Melinda Gates Discusses Her ‘Big Test’ With Bill Gates in Rare Interview

Melinda Gates stayed behind the scene for years before she became fairly recognized as a co-founder of the Gates Foundation.

Melinda Gates stayed behind the scene for years before she became fairly recognized as a co-founder of the Gates Foundation. John Lamparski/Getty Images

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which manages the Gates family’s nearly $100 billion assets, plus 98 percent of Warren Buffett’s $89 billion fortune, is indisputably the world’s largest philanthropic vehicle of today.

As its name suggests, ownership and responsibilities of the Gates Foundation are equally split between its two founders, Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, both holding titles as the nonprofit’s co-chairs.

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To the general public, however, for years the Gates Foundation was believed to be a philanthropy branch solely owned by Bill Gates, with Melinda merely sitting in the background as “Mrs. Gates.”

But that wasn’t true. “In the early years of the foundation, Bill was still very focused on his work at Microsoft, so I was doing the majority of the day-to-day foundation work,” Melinda Gates told The Chronicle of Philanthropy in a rare interview this month.

It wasn’t until recent years when Melinda Gates started to make more public appearances as the foundation’s spokesperson, giving speeches at nonprofit conferences, co-authoring the foundation’s annual letter with Bill Gates, and even publishing a book about her first-hand philanthropy work.

That level of exposure for Melinda wasn’t a default setting when the Gates set up the foundation—nor was it easy to achieve.

Take the annual letter for example. Melinda and Bill Gates have co-authored the letter, which summarizes the work the foundation does every year, since 2013. But before that, writing the annual letter had been strictly Bill Gates’ job for years ever since the foundation’s inception in 2000.

“I’d been busy with other foundation work and with our three kids,” Melinda Gates explained to the Chronicle’s editor Stacy Palmer. “[But] after the London Family Planning Summit, which I’d helped put together and had brought enormous energy and investment to this issue I care about so deeply, I felt a keen sense of ownership over our family planning work, and I wanted to write about it in our annual letter.”

“When I said so to Bill, though, he said he didn’t see why things should change. It got hot,” she continued. “We both got angry. It was a big test for us. In the end, we survived, and though the letter went out under his name, it included a family planning essay under mine.”

The next year, Melinda Gates’ share in the annual letter increased to one third. And the year after, her name appeared in the byline for the first time. (The headline of the 2015 annual letter was “Our Big Bet for the Future—Bill and Melinda Gates.”)

“That completed the evolution of the annual letter from his into ours and the evolution of our partnership into something even stronger,” she said.

Also in 2014, the year after the couple’s “big test,” the Gates Foundation added gender equality to its core mission alongside health and poverty alleviation.

Earlier this month, Melinda Gates published her first book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, in which she documented her experience and learnings from working with inspiring women around the world throughout her early Microsoft years and with the nonprofit.

“In an especially memorable passage about how she handles seeing people in desperate circumstances, she writes: ‘All of us have to let our hearts break; it’s the price of being present to someone who is suffering.’ Your heart will break more than once when you read this book. But more often, you will be enlightened and inspired,” Bill Gates said, praising his wife’s work in a blog post upon the book’s release.

Melinda Gates Discusses Her ‘Big Test’ With Bill Gates in Rare Interview