How can we summon a moment of lift for human beings—and especially for women? Because when you lift up women, you lift up humanity.
For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing has become increasingly clear to her: If you want to lift society up, you need to stop keeping women down.
In this moving and compelling book, Melinda shares lessons she’s learned from the inspiring people she’s met during her work and travels around the world. As she writes in the introduction, “That is why I had to write this book—to share the stories of people who have given focus and urgency to my life. I want all of us to see ways we can lift women up where we live.”
Melinda’s unforgettable narrative is backed by startling data as she presents the issues that most need our attention—from child marriage to lack of access to contraceptives to gender inequity in the workplace. And, for the first time, she writes about her personal life and the road to equality in her own marriage. Throughout, she shows how there has never been more opportunity to change the world—and ourselves.
Writing with emotion, candor, and grace, she introduces us to remarkable women and shows the power of connecting with one another.
When we lift others up, they lift us up, too.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Lift of a Great Idea
Let me start with some background. I attended Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Dallas. In my senior year, I took a campus tour of Duke University and was awed by its computer science department. That decided it for me. I enrolled at Duke and graduated five years later with a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's in business. Then I got a job offer from IBM, where I had worked for several summers, but I turned it down to take a job at a smallish software company called Microsoft. I spent nine years there in various positions, eventually becoming general manager of information products. Today I work in philanthropy, spending most of my time searching for ways to improve people's lives — and often worrying about the people I will fail if I don't get it right. I'm also the wife of Bill Gates. We got married on New Year's Day in 1994. We have three children.
That's the background. Now let me tell you a longer story — about my path to women's empowerment and how, as I've worked to empower others, others have empowered me.
* * *
In the fall of 1995, after Bill and I had been married nearly two years and were about to leave on a trip to China, I discovered I was pregnant. This China trip was a huge deal for us. Bill rarely took time off from Microsoft, and we were going with other couples as well. I didn't want to mess up the trip, so I considered not telling Bill I was pregnant until we came back. For a day and a half, I thought, I'll just save the news. Then I realized, No, I've got to tell him because what if something goes wrong? And, more basically, I've got to tell him because it's his baby, too.
When I sat Bill down for the baby talk one morning before work, he had two reactions. He was thrilled about the baby, and then he said, "You considered not telling me? Are you kidding?"
It hadn't taken me long to come up with my first bad parenting idea.
We went to China and had a fantastic trip. My pregnancy didn't affect things except for one moment when we were in an old museum in Western China and the curator opened an ancient mummy case; the smell sent me hurtling outside to avoid a rush of morning sickness — which I learned can come at any time of day! One of my girlfriends who saw me race out said to herself, "Melinda's pregnant."
On the way home from China, Bill and I split off from the group to get some time alone. During one of our talks, I shocked Bill when I said, "Look, I'm not going to keep working after I have this baby. I'm not going back." He was stunned. "What do you mean, you're not going back?" And I said, "We're lucky enough not to need my income. So this is about how we want to raise a family. You're not going to downshift at work, and I don't see how I can put in the hours I need to do a great job at work and raise a family at the same time."
I'm offering you a candid account of this exchange with Bill to make an important point at the very start: When I first confronted the questions and challenges of being a working woman and a mother, I had some growing up to do. My personal model back then — and I don't think it was a very conscious model — was that when couples had children, men worked and women stayed home. Frankly, I think it's great if women want to stay home. But it should be a choice, not something we do because we think we have no choice. I don't regret my decision. I'd make it again. At the time, though, I just assumed that's what women do.
In fact, the first time I was asked if I was a feminist, I didn't know what to say because I didn't think of myself as a feminist. I'm not sure I knew then what a feminist was. That was when our daughter Jenn was a little less than a year old.
Twenty-two years later, I am an ardent feminist. To me, it's very simple. Being a feminist means believing that every woman should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential, and that women and men should all work together to take down the barriers and end the biases that still hold women back.
This isn't something I could have said with total conviction even ten years ago. It came to me only after many years of listening to women — often women in extreme hardship whose stories taught me what leads to inequity and how human beings flourish.
But those insights came to me later. Back in 1996, I was seeing everything through the lens of the gender roles I knew, and I told Bill, "I'm not going back."
This threw Bill for a loop. Me being at Microsoft was a huge part of our life together. Bill cofounded the company in 1975. I joined Microsoft in 1987, the only woman in the first class of MBAs. We met shortly afterward, at a company event. I was on a trip to New York for Microsoft, and my roommate (we doubled up back then to save money) told me to come to a dinner I hadn't known about. I showed up late, and all the tables were filled except one, which still had two empty chairs side by side. I sat in one of them. A few minutes later, Bill arrived and sat in the other.
We talked over dinner that evening, and I sensed that he was interested, but I didn't hear from him for a while. Then one Saturday afternoon we ran into each other in the company parking lot. He struck up a conversation and asked me out for two weeks from Friday. I laughed and said, "That's not spontaneous enough for me. Ask me out closer to the date," and I gave him my number. Two hours later, he called me at home and invited me out for that evening. "Is this spontaneous enough for you?" he asked.
We found we had a lot in common. We both love puzzles, and we both love to compete. So we had puzzle contests and played math games. I think he got intrigued when I beat him at a math game and won the first time we played Clue, the board game where you figure out who did the murder in what room with what weapon. He urged me to read The Great Gatsby, his favorite novel, and I already had, twice. Maybe that's when he knew he'd met his match. His romantic match, he would say. I knew I'd met my match when I saw his music collection — lots of Frank Sinatra and Dionne Warwick. When we got engaged, someone asked Bill, "How does Melinda make you feel?" and he answered, "Amazingly, she makes me feel like getting married."
Bill and I also shared a belief in the power and importance of software. We knew that writing software for personal computers would give individuals the computing power that institutions had, and democratizing computing would change the world. That's why we were so excited to be at Microsoft every day — going 120 miles an hour building software.
But our conversations about the baby made it clear that the days of our both working at Microsoft were ending — that even after the children were older, I would likely never go back there. I had wrestled with the idea before I was pregnant, talking with female friends and colleagues about it, but once Jenn was on the way, I had made up my mind. He didn't try to talk me out of it. He just kept asking, "Really?!" As Jenn's birth approached, Bill started asking me, "Then what are you going to do?" I loved working so much that he couldn't imagine me giving up that part of my life. He was expecting me to get started on something new as soon as we had Jenn.
He wasn't wrong. I was soon searching for the right creative outlet, and the cause I was most passionate about when I left Microsoft was how you get girls and women involved in technology, because technology had done so much for me in high school, college, and beyond.
My teachers at Ursuline taught us the values of social justice and pushed us hard academically — but the school hadn't conquered the gender biases that were dominant then and prominent today. To give you a picture: There was a Catholic boys high school nearby, Jesuit Dallas, and we were considered brother-sister schools. We girls went to Jesuit to take calculus and physics, and the boys came to Ursuline to take typing.
Before I started my senior year, my math teacher, Mrs. Bauer, saw Apple II + computers at a mathematics conference in Austin, returned to our school, and said, "We need to get these for the girls." The principal, Sister Rachel, asked, "What are we going to do with them if nobody knows how to use them?" Mrs. Bauer replied, "If you buy them, I'll learn how to teach them." So the school reached deep into the budget and made its first purchase of personal computers — five of them for the whole school of six hundred girls, and one thermal printer.
Mrs. Bauer spent her own time and money to drive to North Texas State University to study computer science at night so she could teach us in the morning. She ended up with a master's degree, and we had a blast. We created programs to solve math problems, converted numbers to different bases, and created primitive animated graphics. In one project, I programmed a square smiley face that moved around the screen in time to the Disney song "It's a Small World." It was rudimentary — computers couldn't do much with graphics back then — but I didn't know it was rudimentary. I was proud of it!
That's how I learned that I loved computers — through luck and the devotion of a great teacher who said, "We need to get these for the girls." She was the first advocate for women in tech I ever knew, and the coming years would show me how many more we need. College for me was coding with guys. My entering MBA class at Microsoft was all guys. When I went to Microsoft for my hiring interviews, all but one of the managers were guys. That didn't feel right to me.
I wanted women to get their share of these opportunities, and that became the focus of the first philanthropic work I got involved in — not long after Jenn was born. I thought the obvious way to get girls exposed to computers was to work with people in the local school district to help bring computers into public schools. I got deeply involved in several schools, getting them computerized. But the more I got into it, the more it became clear that it would be hugely expensive to try to expand access to computers by wiring every school in the country.
Bill believes passionately that technology should be for everyone, and at that time Microsoft was working on a small-scale project to give people access to the internet by donating computers to libraries. When Microsoft completed the project, they scheduled a meeting to present the results to Bill, and he said to me, "Hey, you should come learn about this. This is something we both might be interested in." After we heard the numbers, Bill and I said to each other, "Wow, maybe we should do this nationwide. What do you think?"
Our foundation was just a small endowment and an idea back then. We believed that all lives had equal value, but we saw that the world didn't act that way, that poverty and disease afflicted some places far more than others. We wanted to create a foundation to fight those inequities, but we didn't have anyone to lead it. I couldn't run it, because I wasn't going to go back to a full work schedule while I had little kids. At that time, though, Patty Stonesifer, the top woman executive at Microsoft and someone Bill and I both respected and admired, was leaving her job, and we had the temerity to approach her at her farewell party and ask her if she would run this project. She said yes and became the first foundation employee, working for free in a tiny office above a pizza parlor.
That's how we got started in philanthropy. I had the time to get involved when I was still at home with Jenn because we didn't have our son, Rory, until Jenn was 3 years old.
I realize in looking back that I faced a life-forming question in those early years: "Do you want to have a career or do you want to be a stay-at-home mom?" And my answer was "Yes!" First career, then stay-at-home mom, then a mix of the two, then back to career. I had an opportunity to have two careers and the family of my dreams — because we were in the fortunate position of not needing my income. There was also another reason whose full significance wouldn't become clear to me for years: I had the benefit of a small pill that allowed me to time and space my pregnancies.
It's a bit ironic, I think, that when Bill and I later began searching for ways to make a difference, I never drew a clear connection between our efforts to support the poorest people in the world and the contraceptives I was using to make the most of our family life. Family planning became part of our early giving, but we had a narrow understanding of its value, and I had no idea it was the cause that would bring me into public life.
Obviously, though, I understood the value of contraceptives for my own family. It's no accident that I didn't get pregnant until I had worked nearly a decade at Microsoft and Bill and I were ready to have children. It's no accident that Rory was born three years after Jenn, and our daughter Phoebe was born three years after Rory. It was my decision and Bill's to do it this way. Of course, there was luck involved, too. I was fortunate to be able to get pregnant when I wanted to. But I also had the ability to not get pregnant when I didn't want to. And that allowed us to have the life and family we wanted.
Searching for a Huge Missed Idea
Bill and I formally set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. It was a merger of the Gates Learning Foundation and the William H. Gates Foundation. We named the foundation for both of us because I was going to have a big role in running it — more than Bill at the time, because he was still fully engaged at Microsoft and would be for the next eight years. At that point, we had two kids — Jenn was 4 and had started nursery school, and Rory was just 1 — but I was excited to take on more work. I made it clear, however, that I wanted to work behind the scenes. I wanted to study the issues, take learning trips, and talk strategy — but for a long time I chose not to take a public role at the foundation. I saw what it was like for Bill to be out in the world and be well known, and that wasn't appealing to me. More important, though, I didn't want to spend more time away from the kids; I wanted to give them as normal an upbringing as possible. That was hugely important to me, and I knew that if I gave up my own privacy, it would be harder to protect the children's privacy. (When the kids started in school, we enrolled them with my family name, French, so they would have some anonymity.) Finally, I wanted to stay out of the public work because I'm a perfectionist. I've always felt I need to have an answer for every question, and I didn't feel I knew enough at that point to be a public voice for the foundation. So I made it clear I wouldn't make speeches or give interviews. That was Bill's job, at least at the start.
From the beginning, we were looking for problems that governments and markets weren't addressing or solutions they weren't trying. We wanted to discover the huge missed ideas that would allow a small investment to spark massive improvement. Our education began during our trip to Africa in 1993, the year before we were married. We hadn't established a foundation at that point, and we didn't have any idea how to invest money to improve people's lives.
But we saw scenes that stayed with us. I remember driving outside one of the towns and seeing a mother who was carrying a baby in her belly, another baby on her back, and a pile of sticks on her head. She had clearly been walking a long distance with no shoes, while the men I saw were wearing flip-flops and smoking cigarettes with no sticks on their heads or kids at their sides. As we drove on, I saw more women carrying heavy burdens, and I wanted to understand more about their lives.
After we returned from Africa, Bill and I hosted a small dinner at our home for Nan Keohane, then president of Duke University. I almost never hosted that kind of event back then, but I was glad I did. One researcher at the dinner told us about the huge number of children in poor countries who were dying from diarrhea and how oral rehydration salts could save their lives. Sometime after that, a colleague suggested we read World Development Report 1993. It showed that a huge number of deaths could be prevented with low-cost interventions, but the interventions weren't getting to people. Nobody felt it was their assignment. Then Bill and I read a heartbreaking article by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times about diarrhea causing millions of childhood deaths in developing countries. Everything we heard and read had the same theme: Children in poor countries were dying from conditions that no kids died from in the United States.
Sometimes new facts and insights don't register until you hear them from several sources, and then everything starts coming together. As we kept reading about children who were dying whose lives could be saved, Bill and I began to think, Maybe we can do something about this.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Moment of Lift"
Copyright © 2019 Melinda Gates.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
1. The Lift of a Great Idea
2. Empowering Mothers: Maternal and Newborn Health
3. Every Good Thing: Family Planning
4. Lifting Their Eyes: Girls in Schools
5. The Silent Inequality: Unpaid Work
6. When a Girl Has No Voice: Child Marriage
7. Seeing Gender Bias: Women in Agriculture
8. Creating a New Culture: Women in the Workplace
9. Let Your Heart Break: The Lift of Coming Together
Resource Guide of Organizations That Readers Can Support