Melinda Gates takes spotlight in philanthropy

Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, left, and Melinda French Gates, arrive at a press conference during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday.
Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, left, and Melinda French Gates, arrive at a press conference during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday.Alessandro Della Valle / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Melinda Gates has traveled the world with her husband, meeting with the rich and powerful and visiting its poorest in remote African villages. She and her husband share top billing at the world’s richest foundation, but Bill Gates always dominated the spotlight — until this year.

Taking the stage at this week’s World Economic Forum for the first time, Melinda addressed health, development and women’s issues before a VIP audience.

Sitting in a comfortable chair beside her husband Bill Gates for an informal conversation over breakfast Saturday, Melinda told about 200 invited guests that she chose a more public role so people would realize that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is definitely a his-and-hers operation.

Melinda was managing several Microsoft units when she met the Microsoft founder and chairman at a press event in New York for the computer powerhouse in 1987. ( is a joint venture involving Microsoft and NBC Universal.) The Dallas native with an MBA from Duke and the Harvard dropout from Seattle married on New Year’s Day 1994 when he was already the world’s richest man, and quickly began a family.

A motherly low profile
Melinda said she decided to keep a low profile because she wanted to be with her children who are still very young — Jennifer, 10, Rory, 7, and Phoebe, 4. “We’re both very, very engaged parents,” she said.

After Phoebe celebrated her first birthday, Melinda said, “I felt like, OK, now’s the time.”

“I was seeing so much in the developing world. But what was happening because I wasn’t out talking about what I was doing, or what we were doing, is people started naturally to think, well this is Bill’s foundation. And that couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Melinda said.

“And both of us felt that it was very important that people understood that this is a joint effort — the two of us are absolutely moving it forward as a couple. And so getting that out, and letting people know that we both cared about it is one reason,” she said.

In 2005, she started speaking about the work of the foundation — which has a $32 billion endowment including $1.6 billion from billionaire U.S. investment wizard Warren Buffett — according to the foundation’s Web site.

Moved by women’s burden
Melinda said she was especially moved by the burden that falls on women in the developing world, who are called on to deal not only with the daily struggle of feeding their families but with sickness, death and other emergencies.

“I felt like I was seeing too much not to speak out ... to give voice to the voiceless,” she said.

She said 60 percent of AIDS sufferers in Africa today are women, a shift in the past decade. The Gates Foundation, which is funding research for an AIDS vaccine, is also working on pills and microbicide gels likely to available sooner that women could take without informing their sex partners so they have the power to prevent AIDS, she said.

In a speech Thursday, she said that despite many programs to fight poverty and disease in the developing world, “millions of children still die every year of diseases we can prevent easily and cheaply. And more than 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, suffer from chronic hunger, and don’t have enough clean water to cook with or drink.”

“By contrast, each of us in this room had the chance to grow up healthy, get a good education, and live our dreams,” she said.

“Bill and I started our foundation because we believe that people living in extreme poverty and dying of preventable diseases deserve the same chance we all had: the chance to make the most of their lives.”

Public sector still needed
She stressed, however, that government leaders must recognize that the private sector cannot solve complex problems like poverty and disease without their support.

Even though the Gates Foundation is the world’s largest, it still accounts for less than 1 percent of American giving, she said. And its $32 billion would barely cover the gap between the need for health services in the developing world and the funds available for one year, she said.

The 42-year-old said another reason for speaking out now was “to say to my daughters that I want them to be powerful, strong women going forward.”