When Melinda French Gates graduated from her all-girls’ Catholic school in Dallas, she embodied a great sense of self. She had been nurtured and mentored by women and teachers, those who told her, “You can do this; you can do anything,” when she expressed an interest in computer science.

She was confident and at peace with the woman she was becoming.

It wasn’t until she walked into classrooms at Duke University filled with men – she was often one of maybe three female budding computer scientists in the room – that she began to doubt herself. Those insecurities continued to fester  when, 23 and fresh out of business school, she walked the halls of Microsoft, a place that had “a pretty brash culture,” as she describes it. 

French Gates had to dig deep to rediscover her strength. She read “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. She remembered her humble upbringing, working for the family’s real estate business, mowing lawns and cleaning ovens in rental properties. She focused on what she could control – her parents’ legacy of working hard to attain success. 

Today, French Gates, 57, has found her peace again. Her grace, compassion, selflessness and empathy are palpable. She doesn’t look at her worth in terms of the billions of dollars she has amassed; her worth is helping others find theirs.

“I think so often society puts things on women, puts things on people of color, and you don’t see those role models in those high positions – a woman or a person of color – so you don’t have to have something to look up to. A young man looks up and he sees in any industry, he sees other men. He sees three dozen different archetypes of men. And he says, ‘I don’t want to be like that guy, but I want to be like that guy.’ We don’t have that as women.”

French Gates has taken her philanthropic endeavors to the next level as a global advocate for women and girls. She has committed to donating most of her wealth in her lifetime.

In 2015, French Gates founded Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company that seeks to advance social progress for women, families and people of color across the United States. Her recent targets: national paid leave, economic empowerment and employment for women, mental health of young people and gender equality.

“The goal really is to create societal change for women and people of color,” she said. “I really feel like we need to accelerate their power and their influence. And I feel like right now, during this pandemic, we’re seeing finally in the United States jobs starting to come back, but women are not going back to their jobs nearly at the same rate as men. A lot of that has to do with the burden they have of caregiving. And so I feel like this is a moment to say, ‘Look, how do we fix that system? And how do we make sure that women and people of color can take the jobs they want in society?'”

French Gates is no stranger to philanthropy. In 2000, she helped create the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations worldwide, with an endowment of nearly $50 billion. She and Bill Gates divorced in 2021, after 27 years of marriage, but she remains a co-chair of the foundation.

French Gates speaks eloquently about the end of her marriage. It clearly caused her deep pain, but it’s also what makes her relatable. 

“We all have low moments,” French Gates said. “I’m not happy every day. You turn on the news and you think, oh my, gosh, what’s going to happen next? I would say probably, though, for sure, my lowest moment in life was when I finally reached the decision that I knew I needed to leave my marriage. That wasn’t something I ever thought would happen to me. It certainly wasn’t what I thought on the day I got married, but I realized for myself, I needed to make a healthier choice, and that was just a very, very sad day.”

What do you think about where we are as women right now, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go?

Well, in the United States, if you interview people, they think we are 50 or 60 years away from equality in this country. And the truth is we are 200, over 200 years from equality, when you look at all the measurements of when somebody’s reached equality. So I think we’ve made enormous gains as a society for sure, for women the last 100 years. But I don’t want to wait 200 years. 

I have two young daughters who are both young adults. And I know what it’s like when they go out into the workforce. So I want to make sure that women have their full voice and their power and influence in society, because I know that women will change things in different ways because they have a different lens on society.

What is your definition of courage?

Knowing you’re going to step into something really hard and you do it anyway. Whether that’s a difficult meeting or a courageous conversation or using your voice. For me, it’s been using my voice on some things that maybe weren’t that popular or people weren’t going to like me or have a different opinion. It took a lot of courage.

Like the first time I spoke out about contraceptives. I believe in them, we use them in the United States, but I’m also Catholic. And the Catholic church doesn’t necessarily condone condoms or contraceptives. So I had to learn to just go ahead and use my voice on what I knew to be true, because I had heard it from so many women around the world where I’d be meeting with them and they’d say, “Are you kidding? Why can’t I get contraceptives at this little health clinic anymore? Don’t you see, I have too many kids. It’s a life and death situation for me. I can’t feed my kids.”

And so I kept thinking, well, somebody needs to speak out on this, but if nobody does, we’re not going to change this in global health.

What are some of your proudest moments?

For sure, the day my three kids were born. I always wanted to be a mom, and those were blow-away days. And now to see them as young adults living their values out in the world, I’m really proud of them.

How do you overcome adversity?

I surround myself with people who have good values and are like-minded in the sense of caring about others. And so a group of people that I can be authentic with and I can pick up the phone in tears and talk to them or say, “Can we go for a walk?” and that they’re there on my saddest days and my most joyful days and vice versa. I’m there for them. They pick up the phone and call me. Without that group of people around me, friends and a few colleagues, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some of my toughest days, particularly in the last couple of years.

What about self-care? What are some other ways you take care of yourself emotionally, physically?

I get out in nature. So not just walking or walking with a friend but walking in nature. I don’t know. It fills me. I’m really lucky in Seattle that there’s a beautiful lake and so when the weather warms up a fair bit, I get out my kayak and I’ll go meet a friend. I love that.

I meditate and I journal. For me, that is definitely self-care, to take that time, that quiet time out of each day. Those things really fill me in.

I learned maybe a decade ago that no matter what your day has been like – good, bad, highs, lows – if you write down three things that you’re grateful for, every day, just having that simple gratitude practice, it just fills you with joy.

Is there any guiding principle or a mantra that you tell yourself?

There’s a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that I actually used in my high school graduation speech, but the very end of it says, “To know that even one life has breathed easier because we have lived, that is to have succeeded.” And so that was always my definition of success, even when I left high school and our teachers sent us out in the community. We were expected to do community service.

And so I really believe that as individuals, we have a lot to give others. Sometimes it’s our time. Sometimes it’s our energy and our wisdom or our thoughts, and sometimes it’s money, and sometimes it’s all three.

There must be passion projects you pursue?

Oh my God. Well, it’s all passion projects for me. I mean, I absolutely love the work that Pivotal Ventures does. Absolutely love it. Same thing, global health, at the foundation, that’s where my global investments are made. But I’ve met so many incredible women around the world through my travels. I’m lucky enough to travel. So it’s a passion for me to figure out how do we help these women lift themselves up out of poverty, because what I know about women is that when you invest in them, they invest in everybody else. They lift their kids up, they lift up their community, they lift up their society. So I get a lot of passion and excitement when I see women who are becoming empowered.

Source: Suzette Hackney