Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan


Melinda French Gates

For more than two decades, Melinda French Gates has been committed to addressing systemic problems all over the world -- from limited education to maternal health challenges and more. In this episode, she sits down to share her thoughts on leveling up the health and wealth of societies worldwide.

AIRED: October 05, 2021 | 0:26:13

So you grew up in Dallas, you're 1 of 4 kids.

You had a dad who worked on the Apollo?

Yes, on the early space missions, yeah.

My dad talked about those Apollo missions

so much at home, but then my parents

would put us in our jammies

when there was an Apollo launch,

and we'd go over to another engineer's house,

and we'd all sit there and watch that rocket take off,

and I think what it really told me was

that, you know, we can do anything we set our minds to.

It was like "Wow!

The possibilities are just endless."

In the early nineties, 3 life-changing

and world-changing things happened.

Melinda French got engaged to Bill Gates,

they went to Africa,

and she came home and read "The World Development Report."

Since then, she has never stopped puzzling

over how to change the world,

and her theory might just be the best one we've got.

I recently interviewed her for my podcast

"Kelly Corrigan Wonders,"

but today, I'm in Seattle,

meeting her for the first time in person.

I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More,"

and here's my conversation with Melinda French Gates.

Your mom Elaine has a lot in common with my mom.

Goes to church every day pretty much?

She does, yeah.

How does your mom's thinking and ways

in the world affect you?

Both of my parents go to church on the weekends,

but my mom really taught me the importance

of quiet time and an inner quiet

to meet your soul or meet that call

in the universe.

I really learned that from my mom.

She's raising 4 children,

and my parents have a small real estate business

on the side that she's helping manage

during the days.

Like, I would come home at the end of the school day,

and I would sit down, and she'd make us

a glass of ice tea, and we'd talk about my day--

the highs, the lows.

She was just this steady presence in our lives

and still is.

So you went to an all girls' Catholic school,

and Mrs. Bauer went and got a computer,

and it changed everything.

It changed everything for me.

She advocated to bring Apple IIs into the school

and into the classroom, and so she asked

in our math class were there any girls

who wanted to sign up for this as an elective,

and several of us put our hand in the air,

and with these 5 Apple II computers,

she started to teach us to program,

and I just fell in love with it,

and then by the time I left high school,

I knew I wanted to pursue

a computer science degree in college.

What do you love about it?

Like, can you even describe it to someone

like me who likes, like, poetry and painting?

Ha ha!

I can't even imagine.

Well, it is creative. I think that's one

of the things we so often don't talk about,

and we don't tell girls that,

that it's a very creative process.

You're creating something that's never been

created before, but you're coding it,

and so there's a huge logical part

that you're following the logic,

and so for me, it's like doing a puzzle,

but the edges are unknown.

OK. So then you finish at Duke

with also the computer science

and also an MBA, and you go

to this sort of smallish company...

Heh heh. Microsoft.

called Microsoft.

What was it like to be a woman there?

Well, first of all, it was still

a very small company, and I was so attracted

to Microsoft because they knew

they were changing the world.

I mean, they were creating new software

for these computers that were just

starting to go out everywhere,

and so I loved that.

I learned so much about business,

and they gave us so much freedom to fail

and to try things.

Were you intimidated?

I was not intimidated when I first started there,

not at all because I'd come through computer science

and my MBA, but over time,

it was a very-- at the time--

male-dominated culture, and so, you know,

it was kind of like entering the debate club

when you went to a big meeting,

and, um...

Kind of aggressive.

Uh, it was very aggressive, yeah,

and I just got tired of that over time,

like, constantly having to prove yourself,

so I would gravitate towards the groups

and I ended up managing groups

where it was just more collaborative.

We were still solving the hard problems

and getting products out the door,

but I ended up trying to create a culture

around me of people who were supportive

of one another.

I just enjoyed working in that environment more.

You know, that's interesting because

you talk a little bit in your book

about the research around how

the collective intelligence of a group changes

when women are in it.

So when you have women and people of color

at the table, they see other parts

of society that just one part of society

like a white male doesn't necessarily see.

When you have that collective group

around the table,

they're solving for different kinds of problems

in society, and that's why I think

it's so beneficial, and finally,

we actually now have the data to show

that more diverse people sitting at the table

make a difference to the products that

are created and the bottom line,

and ultimately, they're matching consumers' needs.

I mean, the biggest purchase power in the world

is actually women, so it's kind of funny

that we've left them out-- or had--of the equation

when we were creating products.

So--OK. So you're working at Microsoft,

you meet a guy... Mm.

you do some puzzles...


you get engaged, you go to Africa.

Something happens. What is it?

Going to the countries we went to in Africa,

it was literally life-changing.

For me, it was earth-shattering to see

markets not working,

markets that had been there but were all shuttered

or to see the roads.

They don't have the infrastructure that

we have in the United States.

It was mind-boggling to think I could be

on this very nice safari in a very nice vehicle,

being driven down the road,

and yet people were walking in flip-flops to get places,

or women were carrying big loads on their head,

and, you know, they'd have a baby on their back

and sometimes one in their belly,

and just to say, "Well, what's gone on here

"that this country hasn't advanced,

"their economy hasn't advanced

"in the way that I see them advancing in Europe

or in the United States?"

And that just really changed my thinking

about sort of the world.

So you almost, like, can't be a thinking person

without seeing that and trying to

puzzle out why is it this way,

and your first big swing was vaccines.

Hi. I'm Melinda Gates. Nice to see you. Hi.

Hello. Mrs. Gates.

Melinda, voice-over: Bill and I both came home

with a series of questions on our mind.

There was no question in our mind

that the vast resources that had come from Microsoft

were gonna go back to society.

We decided that before we got married

and actually had a long discussion about it

on that trip, and we started to say,

"Well, what could we help with?

"What things does the United States have

"that allow children to live so long here

and to have a healthy and productive life?"

And one of the first things you come to

are those childhood vaccines that our children get.

They are life-saving tools.

We have those vaccines, but they just weren't getting

out to Africa, so our first big gift

was in the area of vaccines.

And you look at the work that the polio vaccine

has done--we had it in the fifties,

and it took until 2011 or something

for India to be fully vaccinated against polio.

Why does it take so long?

For so long, we were creating vaccines

for high-income countries, and we weren't looking

at low-income countries or middle-income

and the diseases they had in those places

nor the markets that could be there,

and so until a fund that we and many governments

were part of forming called the Alliance for Vaccines

and Immunizations, you couldn't really incent

the pharmaceutical companies to make vaccines

for low-income countries,

but when there was this fund, you know,

billions of dollars that would pull the vaccines through,

they would then create those products.

There had been a supply chain for vaccines,

but it had crumbled, so when we came along

in 2000, it was taking a vaccine, you know,

15 or 20 years to get to low-income countries,

so we had to figure out the incentive structure

and then bring that time to market way down.

It's now about 18 months to 2 years

from when a vaccine gets developed, say, in the U.S.

or Europe and gets out to the developing world,

but look at what COVID has shown us.

18 months is way too long-- or 2 years--to wait,

and so that time to market needs to be collapsed

even more.

You know, this was a specific virus

the human body had never seen before,

but the breakdown became when the supply was available

not distributing it equitably.

You know, you got a lot of vaccine nationalism,

where countries said, "My country first,"

instead of saying, "OK. First, all healthcare workers

"around the world,

"then all 65 and over around the world,

then start tiering your population after that," right?

And so that is the failure that

we need to get right as a world for the future.

After you had Jen, your first child,

you said that you had the benefit

of this little pill that helped you

space your pregnancies,

and even though you were a private person

who did not want to do speeches or interviews,

coming forward about the need for contraception

worldwide pulled you into the spotlight.


So here's a nice Catholic girl...

Mm. Who's saying

you think everybody should have access

to contraception.

How was it?

Ha ha! Well, it was not easy at all for me

to step out on that issue and to be public about it.

I had to really wrestle with my own faith,

and that took probably 18 months to 2 years

because I would be out in all of these countries

around the world, whether it was a country

in Africa or it was in Southeast Asia.

I wouldn't even be out talking about contraceptives.

I'd be out often talking about vaccines,

but in Africa, one of the predominant things

women use for birth control is a shot

called Depo-Provera,

and so they would say to me,

"But what about that shot?

Why can't I get that shot?"

And what they explained to me is that

when they could space the births of their children

they could feed them, and they had a hope

of putting their children in school,

and so I finally decided, you know, I needed

to speak out for what was true

and what I was really hearing all over the world from women.

It is the tool that allows women to lift themselves

and their family out of poverty.

And that insight into the need

for contraception and, like, the kinds

of things that that could unlock for women

was the beginning of your position,

which is that when you help women and girls

you save the world.


If you empower a woman or a girl, she is--

all over the world, she's usually the center

of the family.

She makes decisions about resource allocations

in her home--who's going to eat what,

who's gonna do which chores,

who am I taking to the health clinic,

who's gonna get educated,

and so if you lift up a woman,

she will start to empower her family,

which empowers the community,

which drives the economy,

and so it literally starts in the home,

but it starts with timing and spacing children,

and it starts with her then having some

economic means in her hands

that is hers and hers alone.

There is no country, no country in the world

that has made the transition from low- to middle-income

or middle- to high-income without first going

through this transition of making sure

that birth control is widely available to women.

So you've been thinking about these things

for, you know, a couple decades now,

and at some point, you decided that

you needed to, like, seek out the source

of these ideas about women,

and what you came to was that it's scripture.

I also grew up Catholic, and I was always mad

that I couldn't be an altar girl,

and you said, "The Catholic church

"tries to shut down the idea of women priests

"by saying Jesus chose only men as his apostles,

"but we could just as easily say

"that the risen Christ first appeared to a woman

"and told her to go tell the men,

"and therefore, only women are allowed

to bring the good news to men."

How'd that go over?

Ha ha ha!

I don't exactly know how it went over,

but I know that, look, religions

are manmade structures,

and I think it was made at a certain time

and put men in a certain place in society,

but that just shouldn't be.

I mean, the universal teaching of Christ is

we are all the same.

It doesn't matter what your gender is,

so we don't need to have a hierarchy

where one group of people can rise

through that hierarchy and another can't.

It's just time to break that structure down.

So your whole life is changing right now.

Mm, mm.

Your daughter's getting married?


You're becoming an empty nester.

So am I. Yeah.

And you're becoming single...


after a long marriage.


What is giving you peace right now

or comfort or satisfaction or all 3?

Well, I mean, first, I just couldn't be

more thrilled for these transitions

that my kids are making,

but then, you know, my work--

my work, I'm so passionate about it.

It'll continue, you know, at the Gates Foundation

and at Pivotal Ventures.

I'm excited to have a bit more time for that.

Yeah, and do you feel like you're gonna be

able to work with Bill OK?

Yeah, I do. I mean, look.

We've worked together these last many months.

Things were difficult behind the scenes,

but we--you know, we are deeply committed

to this institution, and it's something

we created together, and I believe in it,

so, you know, you rise to your higher self

even on the tougher days.

It doesn't change, you know, what I believe in the world,

the values that I live out through the Foundation

or my Pivotal work, and so I think

that'll still continue to be some glue for us,

which will be great.

Let's talk about education.


When you educate a girl,

you create, like, this terrific sense of agency,

give her all these tools to change the world.

Is that precisely why some cultures

don't want to educate women?

Because they don't want the world to change?

Yes. They want it to stay the way it is.

You go off to university, and you mix with people

from lots of different backgrounds,

and professors bring new ideas,

and you debate them, and you get to think

and decide "What do I believe about the world?"

It's a very expansive time,

but, you know, I visited a school in India

several years ago called Prerna,

and it was being run by a nun there,

and it was a boarding school,

and I said to her, "Why are you running it

as a boarding school?"

And she said, "Because I need to get the girls away

from their villages and get them here,"

and what she was doing is not only educating them,

but she was building up their self-esteem

and teaching them who they could become,

and the hardest thing for the girls is

when they would go back on their breaks

to their community and the community would say,

"No. You're the lowest of the low,"

and the girl's like, "But I've been in this school

where they're telling me I can be anything," right,

and so so often, that's what education does.

It expands our minds, and it opens our boundaries

and possibilities.

I feel like a thing that you put

your finger on is how sometimes

the softer things-- like self-esteem

and listening and empathy and love--

can be these door-opening emotions.

If a whole society's been putting

a certain group down, it takes a lot of work

to undo that such that the person

in that group can participate

in their own rescue.

Absolutely. Even in the United States,

if you don't address the underlying needs,

people can't expand their mind and be curious

if they've got all this trauma

or somebody's told them they're less than,

and I think for so long in society

in so many places we've told girls

and people of color that they're less than,

that they maybe can't be the CEO.

Society puts all these biases and messages

on certain groups to kind of hold them in place,

and that just--to me, that shouldn't be.

You talk a little bit about unpaid work...

Mm. in the book,

and there were two things I thought

were really interesting.

One is, um, you really believe that

data collection is this critical piece

to the work,

and in that data collection,

you found that women do an average of...

2.6 times more unpaid work than men. 2.6.

Which adds up to, like, 7 years.

7 years worldwide across the course

of their lifetime, and it's true

no matter what country you go into.

Women do more unpaid work than men,

and even in the United States,

women do 95 minutes more of unpaid work

every single day than their husbands,

and so it's this juggle and this balance

that women are constantly trying to make work,

and what we've seen with COVID is that women

can't make it work.

It's why so many women have left the workforce

in the United States, two million women more than men.

It's why 2/3 of the women lost their jobs.

We've got to right this ship,

this unpaid work that women do at home

that we haven't put a number on

and we haven't valued in the way it should be valued,

and it benefits men.

It lets them develop the sides of themselves

that they also like,

those warmer sides, those connecting sides.

If they start participating early on

in the life of the child,

they participate more in the child's life

all the way through the course of their life,

and so it's why I've become such a proponent

for paid family medical leave,

not maternity leave,

paid family medical leave

and encouraging both women but men to take it, as well.

It is one of the things that would change society,

and the U.S. is literally the only

industrialized nation in the world

that doesn't have it.

It's--it's crazy.

So there's a total randomness

to privilege of course.

You've acknowledged it,

and there's a woman that has meant

a lot to you named Minouche,

and you picked her as your Plus One,

and our Plus One segment,

we really do it every time

because we want to point out a thing

that you also want to point out,

which is that we affect each other.

How does she affect you?

Who is she in your life, and why did you pick her?

I first met Minouche Shafik when she was working

at DFID, which is the development agency

in the United Kingdom, and she was doing

her work with unbelievable finesse

and had been doing it for a very long time,

and now here she is in the London School

of Economics, and she's really leading

by example and really trying to make sure

that we empower women.

So, um, we wanted to show you a little bit

of Minouche talking about you.

Oh, good!

Minouche: My family lost everything

in Egypt in the 1960s,

so my father went from being fairly well off in Egypt

to having very little and immigrating to the U.S.

It was an incredibly difficult and challenging time.

We moved to the American South.

We moved to Savannah, Georgia, to start.

My mother spoke no English.

She only spoke Arabic and French that she had learned

at her French Catholic girls' school,

but my father had done a Ph.D. in the U.S.

He was a scientist, and it was education

that saved him and enabled him to get a job,

and when I was growing up, he would always say to us,

"They can take everything away from you except your education."

So I remember the first time we went back to Egypt

when I was a teenager.

I remember visiting my mother's family's village,

and I would see little girls in the fields,

who looked just like me,

and I remember having this deep sense

of "I could have been them, and they could have been me,"

and there was such a sense of the randomness of life.

What country you happen to be born in,

what family you happen to be born in

is really in many ways the biggest determinant

of the opportunities that you have in life.

If you had fortune in your life,

it's your job to spread that fortune to others

and make sure that others have opportunities

similar to yours.

I admire Melinda Gates because she uses her power

to not just put a spotlight on important issues,

which she does brilliantly, but she also engages

in the substance of those issues and has clear opinions

and ideas about the solutions,

and I think that combination of spotlighting the issues

and identifying the solutions and enabling them to happen

is incredibly admirable.

I feel so honored to be Melinda's Plus One.

I don't know where to begin.

Um...I guess what I'd say is it even impressed my teenagers.

Ha ha!

Oh, gosh. She's so great.

Yeah. And it's funny

because I didn't even realize we shared

the issue of--you know, I often--when I'm

meeting with women, say, in Africa or in India,

you know, we're sitting across a mat from one another,

and I often think, "What if this mat

"was turned and I was the woman sitting

"on the other side?

"What would I want from somebody

"who'd been lucky enough to grow up

"in the United States and get educated

and be able to give back?"

And that's basically exactly what Minouche

is saying, right,

and so I believe we have to give back

what we've gotten to society,

and that's been a big motivating factor for me,

even since high school quite honestly.

You have said before that you're not, like,

so comfortable with all this money,

and you've talked a little bit

about tax policy, but if you could change

the structure such that nobody

could amass that much wealth,

would you?

Yes. I think we should be in a society

where it's more equal.

I mean, I think we-- you know, to have

this gigantic inequity of wealth

just doesn't really make sense in society,

and I look at--even in my own backyard in Seattle

the need is so great, and yet if you have

great wealth, you want to know if you're

giving it away that it's being given away well,

so--but I do think it's time that we had

some different tax structures in the United States

so that we can build better social safety nets

for families when they are in a crisis

or when they are living on the margins.

Sometimes, when I'm reading criticism

about you or the Foundation,

I think if I were you I might say,

"Well, what do you want? Would you rather

we not give it away?"

I feel that way sometimes but not very often.

It's more I feel like people misunderstand us

and our motivations at times,

and that can be frustrating, right,

or when you're attacked for something

that the Foundation's not actually doing,

but again, you get up in the morning,

and you know who you are, you know what it is

you're trying to do in the world,

you know what you've seen,

and so I listen to that criticism,

just think, "OK. Should we be doing

this a different way?"

How do you think about the things

that only a foundation can do,

only philanthropy can do versus

other organizations or sectors of the economy?

They can often-- a foundation can play

that galvanizing role to try help lead

an area forward

where the partners otherwise are not connected.

They exist inside of an ecosystem

that is government, private sector, civil society,

and nongovernmental organizations

and foundations,

and what a foundation can do is often look

at these gaps in society and say, "OK.

"We've left people behind in these ways.

"Let's point that out,

"and let's try and help organize

"these different players so that we go after

and we work on that problem."

This is the "Tell Me More" speed round.

Are you ready? OK.

What's your go-to mantra for hard times?

Take time in quiet and then connect with a friend.

If I looked at your Spotify playlist,

what song would the most listened to?

"Under African Skies" by Paul Simon.

What's your guilty pleasure?

Chocolate of any form.

If your mother wrote a book about you,

what would it be called?

I think probably, um, "My Gift."

Aw. Mmm.

She thought of all 4 of her children as gifts

that she got to have in the world and to raise.

If you could say 4 words to anyone,

who would you address, and what would you say?

Well, first to my kids, I'd say, "I love you deeply,"

and then anybody else, I would say,

"You can be anything you want to be in the world."

Yeah. That's way more than 4 words,

Melinda French Gates.

OK. You can be anything you want to be.

You can be anything. Ha ha ha!

Thank so much. Thank you.