Global philanthropist Melinda Gates on why empowerment begins at home

Global philanthropist Melinda Gates works hard to help empower women around the world, and right now she’s honing in on the young women in Africa. In the latest report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tracking health, education and gender equality, Gates shares some insight into the findings, how they have influenced her and why empowerment begins right inside your home.

When Melinda Gates had three small children (her youngest is now 16), she noticed that she was always the last one standing — and cleaning — in the kitchen after dinner. How did it happen? Her spouse, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, was a fair-minded partner who’d just caused a kerfuffle at their daughter Jennifer’s preschool when he started dropping her off two days a week, thereby obliterating every father’s excuse.

Gates, an early pioneer in the male-dominated tech industry (she was a Microsoft product manager when she met Bill and initially turned him down), needed a hack for this domestic conundrum. “Finally I came up with this rule: Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom leaves the kitchen,” Gates said. “Well, guess what? Everybody’s then asking, “What can I do?” so that they can get out of the kitchen. So I got out 15 minutes sooner and I was a lot happier.”

If a hyper-wealthy American woman has to negotiate for a quarter hour a day, what’s at stake for women in Africa, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has worked to enable equality since launching in 2000?

Essentially, it’s the same universal debate, different continent (though the time challenges are, of course, far more dramatic for African women in poverty). Gates’ travels abroad (she first visited Africa in 1993) have informed her own sense of household parity because the challenges African and American women face aren’t so different. On a recent trip, she asked several African couples to sort a stack of cards, each card representing a task the women, and the men, did to maintain the farm or the home. “The more we sat there, the more outraged [the women] became. They had about 45 on their side and the men had maybe 5…it’s embarrassing. At first, there’s a lot of chuckles from the men. They can’t believe they’ve been doing so little.” Eventually, Gates says, these uncomfortable moments of self-awareness lead to more transparency and change.

african children
A group of students in Kenya 

In an effort to spread that awareness worldwide, the Gates Foundation just released their second Goalkeepers Data Report, a sweeping study of global progress and challenges designed to keep the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on track every year until the 2030 deadline. This year, the Goalkeepers Report focuses on young people, particularly in Africa where nearly 60 percent of the continent’s inhabitants are under the age of 25 (compared to 27 percent in Europe). The Report contends that if we invest in this human capital now, specifically in their health and education, we unlock great potential for progress: “Across sub-Saharan Africa, these investments could increase the size of the economy by nearly 90 percent by 2050, making it much more likely that the poorest countries can break through their stagnation and follow the path of India and China.”

Melinda Gates and children
Melinda Gates receives gifts from students during her visit to Sudha Varghese Prerna School in India 

Though the focus of the Report is on youth, gender equality, one of the UN’s SDGs, is a constant through line. At home, Gates still works to make sure both parents contribute their share. Some tasks Bill “wasn’t so excited about [taking over]… but you learn to push through those moments. What we realise is we’re both happier and we’re both more engaged in the family. We can see the kids thriving and we know it’s because of both of us, not because, you know, Mom put in her time and Dad put in less.”

The Goalkeepers Report demonstrates a focus on empowerment which Gates has defined with more progressive principle and focus than many of her wealthy counterparts. As an outspoken advocate for family planning and access to contraception, her passions are evident in how the Report is organised, in sections on Family Planning, HIV, Education and Agriculture. In the Family Planning section, Kenyan writer Abigail Arunga details the successes of Future Fab, a program in Nairobi that teaches young women about reproductive health and contraception by engaging them on their life goals and cutting down on the cold clinical approach. The program wasn’t popular until it took into account the value of openness and compassion. “No judgement, that’s what you hope for,” Gates said, relating it back to her reality. “When I go into the US health care system with my own kids, I hope that the person doesn’t judge us as a family, doesn’t judge me as a mother, doesn’t judge my kids no matter what the issue is.”

For many across the globe, Africa and its sizeable problems can seem impossible to solve and too far away to matter. But Gates says that if you talk to parents in Africa, from its poorest nation to the richest city, their dreams for their children are like anyone else’s: they want high-quality education and economic opportunity, and the resources are there to actualise these goals. In Africa, there are now almost the same amount of girls in school than boys, giving youth the potential to transform the continent in the future. And if their health and education are seen as priorities, poverty in Africa will be reduced, as will severe climate change, political instability, violence and gender inequality. This is the value of investing in human capital, in addition to physical infrastructure, the usual mode of investment, for economic growth: The data shows there’s a direct relationship between health and education levels, and per capita GDP, for example. “So many people have this old view of Africa,” Gates contends. “When you’re on the ground, the energy and ingenuity is just palpable. It’s an amazing place and with the right investments, they’re going to lift themselves up completely.”

There’s no country or region that can’t be turned around, Gates maintains. “Look at South Korea. Numerous investments were made and now it became a high-end, giving aid to the rest of the world.”

Vietnam and its primary education system is another success story. Despite having a GDP 27 times lower than the U.S., Vietnam’s 15-year-olds outperform American and British students in science, math and literacy. According to native writer-philanthropist Cat Thao Nguyen’s report in Goalkeepers, primary school attendance is “virtually 100 percent.”

India has also drastically changed the educational landscape for its 6-14 year-olds, which, if counted as their own population, would make up the seventh largest country in the world. Today, enrolment is at 97%, a stark difference from 2000.

school in india
Children at the Manacaud School in India 

Hanifa with her daughter Arshi, a child recently found to be infected with the polio virus in India

When asked what it means to be a feminist in 2018, Gates answers, “It means giving every woman on the planet their voice.” In a previous era, any woman advancing up the ranks in politics or business couldn’t always keep that door open for other women to follow, but today, “the young feminists that I’m meeting are interested in empowering everybody, not just themselves.” It’s not enough to have one woman on the board of a business, “but if you put three women on a 10-person board, things start to change.” What is good for women in the UK or France is good for women in rural African and Indian villages, and vice versa. “When women stand shoulder to shoulder, they can go and demand their rights. They can demand that a rapist is taken to trial. They can demand that health services come into their villages.”

Part of the Foundation’s role, according to Gates, is to foster connections and networks between international groups that are already shifting the cultural dynamics on the ground. No innovation from a distant foundation, even one with a $50.7 billion U.S. dollar endowment, will become policy unless properly implemented and contextualised by local partners. She points out how in India there are women in self-help groups that are so powerful they’ve been going for more than 30 years and have become federated power structures.

The lessons from the field are always close for Gates. “I would be flying home from Africa thinking, why wouldn’t this woman have this, or why isn’t she empowered in this way, but I had to turn the questions back on my country and say, How far are we really in the United States?” In Microsoft’s hub, Seattle, Gates is funding women-led businesses with Pivotal Ventures, her investment and incubation company started in 2015. Supplying capital is a way to help balance the extremely tipped scales. According to Gates, “40% of venture capital funding goes to men who graduated from Harvard and Stanford, while less than 0.05 percent goes to African American women.”

“If women don’t have a seat at the table, you’re letting a big bias into the system, and if you don’t have minorities at the table, you’re adding a bias into the system.” That bias is already baked into many tech sectors, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, two female-voiced assistants who seem designed to soothe and genuflect as they carry out our biddings.

Is it too late to rectify the disparity? The key is more women-centric networks, Gates says. “Men have these natural-born networks,” depending on where they graduated from or their first job or first mentor, but women must create them, too. “Surround yourself with people who believe in you and will help you get where you want to go. Build a network of good people who will be with you for a long time.”

The Gates’ children have been taught the importance of looking outside their Seattle enclave. From an early age, Gates brought them to Africa for world-expanding experiences; they’ve now traveled extensively on their own. Phoebe, who’s 16, has been to Africa three times without her parents, working most recently in a Kenyan clinic where during surgery all the electricity went out and they had to continue using only flashlights. Rory, 19, spent two weeks in Rwanda in a leadership program and came home bursting with ideas that he shared around the dinner table. (By the way, it’s not all humanitarian chatter at the Gates house. They also play ‘Settlers of Catan’ because Phoebe has been winning for months, and some people are thirsting for revenge.)

“They really connect to the youth they meet,” Gates says. Giving back to those teenagers they may cross paths with for a week or two at a time is part of a meaningful commitment for the Gates family. “I want them to use their talents on behalf of the world because we all have stuff to give back, every one of us: your time, your energy, your thoughts, if you have money, some money. The world’s going to be better if we all give back in some way.”

Giving back is not an empty promise for the Gates. Their Giving Pledge, a philanthropic initiative started with Foundation trustee Warren Buffett in 2010, promises to give away the majority of their $90 billion U.S. dollar-plus fortune in their lifetime, leaving only a small fraction of their wealth to their three children.

For all of the efforts of the Foundation, and its dedication to giving back to society, Gates insists that it is not their intention or goal to replace the role of governments. “What a foundation can do,” she says, “is be a catalytic wedge. We can find innovations, take some risks that a government sometimes can’t take and then figure out what works and go to governments to scale it up.” She praises France, Norway, England and Germany as leaders on the path towards Africa’s upward mobility. “Leadership does matter,” Gates says. “We have to keep beating the drum so that our message is heard.”

Strong leadership means nothing without networks of knowledge and power shared between women. Gates remembers dining with a group of African businesswomen, and thinking afterwards, “There’s nothing they couldn’t do. Not a single thing. They know that working together is what it’ll take to lift everybody up. No single one of us can do it by ourselves. We’re stronger together.”

A teacher offers classes in his home during the summer vacation in Vietnam

You don’t have to possess the largesse of the Gates Foundation to make a profound difference in African lives. “There’s really a lot of simple things you can do. Those $10 or $100 donations add up in big ways,” Gates says. Here are some concrete ways you can help:

Tell Your Government
Call your representatives and tell them you “care about the health of all people around the world,” Gates says. World leaders are stepping up but they need our encouragement: French President Emmanuel Macron has committed to increasing official development assistance levels to 0.55% (the majority of it concentrated in Africa) of gross national income by 2022, up from .43% in 2017.

Donate to Nothing But Nets
Every two minutes a child dies of malaria. Gates suggests giving to Nothing But Nets, a grassroots campaign that raises awareness, funds, and voices to fight this preventable disease. A donation of $10 will supply an insecticide-treated net to protect a family from malaria-carrying mosquitoes.


Buy (RED) products on
(RED), an initiative started by Bono and Bobby Shriver in 2006, are branded products and services that when purchased trigger corporate giving to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Currently the focus is on sub-Saharan Africa, particularly countries with a high prevalence of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Since its launch, (RED) has generated over $500 million – more than any other business initiative has contributed to the Global Fund.

Interview: Valeria Bessolo Llopiz & Margaret Wappler
Photograph: Jason Bell (Melinda Gates)

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