Melinda Gates sits, calm and engaged, making direct eye contact – not the piercing variety favored by most executives in the technology world she hails from, but an interested, almost intimate, kind. In her sixth-floor office at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates describes a work life fighting poverty in the developing world, balanced with a home life as a down-to-earth billionaire in Seattle. She wears a distinctive mustard-yellow jacket and a faint dusting of gold eye shadow to match, only because she spoke in front of 100 academics earlier in the morning. Normally, she wears no make-up.
Gates is arguably the wealthiest woman in the world. With an estimated net worth of $53bn, her husband Bill Gates, former chief executive of Microsoft, ranked number two on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people this year, behind Carlos Slim of Mexico. They certainly live comfortably in a $125m house in Seattle. But Gates is not one for gallivanting around at society dinners in fancy dresses and flashy jewelry.
After spending as many weeks as she does sitting on dirt floors in dilapidated huts, talking to mothers in Malawi, Ethiopia and northern India, one of whom recently asked Gates to take two of her children back to Seattle with her, Gates is grateful to have clean water come out of her shower. “You come home from some of these countries and you see how completely different it is,” she says. “Just to have a car that you drive down the street and you turn your seat heater on … it seems superfluous. Very superfluous.”
Gates talks about her wealth almost as though it is a cross she must bear. Indeed, she and her husband have made the bold decision to give away 90 per cent of their money and, with Warren Buffett, have called on other billionaires to donate 50 per cent of their fortunes to charitable causes. But Gates would never be satisfied with just writing a huge check to help the poor, then enjoying a lavish lifestyle. “I’m giving my life to this,” she says.
Since she and her husband went on safari in Africa in the early 1990s to celebrate their engagement, Gates has paid close attention to the inequities around the world between the classes and the sexes. “We would be driving down the street in a place like Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and started to see, my gosh, the only people that have shoes are men,” she recalls. “Why does that woman have a baby in her belly and one on her back, and she’s carrying a huge load of bananas? You start to ask these questions.”
Gates was raised in a middle-class Catholic family in Texas. She studied computer science at Duke University, and went on to get her MBA there. She then joined Microsoft, where she worked for nine years on various products, from Publisher to Expedia, and met Bill Gates, almost two decades into his tenure as the chief executive. After they married, she left the company to start a family. They have three children – two daughters and a son in the middle – aged 15, 12 and nine.
They set up the foundation the same year they married, in 1994, with Melinda and Bill taking joint responsibility for its strategic direction. “She’s not just smiling and posing for pictures,” says Peter Winch, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “She’s a consumer of data and she’s tough on people about their answers. It’s changing people’s ideas of the spouse of the rich person who gave the money, to show they can actually do something extremely important technically.”
As one of the youngest couples ever to start a foundation, the Gateses took philanthropy by storm, announcing ambitious plans to tackle some of the world’s most dire health problems, and committing more money and resources than any other foundation had given to any other cause before them. They have since invested more than $26bn in fighting infectious diseases and building an economic infrastructure in the developing world, and in improving education in the US.
True to their scientific roots, the Gateses have focused on vaccines, which they call “a miracle technology,” making and distributing them to fight polio, tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV and malaria. This year, the foundation discovered a malaria vaccine that is 30 per cent effective. The goal now is to have it fully effective by 2025.
The past year also marks something of a coming out for Melinda Gates, as she takes to the media to promote the foundation’s maternal and child health programme. Until recently, she has acted more behind the scenes, letting her husband be the primary spokesperson, spar with journalists and answer critics.