DAVOS, Switzerland – Melinda Gates has traveled the world with her husband, meeting with the rich and powerful and visiting its poorest in remote African villages. She and her husband share top-billing at the world’s richest foundation, but Bill Gates always dominated the spotlight – until this year.
Taking the stage at this week’s World Economic Forum for the first time, Melinda addressed health, development and women’s issues before a VIP audience.
Sitting beside her husband, Bill Gates, for an informal conversation over breakfast Saturday, Melinda told about 200 invited guests that she chose a more public role so people would realize that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is definitely a his-and-hers operation.
Melinda was managing several Microsoft units when she met the Microsoft founder and chairman at a press event in New York for the computer powerhouse in 1987. The Dallas native with an MBA from Duke and the Harvard dropout from Seattle married on New Year’s Day 1994 when he was already the world’s richest man, and they quickly began a family.
Melinda said she decided to keep a low profile because she wanted to be with her children who are still young – Jennifer, 10, Rory, 7, and Phoebe, 4. “We’re both very, very engaged parents,” she said.
After Phoebe celebrated her first birthday, Melinda said, “I felt like, OK, now’s the time.”
“I was seeing so much in the developing world. But what was happening because I wasn’t out talking about what I was doing, or what we were doing, is people started naturally to think, well, this is Bill’s foundation. And that couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Melinda said.
“And both of us felt that it was very important that people understood that this is a joint effort – the two of us are absolutely moving it forward as a couple. And so getting that out and letting people know that we both cared about it is one reason,” she said.
In 2005, she started speaking about the work of the foundation – which has a $32 billion endowment including $1.6 billion from billionaire U.S. investment wizard Warren Buffett – according to the foundation’s Web site.
Melinda said she was especially moved by the burden that falls on women in the developing world, who are called on to deal not only with the daily struggle of feeding their families but also with sickness, death and other emergencies.
“I felt like I was seeing too much not to speak out … to give voice to the voiceless,” she said.
She said 60 percent of AIDS sufferers in Africa today are women, a shift in the past decade. The Gates foundation, which is funding research for an AIDS vaccine, is also working on pills and microbicide gels lthat women could take without informing their sex partners so they have the power to prevent AIDS, she said.
The 42-year-old said another reason for speaking out now was “to say to my daughters that I want them to be powerful, strong women going forward.”