The Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year 2020: Melinda Gates

In the fall of 1980, a young teacher at Ursuline Academy named Susan Bauer attended a math instruction conference in Austin to pick up some new ideas to bring home to Dallas to improve her classes.

It was the sort of thing she did regularly, Bauer being the kind of teacher who wanted to learn exciting, new things to get her students excited too. During this particular conference, one session especially piqued her interest. It focused on the personal computer and how it could be used to enhance math education. Specifically, she learned about the Apple II+ — a beige and brown typewriter looking thing with a glowing green monitor and boxy disk-drive set on top.

We should pause on this moment, this image of a teacher, a working mother, at an all-girls Catholic school in Dallas taking notes about how to teach computer classes in a school that didn’t have computers at all.

If we were to trace back a chain of human goodness that has led to millions of lives saved from preventable disease, to untold numbers of women and children around the world being given opportunities to pull themselves out of poverty and oppression, to broader understanding of how best to educate thousands of children along our southern border, we would find a crucial link here, in Susan Bauer’s curiosity and devotion to her students.

Since its establishment in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided more than $54 billion in grants to help protect people from infectious disease, to build gender equality, to improve farm yields, to train teachers, to create effective curricula, to, well, the list becomes too long to list.

It is widely understood to be the largest private philanthropic undertaking in history, led by a husband and wife who, from a place of all but unimaginable wealth, have made it their life mission to spend their fortune to leave behind a better world.

Last year, with Melinda Gates’ immediate personal approval, the foundation shifted its focus and poured $1.75 billion and many of its human resources into the fight against COVID-19.

Melinda Gates’ co-leadership of the Gates foundation began with its founding. She has since made it a fundamental part of the mission to lift up women and girls who face inequality and oppression. She has championed, at considerable personal cost, the cause of helping women in poverty plan their families through the availability of contraceptives that work best for women and that can help lower childhood mortality and reduce poverty. She has helped establish financing for women-owned businesses in areas where women get few opportunities. She has worked to raise awareness about the unfair balance of unpaid work that women do in every part of the world.

The exact number of people helped now is too many to count, the scope too vast. To look at a map of the world where the Gates foundation has provided assistance is to essentially look at a map of the world. It’s hard, if not impossible, to put a figure on the number of lives saved. A common figure on the internet is 122 million. What the exact number might be is anyone’s guess, even as the foundation exhaustively tracks its efficacy in helping more people around the world lead healthy, productive lives.

We can look at a few examples.

  • In 2018, polio was confined to the smallest area in history. Today, Africa is free of the virus, and wild polio exists only in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Two years ago, more than 1 billion people were treated for neglected tropical disease.
  • Some 100 million mobile money accounts were set up in Africa, making it easier for families, and especially women and mothers, to manage their finances. Now, 43% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa have some form of banking, up from 34% in 2014.

In a world that so often seems in such deep turmoil — when pessimism, anger and division are so common — a great hope emerges from reading Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letters about their work. To peruse their foundation’s annual reports is to find reason for optimism, for the possibility that ours is a progressively better world — yes, one with great challenges, but also one where human beings can and do make a difference for the good of one another.

For the vast life-changing and world-changing philanthropy she has funded, championed and overseen in partnership with her husband, Melinda Gates is our 2020 Texan of the Year.

A child of Texas

We might look back in time, to that conference where Susan Bauer’s curiosity seized on a computer and trace a beginning.

After she returned to Dallas, Bauer persuaded Ursuline’s administration to purchase five Apple II+s and a thermal printer so she could start a computer class in the school. There was no one to teach the class, so Bauer enrolled in night school at the University of North Texas to learn the machines and their capabilities, even studying BASIC computer language so she could train her students to code.

Her first class had 15 girls in it. Among them was Melinda French.

“She was an extremely gifted student,” Bauer recalled. “Sometimes you have gifted students who are just after the grades, but she truly loved the subject.”

Gates’ own memories of her childhood revolve around the tightly knit Catholic parishes of northwest Dallas, where generations of families send their children to the same schools, attend peewee football games at the same fields and swim at the same neighborhood pools.

“We had amazing neighbors who helped take care of us and vice versa, if my mom was having trouble with pregnancy or somebody needed to be driven to school,” someone was there to help from the community, she said.

Her father, Raymond, was an aerospace engineer at LTV, where he worked on the Apollo space program. Her mother, Elaine, stayed home to raise four children, two boys and two girls. Together, Raymond and Elaine French also ran a small real estate business to earn the extra money to send their children to private schools and college. When her father bought an Apple III, Melinda used it to help keep the books.

Faith was central to family life, and the Frenches were and remain devout Catholics. Gates’ parents had their first date after two Dominican nuns set them up.

“Well, he can’t be too bad if nuns are suggesting I date him,” Gates, now 56, recalled her mother thinking in her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

When the couple settled in Dallas, the Frenches raised their children with a focus on their faith and especially its tradition of service and education. Ursuline, an order set up for the purpose of educating girls and where the Latin motto is “Serviam,” was all but inevitable for young Melinda.

Her experience at the school was rich, she said, not only in terms of education but also in teaching her the value of quiet reflection and of reaching beyond herself.

“The nuns at Ursuline really instilled in us this value that one person could make a difference in the life of someone else and we ought to give something back. If we were lucky enough to go to school at Ursuline, we were lucky enough to give something back,” she said.

She volunteered at various places around the city and spent time tutoring children at Walnut Hill Elementary School, just across the street from her own parish and primary school, St. Monica.

She was bitten by the computer science bug. It wasn’t just Bauer’s influence but that of her father, who made certain that female scientists and mathematicians were on his teams at LTV. Things seemed to work better, problems seemed to get solved, he decided, when women were involved. His daughter took notice. At company picnics, she would meet these women. Their careers would be markers for hers.

Gates was serious about school and competitive with herself when it came to grades. Her close friend from high school, Mary Lehman, remembered how they would stay up studying, challenging one another.

“In going to that girl’s school, we absolutely believed that we were as smart as the boys, and that we could do anything that the boys over at Jesuit could do. We never felt intimidated,” Lehman said.

When Gates graduated in 1982, as valedictorian, her intention was to attend the University of Notre Dame. But in a story that must send that school’s boosters into fits each time it’s told, the school had canceled its computer science program.

“They thought it was a fad,” Gates said.

So she headed to Duke University instead, her parents packing her off with a new Olympus “portable” typewriter that weighed just 12 pounds. She would soon be about the work of making it irrelevant.

Duke was a dream. From Bauer’s little lab, she came to a university with a bank of new IBMs and a grant from the corporation to boost its computer science program. She was a computer lab rat, coding constantly, and annoyed at the students who would take up lab time just so they could write their papers.

“We just thought it was a waste of computer time,” she said. “It was like, I can’t code!”

The work was difficult. Much of it was self-taught, in Pascal, not BASIC. Still, she excelled, and took a bachelor’s in the field, adding an MBA in her fifth year.

Microsoft

When she left Duke in 1987, opportunities were plentiful. She could have gone to IBM, but instead followed the surprising advice of a woman recruiting at that company to pursue an offer from the small Seattle software firm Microsoft.

Her mother found out first. Microsoft’s recruiter called the French home, and Elaine French answered. “Oh, please can’t you tell me if you’re going to give Melinda a job offer,” she asked. The recruiter spilled the news, and Melinda French was on her way to Seattle.

It was a man’s world. She was the only woman in the company’s first cohort of MBAs. And she was the youngest. It was a place of relentless work and sharp elbows, none sharper than the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Bill Gates, a brilliant coder and visionary of computer science who was also a notoriously demanding boss, the kind of person who memorized the license plates of employees to know who was working and who was not.

“Every meeting, no matter how casual, was a dress rehearsal for strategy review with Bill,” Gates wrote in her book. “If you didn’t argue strenuously, then either you didn’t know your numbers or you weren’t smart or you weren’t passionate. You had to prove you were strong, and this is how you did it. We didn’t thank each other. We didn’t compliment each other.”

She first met Bill at a trade show dinner. She had come in late from a meeting. There were just two chairs left at the table. He came in after her. They talked. He was full of energy and interesting, she thought. As dinner wound down, he asked her to join him and a group from Microsoft who were going dancing. She had other plans and passed.

A few months later, they happened to park near each other in the Microsoft lot. As they were leaving for the day, they stopped and talked.

“Bill said to me, ‘Would you go out with me two weeks from Friday night,’” she recalled in the documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain. “I was like, two weeks from Friday night, that’s not spontaneous enough for me. Call me like two days before or something. He called me at my apartment about an hour later and said, ‘Is this spontaneous enough.’”

Their first date lasted hours. They talked and talked. In a short time, they learned a lot about each other. They shared a love of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She bested him at math a couple of times. It was a connection Bill Gates never expected.

It’s true that he wrote out on a white board the pros and cons of getting married. Whatever was listed there, one thing overcame it all — he wanted to marry her.

It was the beginning of a partnership of giving that would change the way major philanthropy is done in this world.

“Our conversations about giving back started not long after Bill and I got engaged,” she said. “Even before we were married, we’d agreed we wanted to use the wealth from Microsoft to improve as many lives as possible. Giving back was always a question of how, not if.”

Marrying Bill Gates came with its challenges. Life with the head of one of the world’s most powerful and fastest growing companies wasn’t always easy. But Melinda Gates also describes him as someone willing to make room for an equal partner in marriage and, over time, an equal partner in their work in the foundation. It wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t always smooth. Still, master of the universe though he was, he would drive the kids to school, do the dishes and share in the responsibilities of the home, even as she increasingly shared the responsibility of leading their foundation.

Today, separating the work of one from the other is hard to do.

“They have a strong mutual respect for each other and for the gifts that they each bring to the table to do this work,” Lehman said. “Above it all, just in knowing Melinda and Bill over the years, they are great communicators with each other. They talk and talk and talk.”

In 1993, they took a trip to East Africa, where they saw, for the first time, extreme poverty and its effect. They came away with greater clarity about their future work.

In 1996, Melinda Gates left Microsoft to work full time for what became their shared foundation.

Around that time, an awakening came for them both over a Nicholas D. Kristof column in The New York Times about the massive amount of death in the world from the sort of preventable diseases we hardly consider in the wealthiest parts of the world.

They had already committed to return their fortune to society. But this changed their focus and led to the start of the foundation.

“I remember saying to Bill, ‘This is unbelievable; people are still dying of diarrhea, how could that be?’” she said in the documentary. “Because by then we had a young daughter. I knew that if this child that I’m holding had diarrhea, I’d go to the pharmacy, I’d go to the doctor. If I was a mom in the developing world, this child might not make it. And you can feel I think as a parent that capacity of how tragic that would be, and how needless, and how senseless, just because the world won’t focus on it.”

The foundation’s two decades of work against infectious disease, its partnership with Gavi, a vaccine alliance, and its investment in the science behind vaccine development are all paying enormous dividends now. Absent this work, with billions in their private fortune invested, the world may not have the COVID-19 vaccines it does now, and distributing it throughout the world would be harder and take more time.

Together, the two have done nothing less than transform philanthropy, said Lyda Hill, the Dallas businesswoman and philanthropist who was the first woman to sign alone the Giving Pledge.

The pledge, created by Bill and Melinda Gates with their friend Warren Buffett, is a commitment by some of the wealthiest people in the world to give the majority of their wealth back to society. There were 40 signatories in 2010. Today there are more than 200. That includes about a dozen from Texas, Hill said.

Hill and her family have been involved in major philanthropy for decades and long before Microsoft was even an entity.

The work of Bill and Melinda Gates has not only expanded philanthropy, it has made it far more effective, Hill said.

Hill had already made the decision to leave her fortune as gifts for the advancement of science, nature and other important causes. But signing the Giving Pledge made her philanthropy more powerful because she works in concert with other people of great wealth and similar focus, she said.

“We don’t give together, but we are talking to each other and that’s a whole new thing for philanthropy. Melinda’s idea that hey, we need to all talk to each other, makes perfect sense,” Hill said.

Lifting women

Melinda Gates’ own awakening about her specific mission developed later. As she traveled the world talking to people about infectious disease, she engaged in conversations with women, many of them desperately poor, many of them in oppressive marriages, in oppressive cultures, with more children than they could feed much less help elevate out of poverty.

The stories of these women come one after the other in Gates’ book, The Moment of Lift. Some of the stories are almost too painful to read, much less witness, whether of African girls enduring brutal cliterodectomies or women beaten by their husbands for asking them to wear a condom or Indian sex workers who took on a terrible life in hopes of feeding and educating their children.

“At some point, it just hit me. I couldn’t turn away from the fact that we don’t invest in women and girls,” she said.

A mother of three, Gates saw how women suffer from the unnecessary deaths of their children. She would see a pregnant woman with a child on her arm, children clinging to her legs, on her way to get water or food for the family. Infant, childhood and maternal mortality occupy her mind.

At United Nations conferences or in meetings with local leaders in the developing world or in so many of the places she went to do the foundation’s work, women were often not the subject, she said. Very often, they weren’t even in the room.

Yet, wherever she went, women were also doing so much of the work, getting the water, harvesting the fields, cooking the meals.

“Not only is the woman the center of the family, she’s responsible for feeding the kids, deciding when there’s only a little bit of food who eats first, second, third and fourth in the family,” Gates said.

When Gates would speak to these women about vaccines and health, they would tell her that what they really needed was contraception and the ability to control their use of that contraception.

For Gates, this was a hard and public pivot point with the faith she loves and practices. In 2012, she gave a speech at the London Family Planning Summit that changed the course of her work.

“Helping women gain access to contraceptives saves lives,” she said then. “It improves the health of mothers and children. It increases children’s school attendance. It leads to more prosperous families. At the national level, it has even been linked to GDP growth.”

The decision fractured her relationship with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and her standing with conservative Catholics around the world.

“She knew she was opening herself up for that criticism,” Lehman said. “She decided she was going to do it because she felt called to be the voice of the women she had gone out and visited in Africa and India and Indonesia.”

Gates is careful to separate the issue of contraception from abortion, and she describes the question of abortion as one she struggles with. But linking it to contraception is a mistake, she said.

“[T]rying to make the contraceptive debate about abortion is a very effective way of sabotaging the conversation,” she wrote.

In the U.S., her company Pivotal Ventures generates investment capital for social progress, including women-owned businesses.

Empowering women changes the social dynamic, Gates believes. It’s so often women, more than men, who will save, who will invest, who will scrounge, who will seek every opportunity to change their children’s lives. That sort of investment pays in generations.

As with the world, a map of places the foundation has had an impact in the U.S. lights up every state, every region and city after city.

In Texas, the foundation has been generous, with a special focus on education — which is the foundation’s primary focus in this country. That includes more than $35 million for the creation of new and redesigned small schools on the border and large inner-city areas in the state. It includes $7 million for a project assessing the effectiveness of educational programs in Texas, and $6.3 million for leadership development for principals and superintendents in the state. Millions more have poured in for research projects at the state’s universities.

Pivotal Ventures has supported efforts to increase the number of women in political office, with programs in Dallas County and North Texas. It also supports IGNITE, an organization that develops curriculum to train girls and women in how government works.

An enduring optimism

In the real world, the benefits of all of this work couldn’t be more evident. It is measured in lives saved, lives changed, opportunities created, diseases weakened, poverty reduced, wealth built.

In the upside-down world of social media, where any truth can be twisted into a lie, Bill and Melinda Gates are morphed into villains. It would be laughable if it weren’t part of a pernicious phenomenon that actually threatens to weaken, if not undo, their work. Lies and fake science about vaccines are nothing new. But the scale that social media spreads these lies may well impact how effectively vaccines are delivered, particularly the COVID-19 vaccine. The Gates name is often at the center of these lies, conspiracy theories and nonsense.

It can be exhausting, even from the outside looking in. Gates tries to manage it, her friend Mary Lehman said.

“She kind of just shrugs and says it’s not true,” Lehman said. “They’re trying to use their voice to tell the truth. At the end of the day, you can only do so much, and we’re, as a society, learning how to deal with a lot of incorrect information being put out there because of social media.”

Gates relies on her faith, the spiritual sense that arises from the kind of quiet reflection she learned at Ursuline.

It’s hard on her friend to watch.

“I think that sometimes, as people kind of look and see various people in our society who have great wealth, they put them up on a mountain and feel they are not touchable and they live a different life,” Lehman said. “I’d like to bring Melinda down from that mountain. This is a real person who is just a lovely person. She’s thoughtful. She has a huge heart. She’s incredibly smart. She’s generous, so generous with her time. It’s not money. Of course she is generous with money. But she’s generous with her time.”

The thing that propels the work the Gateses do is optimism, an abiding belief that tomorrow can be better than today for humanity and for the Earth.

The foundation’s underlying philosophy is that every human life has equal value. But for Melinda Gates, it drives deeper than that.

“The supreme goal for humanity is not equality but connection,” she wrote in the epilogue to her book. “When people are connected, they feel woven to each other. You are part of me and I am part of you. I can’t be happy if you’re sad. I can’t win if you lose. If either of us suffers, we suffer together. This blurs the borders between human beings, and what flows through those porous borders is love.”

“Love is what makes us one.”

Editor’s note: Each year, Texans here and around the world do extraordinary things that deserve us taking a moment to pay notice. Some of them achieve brilliance in their fields. Some advance causes of humanity. Some make the greatest possible sacrifice.

Our Editorial Board looks for these Texans wherever we can find them, to tell their stories of positive contribution to our state, our country and our world. As we enter the holiday season, we look forward to introducing you to our Texan of the Year finalists, leading up to our selection of 2020′s Texan of the Year. Some names will be familiar; some will be new. All of them deserve to be known for what they’ve given us.

For information about past Texans of the Year, please follow this link.

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