Our Women to Watch series has shined the spotlight on groundbreaking leaders of industries. From athletes to activists, these women have continued to shape the world for the better. This month, we’re focusing on Melinda French Gates.
French Gates is a philanthropist, author, former General Manager of Microsoft, and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. French Gates has been included in Forbes’ list of the 100 Most Powerful Women for several consecutive years, starting in 2011. She has driven efforts to empower women to step into leadership roles and provide support for underrepresented communities.
Melinda French Gates’ Beginnings
Melinda French Gates was born in Dallas, Texas on August 15, 1964. French Gates attended Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls’ high school in Dallas, where she was placed in advanced math courses, which further grew her interest in computer science.
Once she graduated high school, French Gates attended Duke University, where she majored in computer science and economics. In 1987, French Gates turned down an offer from IBM to work at Microsoft, where she developed multimedia projects. In 1994, she married Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Some of the projects French Gates worked on include Microsoft Cinemania, Publisher, Word, and Expedia.com.
French Gates was then promoted to General Manager of Information Projects, a position she held until 1996. That year, she left the workforce completely to focus on charitable work and her family.
Providing Opportunities for Underrepresented Communities
As French Gates turned from day-to-day work at Microsoft, she made sure to place her focus on giving back to the world. In 2000, French Gates co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with Bill Gates. The revolutionary foundation was created to fight poverty, disease, and inequality worldwide. As of Q4 2020, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given out a total of $60.1 billion in grantee payments.
Specifically, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been credited with:
- Pledging $750 million to help launch Gavi, the vaccine alliance, in 1999
- Launching a Gender Equality division in 2020 to ensure gender equity is included in the Foundation’s work
- Committing more than $2 billion to support the global response to COVID-19
In 2010, French Gates, along with Gates and Warren Buffett, created the trailblazing movement called the Giving Pledge. Those that sign the Pledge commit to donating a majority of their wealth to charity before their passing or in their will.
“I do believe that if you are lucky enough to be a billionaire, believe me, you can give away half of it and not change your life,” said French Gates in an interview with CBS News. “And we should. We should have a society where if for whatever reason wealth is in your hands, you put it back in society so that you change and you lift up others.”
In 2015, French Gates founded Pivotal Ventures, a groundbreaking investment and incubation company dedicated to driving social progress for women and families. Pivotal Ventures provides seed investments to early-stage and untested approaches to foster and encourage innovation. The company also provides support to initiatives, such as women in tech, paid family and medical leave, and women in public office.
In 2019, she published the New York Times Bestseller, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” an inspirational look at her journey and the people who have shaped her.
Following her divorce from Gates in 2021, French Gates announced that she is no longer giving the bulk of her wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, instead choosing to focus on Pivotal Ventures and other philanthropic efforts.
“[…] I think philanthropy is most effective when it prioritizes flexibility over ideology—and why in my work at the foundation and Pivotal Ventures I’ll continue to seek out new partners, ideas, and perspectives,” said French Gates in her updated Giving Pledge letter.”
Some of these recent efforts include the Upswing Fund, a fund that provides resources to support the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents of color and/or LGBTQ+ in the United States.
More Women to Watch, Including Hope Dworaczyk Smith
French Gates is still continuing to make great strides in philanthropy, and we can’t wait to see what she does next. In the meantime, read up on our other Women to Watch, such as philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and business mogul Mary Barra.
Plus, check out Hope Smith — the devoted mother, wife, former model, and Founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand MUTHA™. Hope embodies the philanthropist and entrepreneurial spirit that helps motivate others to uplift and provide opportunities to women.
And giving back is a family effort. Robert F. Smith, Hope’s husband, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, was the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge in 2017.
“I am privileged to join the Giving Pledge with a commitment to invest half my net worth — during my lifetime — to causes that support equality of opportunity for African Americans, as well as causes that cultivate ecological protection to ensure a livable planet for future generations,” said Robert F. Smith in his Giving Pledge letter.
“Additionally, my wife, Hope, will focus her efforts on the famous words of Aeschylus: to ‘Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’ by supporting causes that support the safety, development, success, and promise of children and young people,” he said.
Hope’s work has indeed focused on philanthropies devoted to helping women and children, including International Medical Corps, The Conscious Kid, and Unlikely Heroes. Learn more about Hope’s efforts to make big changes in the world.