Parents Without Borders, produced with our partners at the United Nations Foundation, features influential parents leading programs and initiatives making a global impact.
When it comes to global charitable foundations, there is the Gates Foundation and then there’s everyone else. In terms of scope, innovation, efficacy, ubiquity — pick your metric, it’s at the top. And Melinda Gates is at the top of it. Alongside her husband, who invented some computer software or something, Gates oversees more than $40 billion in grants and venture funding. As you read this, the Foundation is working on everything from the eradication of global scourges like polio and malaria, to revolutionizing sanitation in the developing world, to reforming the U.S. education system (and that’s barely scratching the surface of what they’re up to).
Gates has 2 daughters and a son, who at this point could probably run their own global non-profits, given the extent to which they’ve traveled and volunteered with their parents. But you don’t need your own kabillion-dollar foundation to raise a kid who understands the value of thinking and acting charitably — Gates’ advice on that front is surprisingly practical.
Your work takes place on a global level and deals with massive issues that affect millions of people. Being a parent, in some senses, means your world can only be as big as your family. How challenging is it to go from that macro view during the day to the micro view at the end of the day?
Actually, I try not to stay at the macro level during the day either. Of course, I look at data so I can understand the work we’re doing — the massive scale and scope of it — but I also like to think about how issues like disease and poverty affect the individuals and families behind the statistics. That’s why I think it’s so important for me to travel to see the work on the ground and to meet people who are struggling for a better life. It helps me better understand the issues — and it inspires me to hear the heroic stories of mothers and fathers who are fighting for their children’s future.
Your kids are all teenagers, so they’re capable of understanding the issues that you and the Foundation work on. These issues are often horrifying on their face; how do you explain them in a way that’s honest and respectful but also sensitive to what they’re ready to grasp?
It’s hard. Sometimes, Bill and I aren’t ready to grasp some of the horrifying things we see. My heart breaks all the time. But there are two things that made it easier to talk to our children, even when they were young. First, though some of the challenges the world’s poorest people face are unique, their goals in life are the same as everyone else’s. They want to be healthy and happy and productive, and they want their kids to thrive. That’s universal, and kids anywhere can see that. Second, there’s a lot that’s inspiring about our work. There is tragedy, yes, but there is also bravery and determination and ingenuity. Those are the stories we are always eager to talk about at the dinner table.
A huge amount of the Gates fortune has been pledged to philanthropy; how do you explain this decision to your kids, and how do you help them grow into adults who will be similarly invested in giving?
We made this decision as a couple before we were married — it was just the clear path for us based on how we were raised. So we try to raise our children the same way, to see and understand the world around them, to respect the dignity of every person, and to think about what needs to be done to make the world more fair and equal. We talk about these ideas with our kids all the time with the hope that these values, that are so important to Bill and me, are ingrained in our family life. We also travel extensively as a family, including to places where extreme poverty is still very much a daily reality for the people who live there. This has given our children their own lens on the inequalities that exist around the world.
“It’s important to have conversations about big, complicated issues that matter.”
What advice do you have for parents who want to get their kids similarly engaged in volunteering or donating to philanthropic efforts?
Two things. First, volunteer with them when they’re young. For example, volunteering with a local homeless shelter was something we did early on. It was an experience we shared together and it sparked great conversations afterward about what homelessness is and why it happens. Our kids are now doing a lot of volunteering on their own, and I think it’s because of a habit we started as a family. The second thing I’d say is that it’s important to have conversations about big, complicated issues that matter. As you pointed out earlier, those can be hard conversations, but we try to ensure our kids are grappling with some of the tough realities of the world. When we engage our kids on these topics, it always leads them to think about what they can do to help.
Your views on parental leave are interesting, because they often focus on the needs of children more than the rights of parents. What, in your view, is missing from the conversations about parental leave in this country?
You said it in the question. When Netflix came out with its new policy, it was mostly covered by the business press, and the questions were about how it would help Netflix retain talent. That’s important, however it’s not what parental leave is for. It’s about parents and their children, strengthening the bonds of family in a society, and giving children the greatest chance to reach their full potential. Parents deserve the opportunity to spend more time with their children in the first weeks and months of their lives. This is why we need better leave policies in this country.
You and Bill are co-chairs of the Foundation; can you explain how that relationship is different — and how it’s similar — to being co-heads of a family?
It’s the same because we have to make sure we’re in lockstep on the values that we’re driving at the foundation, just like we do in our family life. We talk all the time about why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, whether it’s work or family. Once we agree on those key values and our top level goals, we’re able to have different areas of focus at the foundation. For example, I’m particularly interested in women and girls’ empowerment as a way to make progress toward a better world for everybody, and Bill is focused on efforts to eradicate polio.
“We aren’t getting the benefit of women’s thinking when it comes to innovation in computers and tech. That’s a problem, and we need to fix it.”
What did you learn from your own father that informs how you run the Foundation?
My father was an engineer with an aerospace company that contracted to NASA. Back then, there weren’t a lot of women engineers, but my dad still made a point to recruit talented women to his team. One woman I remember in particular was a mathematician named Mary Phillips. She was a personal inspiration to me as a young woman who was interested in technology and subjects like science, and math. This was at a time when these fields were really dominated by men—so I’m proud that my dad was able to recognize talent in people like Mary who maybe didn’t fit the traditional image of what an engineer was supposed to look like. He was somewhat ahead of his time in his ability to recognize that the strongest teams are ones that include a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds. I’ve tried to incorporate that lesson in my career, especially in how the foundation runs. If you only rely on the usual suspects, you’re not going to be as creative or nimble as you need to be.
You’ve been working in tech since the early 90s. How has the role and perception of women in engineering and computer science has evolved over the past 25 years, and are you satisfied with the progress that’s been made in bridging the opportunity gap between the genders?
No, I am not satisfied — not by a long shot. The gap between men and women in the STEM fields is wide. Girls are not encouraged to enter those fields in the right ways. There is not an area in technology I can think of that’s equal, and because of that, everybody loses. We aren’t getting the benefit of women’s thinking when it comes to innovation in computers and tech. That’s a problem, and we need to fix it. Women in the tech fields need more support to start their own companies and launch their own products.
How will things be different for girls your daughter’s ages, if they choose to enter into the same fields in the coming 5-10 years?
I hope that soon, we won’t need to ask questions like this. I hope in 10 years, there will be an increase in women entering the STEM fields and producing world-class technologies. That will mean getting girls into and through the STEM pipeline and ensuring that their innovations are valued by employers. It’s not going to be one simple policy change here or there. We need to thoroughly reorganize the world of work, so that women’s contributions are respected and supported.