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Melinda French Gates Read by Sara Blakely

Melinda French Gates is an advocate for women and girls around the world. As co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Ventures, Melinda works to dismantle systemic barriers that leave people behind.

Get to Know Sara Blakely

Get to know inventor, businesswoman, and philanthropist, Sara Blakely! Sara brought us the story of Melinda French Gates. Sara talks to us about being a good leader, helping others creatively, and inventing something that is all your own!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Gina Gotsill and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Sara Blakely. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Applause erupted in the crowded East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

“Melinda French Gates!” 

At the sound of her name, Melinda rose and took her place beside Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. She was about to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Melinda had worked so hard to get to this moment, and it felt incredible that President Obama was hanging this coveted medal around her neck. She smiled and touched the medal lightly with her fingers. 

For nearly two decades, Melinda had been working to improve health and economic opportunity for millions of people around the world. But even though she had just received America’s highest civilian honor, she knew her work wasn’t over. Oh no. There was still much more she was determined to do.

I’m Sara Blakely. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Melinda French Gates, businesswoman, philanthropist and advocate for women and girls around the world.

The year was 1978, and 14-year-old Melinda Ann French was on a mission. She needed to get her family’s Apple II computer into her bedroom.

Melinda lived in Dallas, Texas, where people were just starting to talk about technology and this thing called a computer. “One day, that thing is gonna replace the typewriter,” people often said, shaking their heads.

But Melinda didn’t want the computer for typing – she wanted to know how these machines worked on the INSIDE! She was fascinated by math and science and wanted to explore all the technology that brought these words and images onto her screen. 

Melinda’s parents finally gave in to her eager requests and moved the family computer into Melinda’s room. 

Soon, Melinda was spending her evenings diving into the programming languages that made computers run – something that not many 14-year-old girls were doing at that time. 

Melinda was a student at Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Dallas. And while she was playing around with computer programming in her bedroom, her math teacher, Mrs. Bauer, was going to night school to learn about computers, too. 

Melinda was so inspired by Mrs. Bauer. She helped Melinda and her classmates create their own computer programs to solve math problems, and even make animations. Melinda programmed a square smiley face dancing around the computer screen to the song “It’s a Small World.” She was so proud! It may sound basic now, but it was huge then!

Computers were just one of Melinda’s many interests. She also loved being captain of the drill team. You could find Melinda at almost every sporting event – cheering and dancing across the field with her friends. 

But when the games were over, Melinda would gather her books and get to work – studying for the next big test. 

Four years later, Melinda’s hard work paid off and she graduated at the top of her class. She stepped up to the podium on graduation day to deliver the speech she had written for her classmates, parents and teachers.

If you are successful it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction, she told the audience.

She wanted to thank and honor all the people who’d helped her get to this graduation and taught her to be curious. Like her dad – who’d brought home the computer that changed her life. Her mom, who encouraged her to “set your own agenda or somebody else will.” And Mrs. Bauer, who had pushed her to learn everything she could about how computers worked. 

Melinda paused. Then she shared something that gave everyone a window into her heart. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped.

It was the first time she voiced what she was feeling in front of a large audience — that we all need to look after one another and help however we can. 

Though Melinda was just graduating high school and had so much learning ahead of her, these words would become a guiding principle for the rest of her life.

Melinda stepped off the stage at Ursuline and leapt into a whole new world: college! Duke University in Durham, North Carolina had a computer science department where Melinda could stretch all the skills she’d learned playing video games and studying programming languages. 

Melinda took plenty of math classes too. She studied economics and business, and filled her days with books and projects. Melinda was watching the field of computer science unfold before her eyes. Everything was new and intensely interesting to her. 

But when Melinda looked around her computer science classes, she saw mostly men. Few women studied computer science. Melinda was pretty sure she knew why this was happening. Women didn’t feel welcome in these classrooms!

Melinda pushed ahead, determined to learn as much as she could. And once again, her hard work paid off. Within five years, Melinda had earned diplomas in computer science, economics and business. She caught the attention of IBM, a technology company that was making most of the world’s computers. They wanted to hire her, but Melinda decided to take a job with a small software company that was young and full of big dreams, just like she was. The company was called MICROSOFT.  

At Microsoft, Melinda’s career blossomed. She worked with teams responsible for developing and selling computer products that made work and studying easier for everyone. Things like newsletter design tools, movie databases, and more!

One of the products she oversaw was called PUBLISHER, and people used it to design newsletters on the computer. Before PUBLISHER, many people made newsletters by cutting actual pieces of paper, gluing them downonto another sheet of paper, and running the board through a printing press! So PUBLISHER was a huge improvement. 

Melinda also oversaw the development of a program that helped people discover information about thousands of movies. This was long before you could Google things to find out more about them, so this program was revolutionary. 

Still, something was nagging at her. The offices at Microsoft looked a lot like her computer science classes in school. Mostly men. Very few women. 

Technology was changing, but women were often not being heard or included in these changes. 

Melinda felt that women needed to be here, leading with their innovative ideas, and developing products. She thought about her career so far. She thought about the women who had helped to open doors for her, like Mrs. Bauer. 

She wanted to be like those women. She wanted to be the kind of leader that opened doors for others, so they could experience the excitement of creating new technologies that changed the world. 

In 1993, Melinda and her partner at the time, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, traveled to Zanzibar, an island in East Africa. Zanzibar was known for its white, sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, and wildlife they would never see in the United States. 

Melinda and Bill traveled across vast landscapes that thrilled them, but they also faced a very harsh reality. As they made their way through small towns, they met people struggling with poverty, disease, and inequality. They saw children who were sick and had no medical help!

That trip became a turning point for Melinda. Coming back, she knew wanted to become a philanthropist – someone who uses money they earn to help people in need. This was what had fueled Melinda from the very start — to honor the people who helped her and to be that kind of helper for others.

In 1996, Melinda left her job at Microsoft. The computer programs she’d helped design had made the company successful around the world. It was time to do something different. She wanted to start a family and focus her energy on fighting inequality and diseases around the world.

Melinda was ready. She was going to turn the amazing energy and optimism that had fueled her through Ursuline and Duke and Microsoft towards her new goal — devoting her life to giving back.

Of course, fighting inequality and diseases around the world couldn’t happen overnight. While Melinda was raising her three children, she also read, researched, and asked a million questions about philanthropy. 

Questions like, What do people need to be happy and healthy? How can I focus on the most important issues in the world today? What skills can I bring to the table?

In 1997, Melinda, Bill, and Bill’s father created what would eventually become the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Their goal was to help people around the world realize their potential and thrive. But where to begin?

The foundation started with one project, to bring computers and innovation to public libraries in the United States. And they kept going, taking on more causes as time went on, and learning in the process. Soon, they were working with partners to improve the lives of farmers, and supporting governments to ensure their citizens’ basic health needs were met.

Melinda concentrated especially on changing the lives of women and young girls. After so many years of seeing women left out of classes, boardrooms and important decisions, she’d learned what women needed – and wanted: more access to technology, to quality health care, to education, to child care, and to financing. They wanted the kind of support that made it easier for women and girls to succeed where they often are left behind.

In 2000, the foundation helped launch GAVI [GAH-vee], the Vaccines Alliance., GAVIwhich works with governments to provide life-saving vaccines to millions of children around the world. The foundation was also part of the launch of The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. 

In some of the countries she visited, Melinda saw the different ways that people discriminate against women and girls. They were – from limiting girls’ ability to go to school andto preventing women from owning their own bank accounts.  

Soon, it became clear to her that in order to improve health and opportunity for a community, they first needed to invest in the untapped potential of women and girls. And that applied to the United States as well!

So in 2015, Melinda started another company called Pivotal Ventures, with the aim of driving social progress in the United States, especially for women. 

Pivotal Ventures worked to make it easier for women founders to get money to start a business, andor for women of color to work in technology, and become engineers, analysts and leaders. The organization also worked to get new parents time off after having a new babyfrom their jobs and to give caregivers the assistance they needed and deserved. 

Melinda knew it would take years to make all these changes happen and to set policies for future generations. But she was used to putting in hard work and speaking to world leaders about gender equality, technology, and human rights. She was committed to creating this new world, no matter what it took.

Which brings us back to that incredible day in the White House, with President Barack Obama placing the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Melinda’s neck. 

She has won many awards and honors for her philanthropic work and devotion to global justice. And while they are thrilling to receive, she is always thinking, What more can I do?

Today, Melinda is still pushing boundaries and demanding change. She is curious about new ways to offer help — learning from scientists how to fight disease and inequality; and researching the challenges women candidates face when running for public office. 

The world has greatly benefited from Melinda’s hard work and leadership. Throughout her life, she has woven a tapestry of ideas and actions that show us where that power starts. For Melinda, it starts with helping others, just as you were helped. 

She encourages everyone to go out into the world, and even if it’s painful to see other people who are suffering, look at them. Acknowledge them. Try your best to understand the problems they are facing. And be part of the solution.

“Let your heart break,” Melinda says. “It will change what you do with your optimism.”

Service to others means giving what you can, even if it’s a few minutes or a smile, to make this world – your world – a better place for everyone.