Melinda Gates Is Surprisingly Down to Earth For a Billionaire

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Dec. 11 2011 7:07 AM

People Person

Melinda Gates discusses her fight against global poverty.

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Gates says the foundation welcomes criticism. Over the years, it has become better at responding to feedback, earning a reputation for being a transparent funder and a diligent strategist, even if not everyone agrees with the strategy. Their sheer wealth, power and scope will keep them forever in the sights of critics. “Warren Buffett always says to us about our philanthropy, ‘Don’t take the easy pitches, they’ve all been taken already,’” Gates says. “That’s what capitalism has done.”

Gates talks a lot about luck. The luck of growing up in a developed country. The luck of having access to healthcare and education. Even her husband’s success at Microsoft she attributes to “a huge amount of ingenuity and innovation, but also a huge amount of luck”.

For Gates, that luck brings responsibility and humility. Her devotion to the foundation’s work, and an almost stoic commitment to thinking about the people they help, seems almost an attempt to recompense for her good fortune. “I am making trade-offs in terms of how I spend my time, in terms of being here or being out doing something else,” she says. She takes time every day, usually in the early morning before getting her kids ready for school, to sit quietly and think about the kids in Africa and India.

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“It’s in that quiet time that I try to touch the places we’ve been in the developing world, and keep the images in mind,” she says. “If I don’t take that intentional time every day, you can get very spun up in what’s going on, in the news of the day, the latest kid thing that’s happening in your household, the work around here that can get very busy and very intellectual. But I think if you take quiet time and you still yourself, you really are touched by what’s meaningful and then you spend your day on more meaningful things.”

When she comes back from a trip, she puts a photo slideshow on the TV at home, so her kids will see the places and people she saw. Throughout the foundation headquarters in Seattle, walls are covered with life-sized photographs of people the Gateses have met and talked to in the developing world. “So you’re constantly touched by it,” Gates says. “It’s not like I come back here and I’m living this fantastic life in the US and not being reminded almost every day of the work that we do. Barely a day goes by when I’m not spending some time on the foundation work.”

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

April Dembosky is the FT's San Francisco correspondent.