Melinda is the wife of Bill Gates—the second wealthiest person in the world. In 2005, Melinda, along with her husband Bill and Bono, were named by TIME Magazine as Person of the Year.
Melinda was born Melinda Ann French on the 15th of August 1964 to Raymond “Ray” French and Elaine Amerland. Melinda is the second in the family of four children. She has one older sister and two younger brothers. They resided and grew up in Dallas, Texas, USA.
Melinda’s family was a hard–working middle class family. Melinda’s dad, Ray, worked as an engineer for the space program at LVT, while her mom, Elaine, would maintain the house and organize the four children as a stay–at–home mom. She regretted not going to school and so she encouraged her kids by telling them, “No matter what college you get into we will pay for it!”
As a sideline business to help with the finances, Ray established a small but busy property rental business, which would enlist the entire family to pitch in and help, mowing lawns, painting, cleaning ovens, scrubbing floors every weekend.
Falling in Love with Computers
When Melinda was 14 in 1978, Ray brought home an Apple II computer for the family. Melinda would often sneak it into her room to play games and learn the program called BASIC (a programming language), which Melinda would later go on to say it captivated her. She would also teach BASIC and play games with other friends and school students during summer vacations.
At the age of 16 in 1980, Ray upgraded the family computer to the latest Apple III. Melinda, enjoying the new technology, was able to help her father run his business more efficiently by keeping the books of monies going in and out of the business.
Melinda attended the Catholic Girls School in Dallas called the Ursuline Academy. The school’s motto is Serviam (Latin translation: I will serve), where volunteering was curriculum requirement. Melinda was the captain of the school’s drill team, and she would also tutor students at the public schools of those less fortunate.
Each day, Melinda would set herself a goal. Life was a test to Melinda and she was determined to be the best she could be at it. When interviewed about her goal–setting Melinda laughed and slightly embarrassed, said, “The goals were run a mile, learn a new word, that sort of thing.” However, when Melinda was in her freshman year in senior high school, she decided to look up students that had gotten into elite schools. She found out that only the top 2% of Ursuline Academy graduate make it into elite schools. Melinda put her mind and efforts into becoming valedictorian or salutatorian of her school, as she hoped to get into Notre Dame University.
Melinda’s hard work paid off and, in 1982, she graduated from Ursuline Academy as valedictorian. Interestingly, her maths and science teacher, Bauer, said of her: “Melinda’s ambition was never abrasive. Never. She was always loving and charming, and she would win over people by being persuasive.”
An interesting fact is that although Melinda did get into Notre Dame University, the officials there would go on to tell her that "computers are a fad" and that they were pulling back their funding and support for the computer science department. Melinda “crushed.” However, upon finding out that Duke University was expanding their computer science department she enrolled at Duke University double majoring in computer science and economics.
By 1986, Melinda graduated from Duke University with her two bachelor degrees and re-enrolled back to do her MBA at Duke University Fuqua School of business, which she completed in 1987.
While at the university, Melinda also kept herself busy, serving on the Freshman Advisory Council, she would lead tours to prospective university students around the campus while being on the Dean’s list. Melinda was also a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. Since her graduation, she has remained active with the university, serving between 1988 and 1991 on the Alumni Admissions Advisory Committee, the Duke University's Board of Trustees between 1996 and 2003, as well as doing other personal and professional capacity appearances.
Working for Microsoft
Fortuitously, Melinda was given the opportunity for a role with IBM as a summer intern, where she was told by a helpful recruiter to interview for a full time role at Microsoft. Melinda recalled him say, "If you get a job offer from them, take it, because the chance for advancement there is terrific.”
In 1987, Melinda joined Microsoft and flew to Microsoft’s head office in Seattle, Washington. She joined the team full of aspiration and hopes about her new position as Microsoft’s Marketing Manager of their Publisher software product (an earlier version of Microsoft Word). Melinda, the youngest of the recruits and the only woman of the ten MBAs, was thrown into the deep end and into a world of smart, eccentric software engineers and programmers that were changing the world.
Melinda would later say that while she was not fazed about being the youngest and only woman MBA, the culture of the company did faze her, saying, "It was a very acerbic company.” Paul and Bill would badger and harangue their product managers, giving her second thoughts about what the recruiter had told her about the company and thought of leaving the company.
Falling in Love with a Computer Genius
After a trip to New York for the PC Expo Trade Show, a dinner with the team was arranged and Melinda, by co-incidence, ended up sitting next to Bill Gates—the CEO of Microsoft. The dinner proved entertaining. One fall on a Saturday after returning from Seattle—“Everybody at Microsoft worked on Saturday,” says Melinda—she and Bill met again in the company’s car park. After some funny explanation about Bill wanting to go out in a fortnight’s time and Melinda saying that’s not spontaneous enough for her, they ended up meeting later that night for dinner.
After Bill’s meteoric rise to success and fame, Melinda agreed with her Mom that it wasn’t a good idea to see the CEO of the company she was working at, however, the two would later say that they had a deep connection and was certain that their relationship would not affect their work. Melinda also put her foot down saying, “I would never, ever, ever go to him on anything related to work.”
Melinda and Bill courted privately while she continued to work at Microsoft. During this time, she got to see firsthand what money and success was doing to Bill. Sure he had money; however, this was also robbing him both of his ability to have a “normal life” and his privacy. Melinda would also say in later interviews that she questioned Bill’s conquer–the-world capitalist nature co-existing with a family. She would also say that she “wondered what it would be like to be married to someone that works so hard.”
Warren Buffett Helps Bill Gates Propose to Melinda
On the way back from visiting her parents for Easter in 1993, Bill arranged them to detour and to meet a friend—Warren Buffett—by surprise. Warren drove them to the Borsheim, a jewelry shop coincidentally owned by the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Warren stirred up the relationship telling Bill that there was a metric of love in the store, and that was 6% (being 6% Warren net wealth he spent on buying his wife’s ring from the shop). Bill was worth 7.3 billion at the time. Melinda chose a diamond but nowhere near the 6%.
As things were now more serious, both Bill and Melinda, being strong believers in setting goals and planning, began to discuss philanthropy. This was also being recommended by Bill’s lawyers and accountants, however, Bill said he didn’t need another entity and despite this fact and where they were in their lives they thought best to leave the decision for now and wait until Bill’s career had more played out and he was in his sixties.
Bill Loses Mother to Breast Cancer
Then during Melinda’s wedding shower, Bill’s mom, Mary Gates, had written her a letter: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In June of next year, 1994, Mary Gates passed away from breast cancer, which she had been fighting. The combination of these events spurred Bill and Melinda to establish their first charity, which was to be called the William H. Gates III Foundation.
Their foundation’s first idea was to provide classrooms with laptops. However, the public was wary of this seeing Bill as a self-serving software entrepreneur. Melinda at the time volunteering in a couple of schools in Seattle, witnessed for herself that more than the technology divide, education reform was needed as a much broader approach to be given to secondary schools. She said, “The piece that looked so intractable and no one was touching was high schools.”
By 1994, Melinda on her own merits, had risen to the General Manager’s Role for Information Products at Microsoft. By the age of 30 she was heading a team of over 300 employees and responsible for the Microsoft products Expedia, Encarta, Publisher, and Cinemania. With her strong team–building abilities, goal–focused outcome, and charming yet persuasive approach to dealing with others, she did stay at Microsoft. “No question, if she had stayed, she would have been on the executive team at Microsoft,” says Patty Stonesfier, Melinda’s former boss at Microsoft. Patty was the CEO of the Gates Foundation between 1996 and 2008.
Melinda Marries Bill Gates
On the 1st of January 1994, Melinda and Bill married on the Hawaiian lanai on the 12th tee of the Manele Bay Resort Golf Course. The 15–minute ceremony cost over $1,000,000. For privacy reasons, Bill booked out the entire hotel (250 rooms) and chartered every helicopter within close proximity.
Later in 1994, Melinda moved into their half–constructed mega mansion being built on Lake Washington, consisting of 40,000 square feet, several garages, movie theatre, trampoline room, indoor pool, and enough high-tech gadgets making them feel like they were living inside a video game. Melinda put her foot down, saying, “It's going to be like what I want it to be – our house where we have our family life.” The irony of this was that the building took hundreds of workers to build and this was a reflection of how her life was to be from then on.
Also in 1994, Melinda’s attention was raised and directed towards the issue of global health, after seeing a front page news story in the New York Times about a disease in developing countries called Rotavirus killing over 500,000 children a year. It’s a disease that most Americans had never heard of. Other causes of fatalities were tuberculosis and malaria—both rarely occurring in western and developed countries. Melinda later told reporters she said to herself, “This can’t be happening,” and she put a note on Bill’s desk, saying, “This is how we work.” Bill did his own research, reading several times the World Bank’s 1993 Development Report which outlined the costs of the disease. Melinda took a different approach to the issue from Bill. “I learn a different way. I learn experimentally.”
Melinda Resigns and Founds the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
In 1996, Melinda resigned and retired from her role at Microsoft and announced she and Bill were having their first child, Jennifer. Melinda also being quite reserved and someone who shuns the limelight (due to the public interest in her husband) and someone who values highly family time and privacy, would invest her time and energies in her family, the Duke University Board, and her philanthropic work involving education reform, global heath, the Gates Foundation—renamed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999, and her being elected to Director of the Drugstore.com a publicly listed company in 1999. During this time, she would also support Bill during the US Government Anti-competitive move against Microsoft and IBM. Also in 1999, Melinda and Bill had their second child, a son they named Rory; later in 2002, a daughter, Phoebe, followed.
In 1997, the Gates Learning Foundation introduced the US Libraries initiative to ensure that every public library had access to the internet.
In 1998, the Gates Learning Foundation donated $20,000,000 to the Duke University to fund a full scholarship program for approximately 10 undergraduate students, including one member in each of the professional schools (medicine, law, divinity, environment, public policy & nursing).
Shielding Children from Polio and Other Projects
In 2000, to increase efficiency and communication between their two foundations, the Bill and Melinda Foundation merged their Gates Learning Foundation and contributed an additional $16,000,000,000 to the new entity. They moved the main office to Lake Union in Seattle. The core values of the foundation are optimism, collaboration, rigor, and innovation. Later that year, Bill and Melinda visit India and Thailand. They announced a $25 million dollar grant to support polio vaccinations while also delivering these vaccinations personally to children.
In 2001, the Foundation continues to expand into the area of global public health, specifically in the area of infectious disease prevention. They also announced a sixty million Microbicide Grant with the launch of the Microbicide Project.
In 2002, the Foundation launches the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition which involves both private and public sectors working together and supporting food fortification in underdeveloped and developing countries. Melinda and Bill also travelled to Africa with retired US President Jimmy Carter and they visited public health centers, learning about AIDS & HIV. From this momentum, they joined hands with Bono of U2 and spoke to world leaders attending the World Economic Forum about the complexity of issues in Africa.
In 2003, the Bill & Melinda Foundation celebrated after having every public library in the USA connected with computers and public training. They also visited Africa again and witnessed a promising malaria research vaccine. Encouraged by this, the Foundation launched a $200 million Grand Challenge to encourage scientists to develop revolutionary solutions to infectious diseases, such as malaria and polio in underdeveloped and developing countries. The foundation also committed $100 million to India’s first HIV/AIDS prevention organization.
In 2004, their focus was back to the USA where both time and efforts were recommitted to reforming secondary education, as well as affordable housing for families, and creating the Strategic Opportunities Initiative, which is designed to investigate and evaluate where the Bill & Melinda Foundation can be focused to have the greatest impact implementing its global efforts.
Person of the Year
The year 2005 was a big year for Melinda. She was awarded by TIME Magazine the Person of the Year, along with her husband, Bill Gates, and Bono for their philanthropic and social contribution and works. This gave the foundation a huge lift in both public awareness and status in the eyes of the skeptics and also encouraged further investment, time, and focus to find an anti-malaria vaccination. They announced a total of $258 million to develop a malaria vaccine, which amounted to $1.4 billion by the year 2008.
In 2006, the foundation partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and together they launched the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which focused on helping rejuvenate soil and crops and helping small African farmers overcome poverty and hunger. Later in 2007, Kofi Annan was elected chairman of the board of AGRA.
Addressing TB and AIDS
In 2006, the foundation also split into a two–trust structure: the Bill & Melinda Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Foundation Trust. The latter was created to manage donations. In order to effectively manage these operations Bill resigned from Microsoft and focused his attention solely on the foundations. In 2006, the foundation received 10 million worth of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shares as a gift valued in 2006 at approximately $31 billion. The foundation announced its global plan to stop TB in Davos and declared that it would invest $900 million over the next decade in addressing this global health initiative.
In 2007, the foundation gave a $50 million commitment for AIDS prevention programs in China, which involved both private and public sectors. They also announced and called on the commitment of policy makers and scientists to eradicate malaria in the world for good and provided an additional $10 million Grad Challenge to explore more creative and unorthodox ideas that could lead to a global health discovery and breakthrough.
In 2008, Melinda talked with CNN about her life, meeting Bill, working at Microsoft, motherhood, and the Bill & Melinda Foundation. Together with Michael Bloomberg, they announced a $500 million commitment to reduce tobacco use throughout the developing and underdeveloped nations and Bill officially transitioned to a full time role in the foundation and appointed Jeff Raikes as the new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO. The other big announcement of the year was a $306–million package for agricultural Development to assist small farmers throughout South East Asia and Africa.
The year 2009 was another busy year for the Bill & Melinda Foundation, having grown to a staff of over 800 employees, and the construction of a new headquarters in Seattle was commenced. Throughout 2009, the foundation made over $3 billion in grants and Melinda was awarded an honorary degree by the Cambridge University.
In 2009, Melinda and Bill also announced a $290 million investment across four US communities to recruit, train develop, reward, and retain teachers that assist over 350,000 students. They also partnered with Rotary International, committing over $630 million to eradicate polio globally.
In 2010, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officially opened its London office and at the World Economic forum they announced a $10 billion pledge “decade of vaccines” to save over 50% of children’s lives and help in the research, development, and delivery of vaccines to the world’s poorest nations and countries. In addition, they provided a $38 million grant to assist microfinance institutions to give safe and affordable places for the poorest people in developing countries (such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America) to save.
Fourth Most Powerful Woman in the World
In 2011, Melinda was invited as the key speaker at the CARE Forum and at the Malaria Forum, International Conference for family planning and talked at TED. Melinda was also ranked the fourth most powerful woman in the world by Forbes Magazine. An annual video letter was also produced aimed to educate and eradicate polio, announcing they are 99% there and that this will be the only second disease on the planet to be fully eradicated (other than small pox) if successful.
In 2012, the foundation continues to help and support those in extreme poverty to become self-sufficient, not only in farming but also in the area of health, tools, education, drought resistant crop design, contraceptives, and vaccines.
To date, 69 and several more wealthy individuals have agreed to donate or pledge part of their wealth to the Giving Pledge, which celebrates the diversity of giving. This was in contrast to the leaders present at the G20 (which Melinda & Bill were part of) who desired to cut back spending for developing nations, using the excuse of difficult financial times. According to them, even if small amount is given in reflection of the country’s GDP, it can make a huge difference not only to the lives of those in developing countries but also in their economic and global social stability.
Melinda and Bill, with their Foundation, are continuing to take the message to the world that for only a small amount of money (assisting and investing in innovation), developed countries can change the lives and future of billions of people globally. They will continue to repeat this message over and over given whatever platform and opportunity they have to raise it, convinced that people who hear the stories of how far they have come and the stories of how they have helped improve the lives of those in poverty, facing disease and starvation, those who hear, will want to do more not less.
Her Achievements and Awards
- 1982: Graduated Valedictorian of Ursuline Academy of Dallas.
- 1986: Double Bachelor Degree in Computer Science and Economics from Duke University
- 1987: Master’s Degree Duke's of Fuqua School of Business.
- 1987: Joined Microsoft and within 4 years was the General Manager of Information Products at Microsoft
- 1996: Serves on Duke University board of trustees. Has first daughter named Jennifer
- 2000: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established. The world’s largest philanthropic association.
- 2005: Time Magazine Person of the Year
- 2006: Prince Asturias Award (of Spain) for International Cooperation for charitable donations, Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mexico) for their philanthropic work in health and education. Ranked 12th by Forbes Magazine as one of the Most Powerful Women in the World. Named the Melinda French Gates Ambulatory Care Building at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, raising over $300,000,000 for their fund raising to expand facilities, research and cure treatments.
- 2007: Ranked 24th by Forbes Magazine as one of the Most Powerful Women in the World
- 2008: Ranked 40th by Forbes Magazine as one of the Most Powerful Women in the World
- 2009: Honorary degree awarded by Cambridge University. Established the Gates Cambridge Trust in 2000 with a $210,000,000 beneficial donation. Donated $29,000,000,000 to the Bill & Melinda gates Foundation
- 2010: Global Fund to fight Aids, Malaria and tuberculosis spending over $1.2 billion to date. Bill and Melinda Gates said in January 2010 that their foundation would more than double it’s spending on them over the next decade, to at least $10 billion. The change could save the lives of as many as eight million children by 2020.