(Here at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit praying for God to give me new insight to help me in leading with Operation Christmas Child)
One-on-One Interview with Bill Hybels & Melinda Gates
Bill: I’ve admired you from afar for a long time. You’ve been blessed with a lot of resources and have given back to the world.
Melinda: Thank you. That’s very kind.
Bill: I think people really only know you from the Gates Foundation. You grew up in a highly functioning family and went to a Catholic school. You said you became an impatient optimist. What does that mean.
Melinda: Our parents were very determined we would grow up in the Catholic faith. What I learned is that the world is getting better. Poverty has been cut in half in the last 25 years. That makes me optimistic, but I’m impatient that there are things we have in the US that could be given to the developing world that will hasten change. We believe all lives are created equal but we need to treat them equally.
Bill: Agreed. What did you study at Duke University.
Melinda: Computer Science. I loved technology. I had a high school teacher who saw I was good at math and she advocated for us to get a dozen computers and I learned programming. The number of women graduates in computer science peaked at 38% and is now back down to 17%.
Bill: Was Microsoft the only company offer you received.
Melinda: I actually worked for IBM several summers in Dallas. Our parents encouraged us to go to college in a different geograpic area. As a senior I was asked to commit to IBM but I said I was going to Seattle to interview with Microsoft. She said if I got an offer at Microsoft I should take it because the chance for advancement would be so great.
Bill: So you were hired at Microsoft and you actually loved working there and were invited into leadership.
Melinda: I worked there for over nine years and I believed in the vision of putting a computer in every home. I loved managing teams. I felt like if you got the best out of people you got the best end result.
Bill: How did you just run into Bill Gates?
Melinda: The company was really small—fewer than 1700 employees. After three weeks on the job I was sent to New York to present. I had a female roommate who invited me to go out to dinner with other employees and twenty minutes later Bill Gates arrived.
Bill: Was this love at first sight?
Melinda: I wouldn’t call it that. He asked me to go out that night, but I had other plans. A few months later we ran into each other at work on a Saturday afternoon and he asked me out again. Apparently he was a little smitten. After we were married and I got pregnant I surprised him by saying I wanted to stay home with them. I told him it didn’t mean I would be home forever but that I’d be home for a time. Jen is 20 years old, Rory is 17, Phoebe is in 8th grade.
Bill: Are they normal?
Melinda: I wanted a normal family life. I dated Bill when he was already known in the world. I wanted our kids to have a normal middle class upbringing. I used my maiden name when I enrolled the kids in school so no one would know they as “Bill Gates’ kids”.
Bill: I was interested in your spiritual practices. In your attempt to stay close to God, what do you do?
Melinda: I think one of the really important things I learned in high school is that one individual can change the world. They also taught us the importance of silent and took us on silent retreats. They gave us spiritual lectures and readings. In the middle of the school was a chapel where you could spend time in silence. That became so fundamental to my life that I try to take time in silence every day. I do a spiritual reading, light a candle, and spend some time in prayer.
Bill: I want to move ahead to talk about the Gates Foundation. You give away billions and billions of dollars. You have your own building with 1400 employees. Tell us how the foundation functions.
Melinda: The foundation is the embodiment of our philosophy in the world. We think of it as a huge responsibility. It’s a gift to be in this situation. We’re giving away other people’s money—like Warren Buffett’s money. We’re trying to give bak to the world responsibility. We’re trying to allow all people to have the same healthy start in life we have here in the US.
Bill: You’ve given hundreds of millions of dollars to get kids vaccinated around the world and staggering investments in education around the world. The one that was blowing my mind recently was your work on the timing and placement of pregnancies. Start from zero and explain this.
Melinda: We think of this foundation as a learning journey. We were working on childhood vaccines and now there are 7 million children alive because of those vaccines. As we are doing this work I spend time time sitting with women in the villages. You have to listen. I ask about vaccines but what I learned is if I stay long enough and listen to them what they wanted to talk about is “what about that shot I used to get?”—they were talking about depo prevara. There was a crisis that contraception was not available. Condoms are being given out but women will tell you they can’t negotiate a husband using a condom. The women know if they can space their children they will be able to feed them and educate them better. I kept thinking there has to be someone who will lead this call. I’ve been part of leading this charge to make contraceptives available to all women. I’ve had lots of meetings with the Catholic Church and we move forward on our areas of commonalities. I want to keep alive women and babies.
Bill: You’re actually an introvert more than an extrovert. Is this just something God wanted you to do?
Melinda: You can’t turn away from these voices. When I come back from these trips I take time in silence so I can hear these cries. You need to let your heart break and take it in. If I could do something about that, I needed to act. The truth needs to be spoken. We can do something about this.
Bill: At some point in time you and Bill felt ‘we’ve just earned too much money’ and knew the right thing to do was to invest in the world. Yet there are many who don’t have a social conscience and just keep earning. How does it affect you to see people of great means who do virtually nothing for the poor.
Melinda: We made this decision before we got married. We made a trip to Africa and realized we only need so much. Warren Buffet says if you have close to a billion dollars it’s not going to hurt you to give away half of it. I grew up in a middle class family and we were giving back. We started presenting this to the wealthy and we have 155 billionaires signed up to give away half their wealth. We gather those who want to give once a year and they begin to catch the vision of giving and see the possibilities.
Bill: You’re helping the world awaken to the fact this is not good money thrown at hopeless projects. Extreme poverty and child mortality rates have been cut in half.
Melinda: Part of that is bed nets—for $10 you can buy a net to reduce deaths.
Bill: Maternal mortality rates have fallen by 43% and proportion of undernourished people has fallen to half.
Melinda: I go to places that used to feel destitute and they’re starting to thrive. Seeds that give 1/3 more profit on their farms have made a difference.
Bill: One thing I appreciate about you and Bill is you took your intellectual horsepower and built a company and then took that same horsepower and used it to help the poor. Was it harder to build Microsoft or is it harder to leverage the resources to solve world problems.
Melinda: Bill would say he did a lot of things right but he also got lucky. He never expected to make a billion dollars. When we came to this nonprofit we started to see how hard this was but the biggest lesson we could apply from business is that we used data to evaluate. In the nonprofit world many decisions were being made without data so we worked to get that data. One of Bill’s goals is to eliminate polio in the world. He gets reports of new polio cases and they send out vaccination teams. Now we send women into the developing world to ask about contraceptive questions and what is available and I get those reports coded red, green, and yellow. We know where malaria nets are being applied and where they’re working and where they’re not. Warren Buffett says we are working on the tough problems that society has ignored but we are getting the data and working to make changes. I can’t ask people to give unless I can show them their giving makes a difference.
Bill: You were making a presentation to spiritual leaders about these needs and I saw you moved to tears. It’s still very personal to you.
Melinda: It’s in the humanity of work that you connect with other people. I have gone into those villages and lived that life so it’s very personal. The people I meet in the developing world open up and show me what life is like. A woman in a village said, “I want to give every good thing to this child before I have another one.”
Bill: Why don’t we thank Melinda for all the good work she’s doing.