Series 18: For the Love of Powerhouse Women | Episode 01
Melinda Gates: The Power of Lifting Up Women
We’re starting strong in our new series For the Love of Powerhouse Women, because we’re joined by one of our personal heroes: Melinda Gates. Kind and wise, Melinda leads the world largest philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to improve the lives of millions of women and children around the world, and she does it all with a listening ear and an equally fierce and gentle spirit. We’re thrilled to talk with her today about her dynamite new book The Moment of Lift. Melinda lets us in our her early days in Dallas, growing up in a devoted Catholic family and learning about the lives of the marginalized through volunteer work at the country courthouse. After receiving degrees in computer science and business at Duke, Melinda made her way to Microsoft, where she led product teams on little things you might’ve heard of like Microsoft Word and Expedia, before turning down Bill Gates for a date, then eventually becoming his bride. When her children were young, Melinda explored the lives of little ones like her own around the globe and wondered why children in other countries were dying of preventable diseases like malaria. Her trip down the rabbit hole led to conclude that their mothers needed to be lifted up. And in fact, when you lift up a woman, she lifts up everyone else.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey everybody. It’s Jen Hatmaker, your hostess of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show.
So today we are kicking off a brand-new series that I am so pumped about. I mean, this series is going to be nails. It’s inspiring me, it’s driving me to take a ton of notes, even in the middle of these interviews, because I can’t wait to get back the transcript and I want to remember it right that second, for every single guest. So here we go: kicking off For the Love of Powerhouse Women.
Ahh! You know I cannot get enough about hearing strong women who have an idea or a dream, they’ve worked so hard to turn it into a reality, they’re changing the world, they’re developing cutting-edge projects, they’re lifting up sisters all around the planet. They are calling us to our highest values and showing us how to be kinder, wiser, better people. These women reveal what’s possible when we just keep going. I am 100% here for it. You are going to be too, you guys.
We have women of all stripes in this series. Makers, doers, givers, all of it. And just wait until you meet our first guest. I cannot think literally the better woman to kick off this series, and I had a legit “pinch me” moment when I first met her.
I did this interview live and in person. So I got to sit across from her, and watch her talk, and watch her become animated as she discussed her work in the world. And you, of course, know her well. It’s Melinda Gates.
Melinda Gates is a philanthropist, a businesswoman, a global advocate of the highest level for women and girls. Obviously she’s the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and she specifically sets the direction and the priorities of literally the world’s largest philanthropy. This is no joke here today. She’s also the Founder of Pivotal Ventures, which is this investment and incubation company working to drive social progress for women and families in the United States.
Melinda grew up in Dallas, she is a Texas girl. She went to Duke for her bachelor’s degree in computer science, plus her MBA. She spent the entire first decade of her career developing products at Microsoft before focusing on her family for a minute, and her philanthropic work.
She lives in Seattle with her husband, Bill, you might have heard of him, Bill Gates. They have three children: Jen, Rory, and Phoebe.
And let me just tell you, sitting in the room with Melinda when she was on the tour for her amazing new book, The Moment of Lift, which we are going to talk all about, was really profound.
Melinda Gates has been a hero of mine and I have learned from her and I have watched her, and I’ve tracked her work for years. Years and years. Her knowledge of what it looks like to lift communities out of poverty by empowering and protecting and advocating and educating women and girls is just astonishing.
She was a real mentor to me, and it was just a sincere honor to get to sit in a room with her and interview her. I cannot believe she so graciously gave us a dedicated interview for our podcast. Melinda is literally on her book tour. She is on Super Soul with Oprah, she is being interviewed by John Legend and John Green and Mandy Moore. And she just completed literally a sold-out book tour and she squeezed in an hour to talk to me, to deliver an interview just specifically for you, the listeners of the For the Love Podcast. We’re really lucky to have her today, and I’m honored by her presence, and I’m inspired by her life.
So without any further ado, please enjoy this really riveting conversation with Melinda Gates.
Jen: Okay. I am in a hotel with Melinda Gates, everybody. We’re just sitting here at a table. Hi, welcome.
Melinda: I’m so glad we can finally meet and be here together.
Jen: This is my pleasure, it is my privilege, you are a hero. I have admired your work and watched you from afar for so long, and it’s just very surreal to be sitting here with you. I’m so excited to talk about your book, about The Moment of Lift. I just told you that I read it cover to cover, well look at this thing. I had some thoughts about it. It’s just marked to shreds.
Melinda: I love it.
Jen: It’s just absolutely marked to shreds. I’ve got notes in every margin, I’ve got some happy faces, and some hearts, and some exclamation points. It was really, really powerful and profound. We’re going to talk about it, so I wonder if you’ll indulge me for one second before we get into it.
Melinda: Of course.
Jen: Because we’re doing a series on the podcast right now about powerful women, so this is where you fit in.
So I would love to just roll it back to your roots if you don’t mind, for just a minute. Because whenever I meet somebody that’s powerful like you, I’m always curious to find out where you have come from, and how you got to be the way that you are. Maybe even the recipe for your secret sauce. You’re a Texas girl, I am too. You’re Dallas, I’m Austin.
I would love to hear a little bit about what you were like as a kid, and what growing up in that environment was like, and who was in your family, and what were you interested in. Was there any indicator at all that you would be doing the kind of work that you do now?
Melinda: Oh, thanks for that question, Jen.
Of course, no indicator that I would be doing the work I do now, but it is interesting as I look back that some of the building blocks were there. I love having this conversation because I think so often we put people who’ve become leaders, we put them on a pedestal and young girls or boys don’t understand that we were just living normal lives growing up, right?
Jen: That’s right.
Melinda: That you grow into these roles eventually, but it takes a lot of work, and people who come in your life.
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, raised by two parents, Ray and Elaine, I have three siblings, I was the second in the birth order, so older sister, me, two younger brothers. And my parents were very committed to us going to Catholic school. I went K–12, I went to an all girls high school that was Catholic, run by some very liberal Ursuline nuns, and I think in those high school years is where I really got to explore my faith more deeply.
Melinda: It was always there, but the Ursuline nuns really sent us out in the community to serve. They believed that one person would make the difference in the life of somebody else, so I served Dallas County Court House, the local hospital, the local elementary public school down the road. And the motto of the school was servium, that is, to serve. They also taught us girls to take time in silence.
Jen: Oh, wow.
Melinda: So there was a chapel in the middle of the school that wasn’t really a chapel. It was just a space, and you could always go in there. There was a candle lit, it was darker. And you could, anytime you needed to just drop in and have some quiet time, it was there for centering prayer.
Melinda: Even though we didn’t call it centering prayer back then. We went on silent retreats, and my mom, both of my parents were absolutely believed in their Catholicism and we went to mass every Sunday. But I would say my mom also really sowed those seeds of quiet and contentment—or I should say contemplative nature.
Melinda: She went on silent retreats, and we talked about our spirituality of life. That came from, a lot of it came from her. And we still to this day, my mom is not yet 80, but in our long phone conversations that we try to do once a week, we’re almost always talking about our spiritual life, in addition to all the other things going on in life.
Jen: You threaded that through the book beautifully, and its influence on you, where it both propelled you and other places where it pushed, where there was some tension. And I understand that, I originated in a faith space, that was where I came up as well. And so it is a challenge to both try to exhibit the best parts of our faith, what we think the thing is all about, this other people and elevation and equality and dignity. And then to discover that sometimes it rubs against portions of our faith that others hold dear.
I really admire your strength of conviction to move into those places, your courage, because that was hard. I can’t tell you how personally I took that part in your book. The whole entire page is highlighted.
I wonder if you could just talk for a minute about just what it was like maybe potentially to have to move into your convictions and then struggle with some of the traditions you grew up in.
Melinda: Yeah. I think “struggle” is the right word. I have absolutely beautiful things from my Catholic roots: a belief in serving, a belief in social justice.
However, as I would be out traveling the world, which I am so lucky to have done for the foundation the last 20 years, I just go in as a Western woman, a pair of khaki pants and a t-shirt, I go in anonymously. And what I have learned in deep connection with men and women and their children on the ground, and what I have seen just called me in places that I couldn’t turn away. Even things I wanted to turn away from, I could not.
Jen: Of course.
Melinda: It meant that over time, particularly I would say right around 2010-2011, I really had to struggle at home with my Catholic roots because when I would hear from both men and women the difference that contraceptives make in those women’s lives, so they don’t die in childbirth, so they can have just three or four children, if that’s their dream, and feed and then educate them.
And they have all seen mothers die in childbirth. They’ve seen babies die, and they want the same things we want for our children. And so I had to really struggle with contraceptives, because the Catholic church teaches against that, other than the natural rhythm method. Yet I had to struggle with the fact that I used them, and that age appropriately, I would counsel and teach my three children, son and two daughters, about them.
I realized I finally unexpectedly needed to speak out, because over 220 million women were asking us for contraceptives.
Jen: That’s right. And you did it. You rose to the challenge, and I appreciate the way that it was such education and data, and points of input from women and men in the world. Not just your opinion or your assessment of what the statistics are saying, but rather you brought stories to the table, which are just the most compelling of all the data ever.
If we could go back for another minute, I loved everything you said about what you learned about contemplation and silence in high school, that’s rare. I’ve got five kids and two are in college, two are in high school, one in middle, it’s ridiculous. But this is just not something they learn. This is not valued, it is not practiced, they don’t see that in mentorship. I really, really love that.
From there, you went on, obviously graduated from Duke, with degrees in computer science and business. I mean, you’re just no joke. Then you went to work for Microsoft.
I like thinking about you in those early years, because you led development on some really key products, in hindsight which are just monumental to the way that we live now. Microsoft Word, Expedia, pretty big deal, late ’80s, early ’90s.
I wonder if you could talk for just a minute about that time, what that was like for you as a woman in that space, where there were few at the time. Still not enough, but it’s definitely made improvements.
Melinda: Yeah. I absolutely loved that we were building new products. We were changing the world. I mean, Microsoft Word, there was nothing that had a Windows interface back then, or the Macintosh interface with those dropdown menus. We were creating the future: Expedia, Encarta, et cetera. So I loved that side of the company. I loved working with really talented, innovative thinkers.
However, I didn’t like the combative nature of the culture. It was abrasive. You had to keep your back up, know your points, know your data. And I could do that, I actually did it very successfully for two years. But what started to happen was I didn’t like myself very much.
When I would be out in the community, going to a grocery store on a weekend, or driving in traffic, or just the way I was in the world, I started to realize that the characteristics I was taking on at work, I was taking on in my entire life.
Melinda: That wasn’t the young girl who I was. I had to go back to who was I in high school, to be frank, and how do I want to live in the world? When I really explored that again in quiet time or on a walk, I started to realize, “No, no, no, I want to be more that self, that side of me that is really me. I want to be that collaborative person.”
I thought about leaving the company. In fact, I thought that is what I would do. But I thought, I’ll try first just being myself. I didn’t think that would work, but I went back to who I was and I started working in that way, and I ended up surprising myself and finding that I could actually create a culture around me, and attract these amazingly strong developers from other areas of the company to work on the products I was in charge of, because they also wanted to work in a more collaborative environment.
Jen: Right, it’s not a real mystery. And I love how you talked about yes, this has a lot of impact on women, but men too.
Melinda: I had so many collaborative men who wanted to work in that way, and some of the people I most admired in the company were running other areas of the company. This friend, John Nielson, who has since passed away, he was collaborative. There was not a single person that ever said something bad about John. And he was highly effective. The company kept moving him around because he was so good.
Yeah, men and women want to work in an environment where they can be their full selves.
Jen: Yes, I appreciate your example. It feels binary sometimes for women. It’s either this or it’s that. You have to succeed, play by the old rules, because they’ve been working, but they were only working because they hadn’t been challenged.
It’s so great to see a mentor just say, “I’m just going to try and experiment. What if I am my actual self?” And then to find that it was still just as effective, if not more, it’s encouraging I think for a lot of women who are listening to this show, who are in male-dominated industries, or they’re striking out early or later in life, and your example is a real encouragement that you can go in wholehearted.
Melinda: You can.
Jen: It doesn’t sacrifice productivity.
Melinda: No. And in fact, we have good research now that shows it actually makes more innovative products, it turns out better profits. So what I would say to women today is go find, in the company you work or the environment you are in, other men and women who want to work the way you do.
Jen: That’s good.
Melinda: And will help you be your wholehearted self, and you help them, and you will build the environment that you want.
Jen: That’s so great.
Melinda: And if you can’t, you may have to think about taking a different role or different job.
Back then, you meet Bill Gates at a company picnic, and your relationship starts with a bit of a rejection. I would love to know a little bit more about this, because he obviously must have picked up his game a little bit, because it’s worked out. We got married the same year, actually.
Melinda: Oh, interesting.
Jen: Yes, you were a grown, responsible adult. I was a literal child, but I love hearing about your early days with him.
Melinda: Yeah, so we had first met at a company dinner in New York. But then when he first went to ask me out several months later, back then at the culture of Microsoft, people worked late on Friday night, you worked until 3:00 or 4:00 on a Saturday, and I happened to be coming out of my building. The company was only about 1700 people by then, 1400–1700, right around in that range.
I was coming out of my building, he was coming out of his building, our cars were parked next to each other. He struck up a conversation and eventually he said to me, “Would you want to go out with me two weeks from Friday night?” This was a Saturday. And I said, I was a young girl, I was like, “Two weeks from Friday night? I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Melinda: I just teasingly said to him, “That’s not spontaneous enough for me.” So he asked for my phone number, I gave it to him. And then he called me at home at my little apartment about an hour later and said, “Well, is this spontaneous for you enough?”
Jen: Pretty good.
Melinda: “What about later tonight?” But then he proceeded to say he had a dinner he had to go to, and a user group meeting, and I’m like, “All right, I guess that’s spontaneous.” So we went out for a glass of wine that night.
Jen: Oh, I love that story.
Melinda: And yes, he’s upped his game since then. And we still have this little joke that runs between us, because he is very much, he’s calendered out for the next year.
Jen: I’m sure.
Melinda: And I also know my calendar now for the next year, but I need to leave a lot of spontaneity, and that’s just how couples are. You’ve got to balance each other’s personality needs.
Jen: So you do, you work that into your calendar? Just some downtime?
Melinda: Definitely. My kids joke about it, because they’ll be like, “Oh, Mom has “impromptu time” on her calendar. That’s kind of an oxymoron.” But they know that about me.
Jen: That’s such a good example.
Jen: I want to ask you one more question before we move into some of the content from the book. You guys got married and you had kids, and when they were little, and I did love, I love how you wrote about this, but you said, “I’m going to give up my position. I’m going to stay home and raise them. That’s what I’ve seen, that’s what I know, that’s the model that’s very culturally acceptable. I’m not sure if I know another way.”
Can you talk about what was going on in your head when you made that leap, and how that felt to you as you moved into that season of life. And if there was really honestly specifically anything you would go back and tell yourself now, your that self? What would you have told yourself based on what you know now?
Melinda: Yeah, so let me take the question backwards, which is what would I tell myself now looking back? I would tell myself, “You can be absolutely anything you want to be. You can be a stay-at-home mom, that’s a fabulous role. You can be a working woman, and work full time, and decide not to have kids. Or, you could be a working mom and a fabulous mom.”
Jen: That’s right.
Melinda: I somehow didn’t think that all those roles were available to me, and I somehow didn’t think I could be a great mom and work. And to be fair, to my younger self, and to Bill—well, first of all, I surprised him when I told him, when we got pregnant, I surprised him when I said, “I’m going to leave the workforce.”
He was shocked. He’s like, “Are you kidding?” Because he knew how much I enjoyed working.
Jen: Of course.
Melinda: And I have that side of my brain, I do still enjoy working.
But to be fair to us too, he was the CEO of Microsoft, so in a hard-charging industry, and I felt like somebody—we agreed on our family values, but if we were going to have those values, somebody needed to be home to raise the kids. I know back then I didn’t think I could go work as much as I do now and be a great mom for my kids.
I had to learn that over time. I was pretty tough on myself about that. And now what I know is that you can do both. It’s not easy, I’m never going to say it’s easy, and I was incredibly lucky. I mean, I’m incredibly privileged with these resources that come from Microsoft, and I could hire good long-term help for our household, and for helping me raise the kids, and us raise the kids. But it is still a constant juggle for any single woman, and it’s still even a juggle for me today.
Jen: Me too.
Melinda: I’m out promoting my book, and my daughter who’s a sophomore in high school is at home. And I’m gone for her now for 48 hours. But we did get the prom dress last weekend and had a fabulous time buying the prom dress.
Jen: So relatable. I also worked when my kids were little and now still.
And I really also appreciate you citing privilege in it, too, because people ask me a lot, too, “How do you do it? How do you juggle it all?” I also have great people around me to help, and so I would never want anybody to imagine, “No, I just do it all well.” Or by myself, even, that this is just something I can manage because of my capacity.
It’s just hard, and I think that’s okay to know. That actually comforts me to just accept that. This is just hard, and some seasons are harder than others. And as a career woman, sometimes I felt like my job was really winning. Sometimes I thought my family was really winning. And sometimes nobody was.
Jen: That’s okay, too. There’s a lot of grace in it. How old’s your oldest?
Melinda: My oldest is now, she’s 23. And our son is about to turn 20 this month. And then we have a daughter who is 16.
Jen: That’s right. We’re just both a click behind you and also the same. It is interesting to watch them launch, like, “Oh, they’re okay. They’re okay.” I think this pressure we put on ourselves in our generation to be so perfect in parenting, and to just control the outcomes, and micromanage all the systems.
Jen: They end up really, I always say, I think kids catch, they’re caught more than they’re taught. They’ve caught the spirit of the family and what we care about, and what it means to serve the world.
Melinda: Definitely. And I was just with my son actually, in Chicago, the previous weekend. And he was saying, “You know mom, I’m realizing, I’m watching” and he’s a freshman, he said, “I’m watching some of the other freshman who are talking to their parents like at least once a day, if not more.” And he says, “I love you all, but I don’t need to talk once a day.” He said, “I’m realizing because you and Dad worked, I’m actually more independent.”
Jen: My kids say the same thing.
Melinda: And it’s really interesting. I think the other thing is good research shows us now that working moms today actually spend more quality time with their kids than women did back in the 1960s when they were stay-at-home moms.
Jen: That’s interesting.
Melinda: Those women, they were in the home, but they were also doing all these chores, right?
We now as Americans put huge value on quality time with our kids, and we just have to carve it out, and we are actually doing it as women. I took a walk, I went on the swings with my 16-year-old daughter this weekend, and guess what? We got a little cuddle time to the extent a 16-year-old will let you do that, or we take a walk, or we go for a meal, right?
We have to stop judging ourselves based on how the past was, and really say all of those things are okay.
Jen: That’s great. And there’s such value in our kids watching us do what we are made to do, and do it with integrity and with zeal and zest. That also is an incredible example to set for kids that they pick up.
I want to go back to your book. The Moment of Lift is really, really profound, and it basically chronicles a lot of the wonderful work you have done in the world. I mean, truly extraordinary.
Melinda: Thank you.
Jen: I mean, extraordinary. It’s really unequaled, your reach, and through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, of course.
You mentioned that you got the idea for the foundation after a trip. Can you talk just a little bit about that, the early origins? I mean, back when, of course now it’s world famous, we all know what your foundation is and does, but then it was just like a seed.
Melinda: Yeah, so back in 1993, Bill and I had been dating almost five years, and we got engaged, and we’d already previously had a trip planned to Africa. We went for a safari, we took some other couples.
But on that trip, at the end we had time alone for a beach walk. It was because of what we saw in Africa, the people touched us, but we could see things that weren’t working. Why could we be in a Jeep driving down the roads, or being driven down the roads, and yet the roads only went so far and you’d see women walking on the side of the ride, often barefoot, with something on their heads that they were taking to market, and children?
We just kept thinking, “Gosh, what could a philanthropy do, and how might you intervene to help start the infrastructure here?” Like the US, who transitioned from low to middle to high income, what could be done so that people could then lift themselves up?
Jen: That’s right. To that end, in your book, you talk about a very iconic, quotable phrase in which you say, “When you lift up a women, she lifts up everyone else.” You actually wrote in your first chapter—you can see that I liked this page.
Melinda: Oh, I love that.
Jen: “As women gain rights, families flourish and so does societies. That connection is built on a simple truth. When you include a group that’s been excluded, you benefit everyone. This was our huge missed idea, my huge missed idea, that if you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.”
Our youngest two kids are adopted, they’re Ethiopian.
Jen: And we adopted them when they were five and eight, so they were older in the system. And we expected when we moved into international adoption very, very green, we expected that when you are thinking about orphans that they don’t have any parents, none, that they’re alone in the world and they don’t have an extended family and so there’s no safety net.
What we discovered, of course, is that most of the world’s orphans have at least one living parent, as did both of our kids. They’re not biologically related, they have one living parent each, and this haunted me and haunted me and haunted me. The kids had probably been home three years, maybe two, and I told my husband, “We’ve got to go back and find their parents. It’s not okay that I get to raise children just because I can afford to. I don’t like that system.”
We found our son’s parents, our son’s mother, and we work in community development internationally too, that’s our work, and what we have learned about lifting up a woman, it is unbelievable the way that that doesn’t just change her life and her family’s life, but her community, her extended family, the city. It’s unbelievable.
I wonder if you can talk for just a minute about, it’s really the basis of your whole book, but about lifting up a woman and what that means.
Look, even if everybody listening has a dead heart, and they don’t care about her life, just the metrics of it. The effectiveness of it. This is how communities flourish. It’s how they’re lifted out of extreme poverty.
Jen: Can you talk about that a little bit?
Melinda: Yeah. At first, when we were working on global health in developing world, I thought focusing on the women’s piece were the “soft” issues. Like, “I’m not going to go there, just because I’m a woman, I’m going to work on those issues.”
No. In fact, that was just a complete fallacy. And it took me a while to see it, to understand that you lift up a woman, she invests. The way she invests in her kids is different than the way her husband invests in the kids.
When you talk about the children’s health, the women will tell you, or feeding the children, the women will say, “That is my job.” They have to figure out how to eke out the means to feed their children, and yet, they’re going to great lengths because they also know if they feed their children healthy food, as healthy as they can in a mixed diet, their kids are going to be better off.
Jen: That’s right.
Melinda: Today, when I go to the UN, which I do pretty much every year now, why are presidents and prime ministers finally showing up and willing to talk about girls and women? Because what they’re understanding is that if you invest in a girl, and you make sure she’s well fed, and she gets a good education—
Jen: That’s right.
Melinda: . . . you literally change their economy. You change the community, you change the city, and you change the country. So this is what I call in the book, my big, and Bill’s big missed idea, initially. And now I understand it both at . . . Like, I understand it viscerally, from all the women I’ve talked to around the world in so many different countries and communities, and I understand it at the highest levels of power when I walk in the doors of the UN, that presidents and prime ministers finally get it in a way they didn’t before, which I can totally tell you, 10 years ago, they didn’t get it. We never would go into the UN and talk about girls and women before.
Jen: This is so exciting.
Melinda: It’s so important. It is what will change the world.
Jen: Yes, it will. I believe you, and I believe in this, and I’m grateful that you walked into those rooms with data.
Melinda: We have to.
Jen: Of course you do, or they’re not going to listen to you. It’s not compelling. Girls and women have never been compelling, ever, in history.
Melinda: And yet we don’t collect data. I thought data was objective, I’m a computer scientist, I have this logical brain.
Data is sexist. We haven’t collected much data about women, and what we invest in, we have to have data to decide to make those investments as a world. And because we weren’t collecting the data as a world, we weren’t actually making investments in women. And data still can be biased, so we now have to collect the data to make the case that we make these investments as a world. Honestly, it takes women to make sure that happens and to do it.
Jen: Right. It’s this vicious cycle. When men are always in charge, and it’s their interests they’re going to protect, and even understand. And so putting more women to empower in authority, this feels like the key that’s going to turn the lock. It’s exciting.
Melinda: And to be fair to men, sometimes as you said, they just didn’t see it, or they just don’t have a woman’s experience in life. Or, they would collect the data and they thought they were doing the right things, but they were inadvertently biasing the data.
A perfect example is some of the longest standing household surveys, the surveyors would go in in these communities in Africa, and they would say to the man and the woman sitting there in the family, “Who has income?”
The man’s the head of the household, so as soon as he answers, the surveyor, we didn’t have the survey written right, didn’t know to ask the woman, “Do you have income?” Women actually have income, not a lot, but a bit in the developing world. And the way she spends it on her family is different than her husband.
Jen: That’s right.
Melinda: The reason that is so important is the cellphone now gives us a new tool. They’re at scale—in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania—if women get these banking services on their phone, and we do programming specifically for women, they can save a dollar a day, $2 a day in their village. Women will tell you that that money shifts the power dynamic in their home, with their husband, their mother-in-law, their oldest son. And she will tell you, she then has money if there’s a health shock like malaria that one of her kids get, or it’s time for the school fees, she has money. We have to have data.
Jen: My husband and I are a part of a women’s empowerment program in Ethiopia. It’s expanding right now into other countries, and it’s based on all of this, this assessment.
Back to my son’s mom, his mother who was single, abused, divorced, young, a story that we understand. Disempowered in every way, which is why my son was in an orphanage. Not because he wasn’t loved—he was obviously loved and wanted‚—it was just poverty made him an orphan.
So when we found her, and realized how incredibly resourceful, bright, motivated, special she was—just like women are everywhere, women are women everywhere—she completed this family empowerment program with a year of business training and venture capitalist money, and just getting them off the ground.
Within six months, she opens up her tea and coffee shop. She remarries in a healthy way, her self-esteem and dignity were so reversed. Buys a house. She employs two girls who were off the streets. I mean, absolutely unbelievable.
And then what we’re finding, which you are too, you mentioned this, is that once you empower women, they find each other, especially in a program. Like, we’ve got a whole program, and then the women just run with it.
Melinda: And they empower everybody else.
Jen: They loan each other money, they pay off each other’s loans, they develop these co-ops. I mean, before we know it, we’re like, “Our work here is done.”
Jen: “You guys have it.”
Melinda: And they own it.
Jen: Yes, they own it, and then they build it.
Jen: And they expand it. I mean, I learned from Nick Christoff, if you want to change the world, empower the women.
Jen: Which is exactly what your book explains.
Melinda: Because they’re collaborative and they have all these amazing ideas, and they just start to build. You just have to get them started, they need a little bit of education along the way.
Jen: That’s it.
Melinda: Or a little bit of capital, and then they lift everybody up. That’s what it’s about, that’s what it is about. They don’t want a handout. They want to build this thing themselves, just like we would want to.
Jen: Of course. And we have that impetus.
Jen: Somebody invested in us. It’s no different. It’s very exciting to watch the ROI when you empower women and how much they begin to change their culture.
Melinda: I bet.
Jen: I really, of course, from my perspective of leadership, I keyed into something that you talked about. You said in your book, “Overcoming the need to create outsiders is our greatest challenge as human beings.”
Thank you for saying that, thank you for addressing that over and over in your book. This is where I have had tension inside my faith community, in that my conviction has compelled me to absolutely extend full dignity and welcome to communities that have been unwelcomed, that have been disparaged. Specifically in my world, the LGBTQ community. And so I believe this what you’re saying, I believe your message.
Can you talk for a minute about in this “us versus them” world that we live in, now more than ever, gosh, why do you think it’s so important for us to remember that we belong to one another? That’s good for everyone. That’s not just good for people who are on the outside, that’s good for everybody and the whole system of humanity. How would you advise us to move forward as we want to connect with others who are in a different place than us, or different from us, or their life experiences are different than us?
Melinda: I would say to people that the ultimate goal is connection and love. I think sometimes we forget how like each other we are. We are so much more alike than we are different. Sometimes when you see something you don’t understand or you don’t know, you want to push it away and you want to say, “Ugh, that could never be me. I could never be that homeless person on the street” or that person who comes from Malawi and is farming, “I think of farmers as maybe men, but she’s a woman.”
Part of it is that we have grown up with certain rules around us in society and we believe those rules without questioning them. I think religion often gives us these beautiful things—as I said, I got the tenets of social justice from my Catholic religion. But sometimes we follow the rules so precisely that we don’t stop to say, “Wait a minute. Are these rules that are coming from history, are all of them serving us well?”
Jen: That’s right.
Melinda: And so we need to look at that. We update and change as a society.
Jen: Yes, we do.
Melinda: I mean, if you think back in society where we were on slavery in the world.
Jen: Of course.
Melinda: And where we are now, and yet some religions, including my own, believed in slavery. Now it does not, but our religious institutions are often the latest to change. If you go through the history of society, that’s true, society after society. I think it’s up to us as individuals to say, “Our religions are only as good as we are, and they sometimes need some updating.” It’s our job to really say, “Is this serving every single person well, not just me?”
Jen: Oh, it’s so good. That is my life mantra.
I also want to thank you for your posture of being such a humble learner in international development work. I’m grateful for that, there’s obviously a Western instinct to just helicopter in.
Melinda: Oh, my gosh, yes.
Jen: With our thoughts and our opinions, and our big ideas.
Melinda: Which is not the right way to do it.
Jen: Oh, it’s terrible. It’s disastrous, and you demonstrate the complete opposite, over and over. And I loved watching your progress.
We’re a little bit behind you, we’ve been working in the world for about 12 years, so we’re a step behind you, but our arc was similar to yours. I always call it “pulling the thread,” which we think we’re starting with one idea, like we think this is the thing. This is the bedrock idea, and we pull the thread and things start unraveling.
Because I mean to the arc of your book, for example, you start with maternal and newborn health, right? “That’s the thing, that’s where we’re going to go.”
Jen: “That’s our space.” But then that moves into family planning, obviously. That’s the next step, that’s what the women we told you. “We want to talk about this.” And then you move into, “Wait, but what if these healthy born girls now can’t go to school?”
Then, it just keeps going. Child marriage, women in agriculture—which I loved, we work in agriculture too—women in the workplace. Just the thread, the thread comes, and I appreciate your pivot constantly, to go, “Oh, I now have a little bit of a wider view and so we’re going to have to adjust.”
What is it in you that just knew early on, “I am a learner, I am listener, I will be in proximity to people?” Your instincts were all right and good. I found them to be opposite of a lot of our intervention efforts from the West. How did you just know instinctively to do this well and right?
Melinda: I think, again, it’s listening to that inner voice that you have. I think even as a young girl, what I learned in the Dallas community, what I learned being in the Dallas County Court House and the hospital and the education system, it changed my views versus what I was reading in the newspapers about some of the people in those systems.
Again, I have been very lucky. I have a husband who’s incredibly curious. He’s always said to me, “You can learn anything, anybody can learn anything.” And he’s kept that curiosity in me open, but then I think the piece that I have from my mother is that I learned young how important it was to listen, and to listen deeply to others, and that in that listening is where you share and find the connections.
It literally has been this 20 years of travel, of being on the ground, with women, on a simple mat in their communities, talking and connecting about their lives, where I’m sharing my life a bit, they’re sharing theirs.
But in listening I learn and then I bring that back to the foundation, and to a husband luckily, who is curious. Now, he’s very data minded, so I have to know my data and my facts, but we’ve tried to create a learning organization in the foundation who’s learning with us.
And believe me, we have not gotten it all right at all. But President Carter, former President Carter said something to me very early, he came to the foundation and I met with him. He’d already been working in global health for a long time, and I said, “President Carter, what do you know now that we should know upfront so we don’t have to relearn it?”
He smiled and chuckled, and he said, “Melinda, when you go into these communities, you will bring knowledge and you will bring tools from the West.” But he said, “If you don’t listen to the community and get their buy-in and make sure the project is theirs,” he said, “You’ll get some work done while you’re there, but they’ll never own it and keep it long after you’re gone.” He said, “So make sure the work is theirs.”
Melinda: I thought, “Wow, that is true.”
Jen: I believe so much in the power of local leadership. We come alongside of them, we do not usurp them in any possible way.
Melinda: No, we’re peers.
Jen: Oh, we’re peers. I’ve learned more from my international friends in leadership than a lifetime of school.
One last question. Every year I heard that you select a word of the year. A lot of my friends do that as well, and this year your word is “shine,” which is really lovely. What does that mean to you, and why did you pick this? What does it mean for you this year, specifically?
Melinda: Yeah, so my word comes to me usually in quiet. And again, this word came in November, coming into this year, and I was at first like, “Hmm, I don’t know if that’s the right word.” Then it clearly was.
And what I’ve learned that it means to me is that I believe all of us have a light inside of us. All of us. If we let that light shine and be fully who we’re meant to be in the world and we express ourselves, we’re able to express ourselves fully in the world, our voice and our beliefs, we help others turn on their lights. When those lights all turn on, the world is blazed, and it just changes.
Jen: It just sincerely is. That’s so true.
Melinda: And everybody shines, and the world gets better.
Jen: That’s it. The world gets better.
Melinda: The world gets better.
Jen: Everyone benefits.
Jen: Our cultures flourish and they become vibrant again. And I believe in this work. I believe in the way that you’re doing it. It’s really exciting to hear you talk about it.
Melinda: Thanks, Jen.
Jen: And the progress you’re making right now, and you have this incredible power. Your influence is so important in the world, and I just cannot believe how well you are stewarding it. I’m just really proud of you. I don’t know if that’s a normal thing to say.
Melinda: Oh, that’s sweet.
Jen: But really, really just proud of the way that you are using your voice and your power and your influence. It’s just, it matters to so many millions of people, I can hardly get my head around it.
Jen: Very, very quickly, these are just right off the top of your head, questions we’re asking everybody in our Powerhouse Women series. Just real quick, what’s something that a woman you admire has taught you, that you’ve just never forgotten?
Melinda: To listen.
Jen: Perfect. How about this? Greatest hope for the generation of women coming behind us?
Melinda: That you can have your full voice and your full decision making authority in your home, your workplace, and your community.
Jen: I love it. Agency. You have it, it’s yours. You don’t have to earn it.
Jen: Last one is this. We ask actually every guest, every series this question, and it’s from one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor. And this can be important and meaningful, it can be silly and ridiculous, just wherever you want. What’s saving your life right now?
Melinda: Having a garden at home, and being able to walk in my garden and just see a beautiful flower saves my life.
Jen: I love to garden, too. That is the best answer.
Thank you for your time. Thank you for being here. I am so grateful for you, and I consider you a mentor. And it’s just a real honor to meet you, and you’ve got two more events on your book tour. You’re going to do a John Legend, he’s terrible. That’s going to be awful. Good luck getting through that. You’ve got your foot on the gas right now and I don’t take your time lightly, so thank you for being here.
Melinda: I so appreciate this conversation. I’ve learned from you about some of the things that you do in Ethiopia, and how you think about your family. It’s my great privilege, so thank you.
Jen: Okay, so there she is, Melinda Gates, you guys.
I really, really cannot recommend her book enough. It’s so incredibly important, and it’s like a manual for how to be a good sister to our sisters around the world, and what sincere and true progress looks like, the metrics outstanding.
So The Moment of Lift, you are positively going to want to read this. I am so grateful to her for her time in the middle of such a busy season, and that she would honor the podcast with that interview. I hope you loved it.
I’m going to have all of this linked over at jenhatmaker.com, you guys. Under the podcast tab, Amanda, every single week builds out an amazing resource for you. We’ll have all of the links to Melinda’s socials, and her book of course, and all the other bonus stuff we talked about. It’ll all be in one place for you, plus of course, the written transcription, because sometimes you just need to read an interview, or, if you want to cut and paste your favorite parts.
As always, thank you for sharing our podcast. If you liked this one, send it around on your social pages, share it, send the link to people who you know would be interested in hearing it. We love when you do that, you guys.
Thank you so much for being outstanding, outstanding listeners and subscribers to this podcast. We love you so much, and we love serving you.
See you next week, you guys, more on this amazing, amazing series for powerful women.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!