Eight Questions for Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates

Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Along with Bill Gates, she shapes and approves the foundation’s strategies, reviews results, and sets the overall direction of the organization.

Together they meet with grantees and partners to further the foundation’s goal of improving equity in the United States and around the world. They use many public appearances to advocate for the foundation’s issues.

In July 2012, Melinda Gates made headlines by spearheading the London Summit on Family Planning. She continues to champion the importance of easily available family-planning information and services, with the goal of delivering contraceptives to an additional 120 million women in developing countries by 2020. Melinda has stated that empowering women and girls in developing countries to decide whether and when to have a child is a critical driver of her work at the foundation, since that decision can be the source of transformational improvements in the health and prosperity of whole societies.

Melinda Gates received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics from Duke University in 1986 and a master’s in business administration from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 1987.

After joining Microsoft Corp. in 1987, she distinguished herself in business as a leader in the development of many of Microsoft’s multimedia products and was appointed as Microsoft’s General Manager of Information Products. In 1996, Gates left the organization and since then, has directed her energy toward the nonprofit world.

Bill and Melinda Gates live in Seattle, Washington. The Gateses have three children.

Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sara Ojjeh, Editor-In-Chief, PhilanthropyNYU

Sara Ojjeh (SO): This year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will celebrate its 15th anniversary.  When you reflect on what work you’ve done, what are you most proud of?

Melinda Gates (MG): First, I have to say that the Gates Foundation has never achieved anything by itself. Everything we do, we do with partners: governments, corporations, other foundations, nonprofits all over the world. But one area in which I think our leadership helped make a real difference is family planning. For a long time, family planning simply wasn’t on the global health agenda, for various reasons—it was a political hot potato, family planning programs had been done poorly in some countries—and it was just easier for people not to deal with it. But, with the governments of dozens of countries around the world, we spearheaded the London Summit on Family Planning in 2012, and since then, countries all over the world have been implementing the programs women need to plan for and support their families.

SO: What do you think will be the most important issues in the philanthropic sector in the next 15 years?

MG: I think getting data and measurement right. It’s very good news that effectiveness and impact are high on the agenda right now, but we still need new capabilities and tools to succeed. Data analysis is a key capability, and data collection is a key tool. Data is a roadmap to impact. Sometimes, it can seem like just a bunch of numbers, but when you take them all together, you have the key to helping people improving their lives. If you want to understand what problem you’re trying to solve, you need to have the data. If you want to design the most elegant solution to that problem, you need to have the data. If you want to see if the solution is working, you need to have the data. Gathering and analyzing the hard numbers is a strategy for answering the hardest questions in development—and it’s also something we’re not yet as good at as we need to be. In the next 15 years, we’ll get a lot better—and people’s lives will get better as a result

SO: With a growing number of billionaires signing the Giving Pledge, how do you work with new philanthropists on their own goals?  Do you mentor them?

MG: We all work together. That’s what’s been most rewarding about the Giving Pledge—not watching the list of signers grow, though that’s great, but spending time with everybody talking about how to improve. Every year, we meet a few times formally, and informally we’re in touch all the time. We all come to philanthropy with our own experiences, our own passions, and our own special talents. Sharing them with each other makes us all better at what we do.

SO: With the launch of Family Planning 2020, you’ve been very vocal about the importance of supporting girls and women.  How does investing in girls and women tackle extreme poverty?

MG: Looking through a gender lens—paying attention to the way gender norms affect the results of development programs—isn’t just about helping women and girls. It’s about helping men and boys, too. The fact is, we know that empowered women—women who are healthy, can exercise some decision-making power, and have some economic means—make life better for everybody in the community. They invest more in the health, education, and wellbeing of their children, girls and boys. So looking through a gender lens is about fighting the unique kinds of poverty that women and girls suffer simply because they’re women and girls. But it’s also about enabling women and girls to be economic drivers in countries around the world.

SO: As you continue to advocate in support of women and empowering them, what challenges are you facing on an international scale and cultural boundaries?

MG: You’re right, empowerment is not like a vaccine that works the same way everywhere around the world. It depends on the social and cultural norms in the place you are. So in that way, it’s hard to scale empowerment up so that it reaches millions of women. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We know that there are methodologies—self-help groups, for example—that seem to work as long as they’re adapted to the context in a specific place. At the foundation, we’re actually just about to fund a group of grants that are focused on these questions precisely—what is empowerment, how do you promote it, how do you scale it? The final thing I’ll say is that the fact that it’s a challenge to scale isn’t a reason not to do the work. Just the opposite. It’s a reason to do it. We know empowerment will make a huge difference, and if we can solve the scale problem with innovative approaches, we’ll multiply our impact. That’s what philanthropy is for!

SO: You’ve traveled extensively and met many families on the ground.  Is there a person or story that stands out?

MG:  Spending time with families is the most important thing I do, period. It keeps me motivated, because their courage in the face of great odds always reminds me why I’m doing this work in the first place. It also teaches me more than any book or conference can. When I talk with women and girls about their day-to-day lives, problems and solutions become very concrete instead of abstract, the way they can be when I’m studying them from afar, from my office in Seattle. I remember so many women and tell their stories often, so it’s hard to choose one. But I always come back to a young mother I met in Korogocho, a slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Her name was Maryanne. I asked her why she wanted to plan her family, and she said that she wanted to “bring every good thing” to one child before having another. And I just thought, That’s truly universal, that desire to bring every good thing to our children. For every parent, everywhere. I repeat that mantra all the time.

SO:  With the styles of philanthropy changing between generations, we see a bigger desire with the Millennial generation to contribute skill sets and time rather than monetary funding. Do you see this as beneficial in philanthropy? What advice would you give to this generation inheriting new wealth and resources?

MG:  It’s absolutely beneficial, yes. I’m not saying money is not important, because it is. But what’s most important is for people of all ages to find ways to get engaged in causes that make them feel passionately. Because that’s how they’re going to find a way to make the biggest difference, by really making their philanthropy a priority and putting a lot of energy into it. I didn’t really do much philanthropy when I was starting my career at Microsoft. I wish I had found a way to use my unique experience and skills to make a difference back then, because it’s so rewarding and such an important part of my life now.

SO:  What is your advice for graduates entering or continuing in the nonprofit sector? 

Stay innovative! Don’t let the habits that have seeped into the organizations you’ll be working for stifle your creativity. You have big ideas. Fight to make sure they improve this sector so that it can help more people in more significant ways.

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