You would perhaps be demonstrating an excess of sympathy to feel sorry for of ultrawealthy philanthropists. But it’s fair to say that many members of that cohort have found themselves in a challenging moment, faced as they are with increasing anti-elitism and skepticism about just how much altruism, as opposed to ideological self-interest, motivates their work. “There are absolutely different points of view about philanthropy,” says Melinda Gates, who, along with her husband Bill, heads the charitable foundation that bears their name, aimed at increasing global health and reducing poverty. Its endowment, at $50.7 billion, is the largest in the world. “But we’re lucky to live in a democracy, where we can all envision what we want things to look like.” In that regard, Gates’s focus, both here and abroad, is on broadening women’s rights, a subject she explores in her new book, “The Moment of Lift.” “I have rage,” she said, about the injustices she has seen. “It’s up to me to metabolize that and use it to fuel my work.”
When you meet with other wealthy philanthropists, do you find that anyone is grappling in a serious way with their own culpability for problems, like growing income inequality, that are at the root of issues they’re trying to solve? There are absolutely people thinking about this. Then there are others who, no, they’re comfortable with how they act. But one of the reasons the Giving Pledge1 has been so important is that in some countries — in India, in China — we’re starting the discussion about philanthropy. I will say that of the 190 people2 who have joined the Giving Pledge so far, some of them joined because it looks good. But I’m stunned by how many visits we’re hosting at the foundation now with philanthropists — not even billionaires, millionaires — asking us: How did you think about philanthropy? How did you do it?
When you’re in Giving Pledge meetings, would it ever fly to ask people not just to give more but to take less? Look, there are going to be lots of points of view in the room about that topic. But I think you frame it as: What do we want for our democracy? How do we want the country to look and act and be 50 and 100 years from now? I will tell you that many people in that room want better outcomes for low-income people in this country. They want to see things get better.
One of the recurring criticisms of large-scale philanthropists is that they aren’t interested in any redress of the economic systems that create inequality. But in order to rectify inequalities, doesn’t a radical rethinking need to happen? Bill and I are both on the record saying that we believe in more progressive taxes. We believe in an estate tax. We don’t believe in enormous inherited wealth.3 There are certain places where Bill and I sit where that is not a popular idea. Bill will be the first person to tell you, and Warren Buffett4 will be the second, that they could not have done what they did without having grown up in the United States, benefiting from the United States education system, benefiting from the infrastructure that exists here to build a business. If they had grown up in — pick your favorite place — Senegal, they couldn’t have started their businesses. There’s no way. So they have benefited. But we do need to think about how we right some of these inequities. How do we open our networks of power for women and people of color? We have to think about our privilege. I have to think about my privilege every day.
What’s a recent epiphany you’ve had about your privilege? That it’s not enough to read about it. You have to be in the community with people who don’t look like you. When I read about a shooting, maybe in the south side of Seattle, I’m not living the experience. Whereas if I have a friend who’s a person of color, they most likely are living that experience or know somebody who was part of that community. And so my youngest daughter and I — she has a lot of friends whom I’m meeting, and they’re of very mixed races, I love that — have this motto that we go by: Every single person who walks through our door should feel comfortable in our house, despite how large it is and that it has nice art. And, believe me, there are people who show up at my front door who are not that comfortable. So sometimes that means sitting down inside the front door with our dog — and I’m in my yoga pants, no makeup on — and petting the dog until they’re comfortable being there. And only if we’ve made them comfortable can we be in real community. I have to do more to break down those barriers. It is very hard for almost anybody to show up at my front door.
For a variety of reasons. Think about anybody showing up, and they’re like, I’ve got to sit at dinner with Bill Gates. That’s terrifying for some kids. Particularly if they’re dating my daughter.
I know you and Bill watch “The Crown” together. What else do you guys watch? Oh, my gosh, we love “This is Us.” And our friends tease us about this: We were really late coming to “Friday Night Lights.” Now we’re watching “A Million Little Things” — love it. And “Silicon Valley” — that’s total mind candy.
What’s something about the tech world right now that drives you crazy? One thing that does bug me is that, even for the big world problems Bill and I are talking about, sometimes the tech world thinks the solution is to give somebody an app. Well, that’s not going to change everything. I would also love to see more tech innovation on behalf of the world. “Let’s create the next thing that tracks my dog” — that’s fun and nice, but come on, there are people dying.
You tell some personal stories in your book, and those stories share space with the stories of women who have gone through truly horrific things: genital mutilation, or a mother who felt compelled to try and give you her child, so the kid would have a chance at a better life. Was it hard to figure out how to have experiences so different from your own coexist in the same book? It seems to me that the generous way of looking at it would be to say that your book is giving these other women’s stories a platform. The less generous interpretation would be that by putting your story in the same book as other, harsher stories, you’re conflating fundamentally unequal situations. One of the things I write about in the book is that I’ve been in an abusive relationship. I didn’t spend a lot of time on that, but I’ve never talked about it publicly before. It killed my voice and my self-esteem for years. That, to me, is not that different than women in the developing world who lose their voice or have no decision-making power. Certainly I don’t have the experience, thank God, of female genital cutting, and I have not lost a child, but I have been very close to two people’s deaths, where the family let me walk death with them. And, being a mom, I have some understanding of how horrible it would be to lose a child. I think those stories are universal. We don’t have to live everyone’s experience. We just have to have enough empathy to understand how heartbreaking that would be and to say, “Let’s change this.” So I want people to be able to empathize with whichever stories reach them, then turn it back and say, “O.K., what can I do?”
Can you talk a little more about the decision to include the material about your relationship? It’s only very briefly and vaguely mentioned, which I assume has to do with the understandable discomfort you felt divulging something like that. That was a big decision for me. I mean, huge. It has only been in the last few years that I’ve even started to tell people close to me. But when I was writing this book I thought, I have to tell this. And the reason is so few people understand how many women have been through this. The number who have been abused is unbelievable. It affects a woman’s self-confidence. There can be shame or guilt. And so for me, the profound effect on how I saw myself and where I wouldn’t use my voice — I felt it was important to tell that in the book so that people would understand, yes, this can happen to anyone. And what I chose to include was another very purposeful decision. That person is still alive. That person has a mother and father. That person has two sisters and other family members. So I thought it was important for me to share exactly what I shared and no more. That’s not an easy topic for any of us.
How have the political shifts of the last few years — toward populism especially — affected the Gates Foundation? It’s a much tougher political environment because of the polarization and things being said or enacted by the administration. But luckily, the president proposes a budget, and Congress disburses the money. So we are working with Congress more than ever. The people who have been there for a while understand that if you want peace and stability in the world, you put money into foreign aid.
Speaking of the president, you never use his name in your book. You only ever refer to “the administration.” How come? I want this book to be timeless in terms of women’s stories — where we are now and where we might go in the future. So even if it had been somebody else in office, I probably wouldn’t have put their name in the book.5
I’m curious about how you decide which strategies you use to try to accomplish your goals. You’re a huge supporter of family planning, but you never explicitly work to get politicians who, say, want to repeal Roe v. Wade voted out of office. Why not? I have to think about where my voice will help the conversation and where will it hurt. So for today, I have chosen to raise my voice in favor of contraceptives. There are over 200 million women who don’t have them, and it would change their life to have them. They are the greatest antipoverty tool that exists. The minute I speak out, which I may do someday, about where I am on Roe v. Wade, I will be cast into one bucket, and if people disagree with me on that issue, it will be harder for me to build this global coalition for women and their families who don’t have access to contraceptives. I don’t want to damage that. I’m not sure I need to step into the zeitgeist of what’s going on in the United States. I am looking at the long game.
You don’t think you’ve already been cast into a certain bucket by people who disagree with your stance on, say, family planning? I hope not. I’m a very independent voter. Some years I’ve voted Republican for president, some years I’ve voted Democrat. Part of the reason I don’t fund candidates superstrongly, with millions of dollars for one issue or another, is that no members of Congress are the same. One might be for foreign aid and against contraceptives. I’m always looking for the common ground.
I was reading the foreword that you and Bill wrote to Peter Singer’s book,6 and it reminded me of a question Singer once asked, which was to what extent Bill Gates can talk about a moral belief in the equal value of human life while living in a $100 million home. So how do you two determine what a moral expenditure is? We certainly spend money on ourselves. You see it in the house that we built.7 We won’t have that house forever, though. I’m actually really looking forward to the day that Bill and I live in a 1,500-square foot house. Anyway, just to be clear, the house was being built before I came on the scene. But I take responsibility for it. We’ve already put a certain amount of money in it; we live in a nice place. But we think about expenditures. We think about, O.K., $1,000 we spend on ourselves or our kids is $1,000 we’re not spending on somebody somewhere else in the world. I know we don’t always get it right, but we do think about the world’s resources and our resources. Here’s a tiny example: Up until a couple years ago we were using plastic water bottles all over our house. My piece is like an infinitesimal drop in the bucket on climate change, but it’s like, hey, we have clean-running-water faucets all over the house; we can pour our own thing of water. So we try to live those values as much as we can and do the best we can. But the one thing that I want to be really clear is that a vast majority of the huge funds that we have, these billions of dollars, they are going back to society.8
When do you think you’ll move to a smaller house? I wish I knew! We’ll make some lifestyle changes for sure when our last daughter goes off to college, which is in a few years. With the foundation in Seattle, we will be here for at least six months out of the year. But I assure you, if we decide to spend six months somewhere else it will be in a smaller house.
To get back to philanthropy: What about the notion that the foundation’s work on an issue like public education is inherently antidemocratic? You’ve spent money in that area in a way that maybe seems like it’s crowding out people’s actual wants in that area. What’s your counter to that criticism? Bill and I always go back to “What is philanthropy’s role?” It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success. But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things.9 If we had been successful, David, you’d see a lot more charter schools. I’d love to see 20 percent charter schools in every state. But we haven’t been successful. I’d love to say we had outsize influence. We don’t.
Certainly you have more influence than, say, a group of parents. Not necessarily. I went and met with a group of three dozen parents in Memphis. We thought we had a good idea for them. They were having none of it. So we didn’t move forward. A group of parents, a group of teachers, they can have a very large influence.
In terms of the work you’re doing right now — as a person, a human being — what keeps you up at night? Contraceptives. Reproductive health. Any time I see anything in the United States that looks like we’re rolling back women’s health, I’m thinking, What communities does that affect in the United States, and whom does it affect disproportionately? Then I worry even more, to be honest, about what the repercussions are going to be on foreign aid in the dollars that we spend in other countries. Because, boy, do I see the difference contraceptives make there.
You’re not thinking about more microlevel stuff late at night? No. I’m thinking about contraceptives, where we’re helping lead internationally. In the United States, when something changes, people are going to stand up. But my role is to make sure that I’m advocating on behalf of, for example, women in Kenya. United States funding of reproductive health rights affects those women. So I have to think macro. I have to.