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Melinda Gates: Changing The World

She is the head of a foundation that is synonymous with generosity and uses its voice for a more united and supportive planet. We chatted with the philanthropist about feminism, leadership and the enormous power of small acts of kindness

It’s seven in the evening in Madrid, nine in the morning in the United States, when I start talking to Melinda Gates (born in Texas, 1964) over the phone. She is at home in Seattle with her family, and right now she is looking out the window at the garden. A computer engineer, entrepreneur, mother of three and passionate feminist, she is one of the most influential women on the planet; a surprisingly intimate and spontaneous person, she is very enthusiastic and one hundred percent committed to what she believes in. For about 20 years, she and her husband (Bill Gates) have run the foundation that bears their name, the largest, most powerful and generous charity in global health and education on an international scale. An organisation that, a few days ago, decided to allocate 250 million dollars to confront Covid-19 and to find a vaccine against the coronavirus on one condition only: that the result be accessible to all, not just to rich countries. Melinda is beyond serious, she wants to really change the world and she is convinced that the key lies in remembering that no life is worth more than another, and she is especially for promoting women’s leadership. “When we take off, the whole of society takes off,” she says. Throughout our conversation, we addressed everything from solidarity to education and we even talked about ELLE’s action in support of the Food Banks, an initiative she warmly applauds.

ELLE: Do you think we will use this crisis to rebuild, rethink and recreate a better world? More caring, more empathetic, more human, more fair…?

MELINDA GATES: Yes, and for that we need more women in leadership positions and a greater diversity of voices in decision-making. Through this experience, three truths have come to the forefront that were there but didn’t seem to be a priority: that women take on almost all the tasks related to care, that they are in the majority among heath workers, and that domestic violence is still present. Let us assume these realities and focus on managing them correctly. Then we can change things.

ELLE: Countries with women at the head, such as Germany and New Zealand, have responded more effectively to the pandemic. Do women make a difference in governing?

MG: Women know that people deserve to be treated with kindness and that we need solutions that are valid for society as a whole. We must ensure that everyone can take care of their loved ones and that doing so is compatible with doing productive work. It is a perspective that we carry more inwardly because we have traditionally assumed the two great tasks: caring and working. Women are the ones at home with their children, the ones who give them affection and, at the same time, push them to be independent; they are the ones who make sure they complete their homework and are respectful at school. That is what we see in today’s leaders, they think about the needs of everyone.

ELLE: You insist that we will only defeat the crisis if we understand that it is a global struggle. How can we move forward?

MG: First of all, we have to collect information that will allow us to know the real situation of women in the world. It is crucial that they have a health system that supports them and that we know what burden of care they are carrying. Then, depending on what we learn, we will know what specific problems to focus on. Some countries, with the Scandinavians at the forefront, have excellent means in this regard.

ELLE: You have spent the last 20 years working to eradicate poverty and improve education. Now your foundation is playing a major role in finding a solution to the Covid-19.

MG: Yes, in many ways. On the one hand, we have focused on diagnosis and the development of medicines and vaccines. We are dedicated to this work; we are in permanent contact with numerous scientists through videoconference. On the other hand, it is a priority to make progress on how we are going to facilitate access to medicines that, before the rich countries, must reach the most vulnerable areas. Many of them are in Africa, where a pandemic has consequences that are linked to gender, as we saw during the Ebola crisis; pregnancies skyrocketed and deaths in childbirth increased.

Melinda Gates

ELLE: Do you think that women’s economic independence is important for nations to recover?

MG: It is crucial. Since the foundation, we have spent several years investigating something that, although we already suspected it, had not been studied: that a woman with an income can find outlets in a situation of domestic violence or invest in the health of her children, since she has the resources to feed them. We have seen that, with Covid-19, the platforms that facilitate the management of payments from mobile phones have allowed many women not to fall into poverty. Think of a mother isolated by the risk of contagion in a remote village in Kenya: thanks to an app, she continues to manage the subsidies she receives from the authorities. Governments such as those of India and Pakistan are aware that if the subsidies they offer are transferred to women, they will spend the money correctly, with the consequent benefits for the families and for society. I would like us, beyond the current circumstances, to speed up in that direction.

ELLE: You’re saying that women invest both what they learn and what they earn into their own community, right?

MG: Exactly, they invest in others. It’s the simple truth: they look after their family and their immediate environment, and that benefits their neighbourhood, their city and the whole country.

ELLE: Is this an unprecedented time for organisations like the one you lead?

MG: We’re living through an extraordinary period in general, and I believe that philanthropy must rise to the occasion. Our mission is to act as a catalyst, as a vanguard that points out and opens up ways to solve problems. We as organisations ask ourselves: “Okay, how has this crisis affected the planet? Are we willing to take advantage of the circumstances to make the world a better place? How can we help governments identify the areas in which they need to invest and what is the most efficient way to do it?” Because we must not forget that, in the end, it is governments that spend the most money on recovery. An organisation like ours has to do more, and I am particularly motivated because I have had discussions with many political representatives and donors who are willing to push for the outcome. They ask me, “I want to get involved, but how? Where do I put my money to find an antiviral, to get a vaccine, to support the vulnerable people in my neighbourhood, in my city?”

ELLE: Perhaps another lesson we have learned is that we are not unbeatable in the West.

MG: That’s right. You’re in Paris or Madrid or New York, you hear about pandemics and you think, “Well, that’s impossible here. Because we have always come through situations like this without any problems.” This time, however, we have to say, “No, no, no. We are vulnerable and we have to join forces with the rest of the world.” If we put an end to these kinds of diseases in the West but do not fight them in Africa, in Pakistan or in India, they will come back. We are a global community, let us not forget that. And let’s not forget that the decisions we make as a country affect everyone else, that there’s no point in thinking, I’m fine at home.”

ELLE: Five years ago, you and your husband already warned global leaders of the risk of new infections. Yet few, if any, listened to you. Why do you think they reacted that way?

MG: Well, it’s complicated… human beings are shortsighted, it’s hard for them to concentrate on what they don’t know or can’t see. But there were people who paid attention to us, like the German Chancellor and Angela Merkel, who helped us launch the Coalition for Innovations in Epidemic Preparedness.

ELLE: Can solidarity be taught?

MG: Of course it can. It can be taught by simple acts of kindness to others.

ELLE: My four children and I, inspired by an Italian idea, filled a basket with food and hung it out of the window on a rope so that it would reach the street. We wrote a message that said, “If you can, leave something in the basket; if you can’t, take what you need.” I thought it was a nice way to explain to children what it means to share.

MG: What I propose to my children is the following: think of two people every day who might need support – an old man who lives alone, a classmate who is having a hard time because the school has closed – and do something for them. All it takes is a message of love, a phone call, a video of encouragement. It’s like the game of teddy bear hunting, which began in the UK and has now reached Seattle: people put them behind windows for children to count when they go for a walk. In this way, anxiety is relieved and the children participate in a gesture of generosity. Now that we are spending more time at home, we have the opportunity to be together and talk about it: about solidarity and about gratitude. We, for example, when we sit down to dinner, do this exercise: we share aloud three reasons why we are grateful. This way, my children become aware of how lucky they are, of the privilege of having something on their plate every night.

ELLE: In my house we do something similar: at bedtime, the kids remember three good moments and another one a little worse to try to turn the next day.

MG: That’s wonderful…

ELLE: You gave an interview to ELLE in 2018, in which you left a phrase that is a mantra for my family: “Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom is finished.”

MG: Oh, that’s great, I love that!

ELLE: I don’t know if you will agree with me, but I am convinced that, in the face of this dramatic situation, society’s response has exceeded all expectations. Will we be better off in six months, a year, or five years?

MG: Of course, what has happened can make us better. Whether we succeed is up to us. I remember that movement that began in Europe, with the neighbours applauding from the balconies for health workers… there were even people coming out to sing, weren’t there? That touched people’s hearts, pushed them to respond and unite to rebuild society. Each one, from their own position: the press, politicians, parents, workers. Let’s stop for a moment and ask each other: “How are you?” It’s just a minute, and then, let’s get back to our routine. In any case, I think it’s an attitude towards which we women are more inclined than men, so it’s more up to us to make the solidarity that we want to happen, and for it to ow smoothly.