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All Lives Are Equal: Melinda Gates, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Melinda French Gates

Before she ever dated Bill Gates, let alone married him, Melinda French was a damned good product manager at Microsoft. She brought to market Microsoft Publisher, which popularized the step-by-step wizards that have since spread through software everywhere. And she made a valiant, if failed, effort to radically simplify computers with Microsoft Bob. Now, with her husband, she heads the world’s largest charitable foundation, bringing to philanthropy a rare combination of compassion and the business skills she honed at Microsoft. Ms. Gates received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics from Duke University in 1986 and a master’s in business administration from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 1987. She is a mother of three and a former member of the board of trustees of Duke and a former co-chair of the Washington State Governor’s Commission on Early Learning.

  • Walt welcomes Gates to the stage. Gates recalls her first meeting with Walt, years ago in Washington, D.C., to discuss Microsoft Publisher. Walt notes that he gave the product a positive review.
  • So you’re the co-chair of the Gates Foundation now, Walt notes. Is there any similarity between what you’re doing now and what you did at Microsoft (MSFT)? Gates thinks there is. The crossover, she says, is that there are amazing advances in technology, yet these profound advances are not available to the developing world. She’s using her experience from Microsoft to bring those advances to the developing world: “The skill-set I developed at Microsoft is very transferable to what I do now.”

    Melinda Gates at D6

  • Discussing the foundation’s financial resources, Gates notes that she could tap out its wealth simply by attempting to fix the education system in California alone. Solving problems outright is not its role. The Gates Foundation’s role, she says, is to take the financial risks that often prohibit governments from beginning to address societal problems.

  • For example, the foundation invests in the development of new vaccines that governments or pharmaceutical companies might not be willing to devote resources to. The foundation essentially aids the development of tools that others can use to solve health problems worldwide, Gates says. Its role is a “catalytic” one, she explains. It “incents” people to cure health problems.
  • You must be bombarded by people who like to tell you how to spend that money, says Walt. How do you handle that? Gates says it’s gotten easier. Once we really defined who we were and what we stand for–“All lives have equal value”–it became easier to manage our goals, she says.
  • Gates says that if we just took the vaccinations we give to children in the states and brought them to the Third World, we’d save millions of lives. Notes the irony of this: There is a cure for tetanus in the rich world, for example, but it’s not available in the poor world.
  • Walt asks how the foundation is run. Gates says the CEO runs it. She and Bill set strategy. That said, they don’t want to be actively involved in its day-to-day management. There must be a family presence, though.

    Melinda Gates at D6

  • How will things change with Bill’s transition? I know things will change with Bill’s new role, she says, but “I don’t expect him to wear a tool belt around the house or anything.” Gates says the overall picture remains to be seen. She expects he’ll spend two to three days a week working on foundation issues.
  • Talk turns to education, and the high number of kids who drop out of high school. No tracking of their progress, she notes, something she calls an “absolute travesty.” On other fronts, why aren’t we exciting our children about education? she asks. Why aren’t we offering them hope, possibilities? Why don’t we stress the need for four years of high school and the option of college? Why is it that we’re willing to allow so many of our children to fail out of high school? She says we must determine what’s working in successful public-school systems and recreate it in others.
  • What are the elements of a successful system? Walt asks. Gates: A rigorous curriculum, great teachers and great relationships with the kids–which means smaller learning communities. And you need bold change agents in the system itself. People who are willing to take risks.
  • What do you think about the teachers union? Walt asks. Gates notes that it’s very difficult to move out underperformers under the current model. That needs to change, she says, adding that we do need to incentivize teachers. Why not change that mindset then? asks Walt. That’s not our role, says Gates. Our role is to develop the right model, not negotiate the contracts themselves.
  • What about teacher colleges? Do we need to do something to change the way we train teachers? Gates feels the system could be better. Teachers need rewards, stimulation, autonomy, and an ability to make changes in students’ lives.
  • Q&A: What is the time-frame for the foundation to reach its goals? Gates says that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is mandated to spend all of its resources 50 years after their deaths, which is part of creating a model for others to follow.
  • Another question: How can the D6 audience help? Gates says that tech-focused audience members need to think of how to transfer what works in their business to the problems of the world. Whatever tugs your heart, she advises, go there.

For more coverage: See The Wall Street Journal.

A note about our coverage: This live blog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations expeditiously written and posted to the Web as quickly as we were able. It was not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.

Melinda Gates Session Photos

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