For someone whose schedule is planned to a T a year in advance, losing 18 minutes to New York City traffic can feel like an eternity.
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But it’ll take more than gridlock to ruffle Melinda Gates, co-chair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In a bright orange blazer, black pants and pointy-toe kitten heels, she saunters into our meeting at the Four Seasons and offers a quick handshake while an aide checks her watch. Clock’s ticking.
The wife of Microsoft’s founder and mother of three (Jennifer, 23, Rory, 20, and Phoebe, 17) is the consummate multitasker, balancing parent-teacher conferences and family dinners with calls from world leaders to address issues such as polio and poverty. “That’s one of the things we underestimate about women in the business world,” she says. “We spend our whole lives juggling, which is bad-ass or kick-ass—I like either.” Gates, 55, has gotten good at being a bad-ass, or, as she puts it, “someone who goes for it, does what she thinks is right and uses her talents and voice to make those things come forward in the world”. With the largest private foundation on earth, she and her husband have done just that by donating a staggering $50.1 billion US since its inception in 2000. Her proudest accomplishment is immunising more than 690 million kids for diseases including measles through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
But Gates’ latest project tackles an issue even closer to her heart: Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company, partners with female- and minority-focused businesses, including Female Founders Fund and Aspect Ventures, to propel more women into technology careers. “Those
are amazing jobs, and technology is only going to become more pervasive,” she says. “I want women to have a seat at the table and be the creators of that future.”
Gates owes her drive to a nun at her all-girls Catholic high school, who encouraged her to learn to program before it was popular. At Duke University, where Gates studied computer science, economics and then business, she often found herself on all-male coding teams, but by her third year, she was running them. And though asserting herself in the rough-and-tumble male-centric tech industry proved tricky at first, Gates managed fine.“I know how to be persuasive, have a backbone. I can play that game, but I didn’t really like it,” she says. “I had to learn how to be myself in this culture and see if I could succeed.” She became a project manager in 1987 at Microsoft, where she worked on Microsoft Bob, Microsoft Encarta and Expedia, and, of course, eventually met Bill.
These days Gates uses her voice, even when that means facing opposition from her inner circle. Much to the consternation of the Catholic Church, she has overseen more than $1 billion US in spending on family planning, which includes improving access to birth control. Gates stands firm
by supporting her beliefs with data, which is also how she best explains her vision for womankind to her husband, who is open-minded but occasionally struggles to relate to certain women’s issues. “He doesn’t always take my word as the gospel truth—[but] that would be nice,” she laughs. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘I need you to trust me.’” And he does.
At her home outside Seattle, Gates recharges by ditching a to-do list to focus on the present, a skill she learned from her oldest. “[When] Jenn was little, I’d flown off to God knows where to meet women out in fields and do world-stage events—you could come home a little full of yourself,” Gates recalls. “I showed up at home in my suit, and Jenn shunned me for a few hours.”
Gates realised she needed to reset, something she now mandates with a “shutting the doors” policy over the holidays. “Jenn would wait on our mud-room floor with a book, and if I sat down in my yoga pants and read to her, then I was back in her world.”
The image of a billionaire in stretchy pants, huddled with her child on the floor, may seem incongruous, but not for Gates. She thrives on a nurturing, positive energy that suits her poetic definition of success. “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived,” she says, smiling, “this is to have succeeded.”
This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of InStyle.