Melinda Gates: My secret to strong lasting marriage and poverty problem

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Alyson Shontell

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cochair Melinda Gates with Business Insider US Editor-in-Chief Alyson Shontell.Business Insider
Melinda Gates is the cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed over $45 billion to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems.
Melinda Gates believes the ultimate problem that needs solving is poverty. Poverty leads to all sorts of problems, including childhood mortality. And after 20 years in the field, Gates believes the best solution is to empower women.
Gender equality is key. That means having balanced relationships where both partners split the workload at home. This is something that even Melinda and Bill have had to work at.
Gates details all these findings in her new book, “The Moment of Lift.” For more stories like this, read Business Insider’s homepage.
SEATTLE – Melinda Gates has had three careers.

The Dallas native was a high-powered Microsoft executive, managing a team of over 1,000 people.

Then she met and married her husband, Bill Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft, and began her second job as a full-time mom to three children, Jennifer, Rory, and Phoebe.

Her third career started a few years later, when she and Bill formalized the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. Since then, the couple has spent about $45 billion trying to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems.

The top problem they’re trying to solve is poverty, which Gates calls the most disempowering force in the world.

“Poverty is not being able to protect your family,” Gates writes in “The Moment of Lift.”

“Poverty is not being able to save your children when mothers with more money could. And because the strongest instinct of a mother is to protect her children, poverty is the most disempowering force on earth. The most unjust thing is for children to die because their parents are too poor.”

The most unjust thing is for children to die because their parents are too poor.
Gates thinks there’s a surprisingly simple answer to the poverty problem: gender equality. Specifically, lifting women up to be equals, on every level, with men. When women are treated as equals and able to generate their own income, it helps their families and the overall economy. But there are a number of ways the genders are unbalanced, and Gates has even witnessed it in her own home.

She says the key to a strong marriage is to have a balanced partnership, where each person splits the hours of “unpaid” work it takes to run a household – whether that’s driving kids to school, doing the laundry, or packing lunches.

Business Insider sat down with Gates to talk about her marriage, her career, her philanthropy, and her book.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What Melinda Gates saw at Microsoft that made her almost quit
Alyson Shontell: You’re from a Catholic family in Dallas, and you were a computer-science major at Duke University with a master’s in business. You landed at a smallish company called Microsoft, but you got there and things weren’t quite what you expected. What did you see at Microsoft that made you think maybe this isn’t for me and made you want to quit?

Melinda Gates: As you said, I came out of Duke University with both a computer-science degree and a business degree. And when Microsoft made me an offer, I literally called my parents and I said, “If this company makes me an offer, I will not be able to turn it down.” When I got there, what I had imagined was true. We were changing the world; we were creating products that never existed before. And I loved that part of it. And I loved being in tech.

The piece that surprised me a bit was how aggressive the culture was. I knew it’d be fast-paced, I knew it’d be competitive, but it was just quite aggressive. And I had seen some of that for sure in my undergraduate days. But the fact that it was pervasive often surprised me a little bit.

I actually questioned for a while, “Do I want to stay here?” I was about two years into my career, I loved what we were doing, and I had great friends – males and females around the company. But I finally decided, instead of leaving, which was my plan, that I would just be myself and see if I could still be successful.

And I ended up attracting all kinds of people from all over the company. And people would say to me, “How did you get that male software developer who worked on systems to come work on this new application you’re creating?” And I’d say, “Well, maybe they just want to work in this environment, the culture that I’ve created.” I learned to be myself there, and that ended up working for me.

Melinda Gates
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Shontell: That is easier said than done sometimes. You had a great mentor in a woman named Patty who helped show you that you could be yourself. Unfortunately, there’s pressure to conform to how your boss acts. There have been studies that show that if you don’t act the way your boss acts, they promote people who remind them of themselves. So do women need to conform to be like men? Is it always possible to be yourself and be a leader?

Gates: It really depends on the culture of the company you work for. And I think that if you find yourself under a boss who’s not supportive, as fast as you can move under somebody else, the better off you’re going to be unless you can work with them.

Other young women who were in their early 30s who’ve talked to me say, “OK, I haven’t had the most supportive boss in the environment I’m in. But if my colleagues and I get together – men and women – to give that person feedback, and if they’re open and they hear it from multiples of us, then sometimes they’ll start to change.”

Honestly, I think the burden is both on the corporation to change or if it’s government to change and on the individual to say what’s right for me and what is it that I want. But it goes both ways there.

2 leadership traits the best managers exhibit are empathy and love
Shontell: There are two things that you talked about in your book, feelings that a leader should have. One is empathy and one is actually love. One of the topics people don’t like to talk about is love. But you call it the greatest agent for change in the world. Yet you never hear politicians talk about it. You never hear s boss is talking about it. Should we bring love into the workplace and into management?

Gates: I talk about empathic leadership, and I believe in being compassionate to everybody around you. Whether you talk about love explicitly or not, I think it’s what you do to role model. So when you have the employee who has a death in their family or has a loved one who’s ill or a young child they’re caring for, I think it’s in how you respond to them as a manager or in reverse that shows your humanity.

The best organizations are ones where people can show up as their full selves at home and at work, and that they don’t have to hide parts of themselves. That doesn’t mean if you’re going through something emotional at home that you want to bring all of that to work: You do have to manage your own emotions.

But the more we let everybody be themselves, the more we will have empathic leadership. And to me that ultimately is when you reach out and connect with somebody over their humanity that ultimately is love, whether you name it or not.

Shontell: So while we’re on the subject of love, you met your husband, Bill, at Microsoft. You didn’t know you would be sitting next to each other at a work dinner, but then you hit it off. You get married and then become pregnant, and you shocked Bill by telling him: “I’m not going back to Microsoft. I’m going to be a full-time mom.”

And you said, he just responded, “Really? Really?!” Because he just couldn’t believe it. You had built this career and you loved it so much. But in your book you wrote that you “assumed” that’s what women were supposed to do. Why did you assume that? Where did that come from?

Why Gates ‘assumed’ she was supposed to quit her job to take care of her kids, and how she shocked Bill
Bill Melinda Gates children family Jenn Rory Phoebe
Bill and Melinda Gates with their three children, Jennifer, Phoebe, and Rory.Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Gates: I don’t know exactly where it came from. When I was growing up, a lot of the women in my neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, didn’t work. I grew up in a very middle-income family, but most women didn’t work.

Luckily, I had a role model in my mother, because my dad was an engineer working on the Apollo space missions. He would go off to work every day. She was home raising us four children, and they did it together in the evenings and on the weekends. But my parents could see that my dad’s engineering salary wasn’t going to put me and my three siblings through college, which was what they wanted. They always talked to us about being college-going and that they would pay for it. They started a small real-estate investment business, and my mom actually led that business.

She worked on it a lot during the day and in the evenings and on the weekends. So I did have a role model of a working mom in a small business, but I didn’t have a role model of a woman going off to work. I don’t know if it’s from that. I didn’t see that many women working, so I just assumed I would stay home and take care of the kids.

The other thing that played into it – I mean, we have to be honest: Bill was the CEO of Microsoft, right? That is a hard-charging tech industry. That was a very fast-growing company. I kept saying to him, “But somebody has to be home. If we want the values that we both believe in as a couple for the kids, somebody has to be home to instill those values.”

But then my view changed over time when I felt like I had created the environment where I could give my kids privacy and let them grow up to be themselves. We had the values, we had people around us who were also imparting those same values that we had. Then I felt, like, “OK, I do want to work, and I will be a working mom.”

The one thing I’ll say about Bill is he was incredibly supportive all along the way. Even after Jenn, our oldest was born, he would say, “What are you going to do?” Because he knew that I actually enjoyed working, and that was supportive to have a husband say that.

Shontell: And not because being a full time mom isn’t a ton of work. As you and I both know it’s a ton of work.

Gates: It is so much work.

Shontell: But he knew you needed something else in addition.

Watch Melinda Gates talk about her time at Microsoft, her marriage with Bill and equal partnerships at the 2:45 mark on the below episode of our hit

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Godwin Okafor is a Financial Journalist, Internet Social Entrepreneur and Founder of Naija247news Media Limited. He has over 16 years experience in financial journalism. His experience cuts across traditional and digital media. He started his journalism career at Business Day, Nigeria and founded Naija247news Media in 2010. Godwin holds a Bachelors degree in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management from the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos. He is an alumni of Lagos Business School and a Fellow of the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists). Over the years, he has won a number of journalism awards. Godwin is the chairman of Emmerich Resources Limited, the publisher of Naija247news.

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