the trips, and the meetings, which are all on behalf of the Foundation and the families they serve, are not something she could have predicted. It’s been a surprise; yet, she has learned, “this is my life’s purpose and I absolutely love it.”

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So, philanthropy’s had a profound impact on my life and on Bill’s life in a way that I don’t think either of us would have predicted. And, when I say, at the end of my life, 'Will I feel great about having worked on these causes?' You bet. And will we have effected all the change we wanted to? Absolutely no way. I know that there’ll be work that I wish that I could go on and do for thirty or forty more years, but I know for me, this is my life’s purpose and I absolutely love it.

I made a conscious decision at some point to really step out and use my voice, and it wasn’t an easy decision. I enjoy being a private citizen and having my privacy. But ultimately, when I started to look at the role of philanthropy and what it can do to effect change, I realized it wasn’t enough to just visit women in the developing world or to give them a tool like the vaccine; I had to use my voice on their behalf.

I really try to say to myself when I go to the developing world, 'Okay, what would you do? You are one of these women. You live here. Assume you were born in this remote place. What length would you go to save your children? How would you deal with these circumstances?' It’s not until you put yourself in that woman’s shoes that you can start to see what all of her needs are and her family’s needs and start to really, I think, start to relate to where she is as opposed to standing back and looking at it.

We always say to ourselves, 'We grew up in the United States. We’ve been huge beneficiaries of what’s gone on in the United States. We will always give a certain portion of the foundation’s wealth to the United States.' But when we see the greatest inequities in the world, children whose lives could be saved for less than ten dollars, you say, 'My gosh, the value of the dollar you spend for a child in Bangladesh or in Africa or India, goes a very long way.' So Bill and I really think about the bulk of the foundation’s money going to the developing world.

I think it’s universal that all mothers want the same things for their kids. One of the most beautiful things somebody said to me in the last year – this was a woman who was living in the slums outside of Nairobi – and she said, 'I want all good things for my child before I have the next one.' And I thought, 'Isn’t that beautiful?' It’s universal. We want so much for our children to be able to grow up and live healthy and to get an education and go on.