"No society can achieve its potential with half of its population marginalized," Melinda Gates declared. As one of the world's most influential philanthropists and Bill Gates' better half, she has her sights on a new focus: girls and women. On Monday, Gates joined Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider for a Hearst Master Class conversation about her work in global development, honing in on female power. Her organization Better by Half, seeks to help women across the world thrive through good health, economic opportunities and decision making power.
"Why women's empowerment right now?," Fulenwider posed to the newly-turned 50-year-old. "I see this incredible opportunity with women," Gates explained. "If we bring women in and lift up standards in health and economic opportunity, then you're going to double the impact of everything you do,"
Naturally, Gates sees technology as part of the solution, especially as cell phones have become ubiquitous in the developing world. Across the world, women are 20 percent less likely to have a cell phone than men are. This is a real injustice in Gates' eyes, as they can be an integral tool to women in Third World countries for health, seeking information about vaccine availability, agriculture, looking up market prices, and data for tracking reports. "You can act on things you can measure and evaluate," Gates offered.
Gates knows the fundamental power of education — she earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and economics from Duke University that ultimately led to a product development job at Microsoft. "A girl being educated changes everything about her life," she said. In addition to proper tutelage, female role models are essential. Gates cites the liberal group of nuns from her Catholic high school and her father — who worked on the Apollo missions and told her his teams were stronger when female mathematicians were involved — as her biggest encouragers. The area where women need the most morale boosting? Math and science. "We need to get women up through the system," Gates said. "We need to have more role models… More welcoming at the other end."
While Gates' philanthropic efforts are enormous, she insists that every small act counts and that "an individual can create change in the world." For anyone interested in advocacy, she instructs: "Give your time, your energy, or your money. Or a combination of all three of them. Start where your passion is." Later on in the discussion, she cited Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous words: "To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
During the audience Q&A portion, Gates was asked what she thought the biggest crisis facing the world was. "Ebola," she answered, without pause. She believes there's a lesson to be learned from the raging disease as it's only the tip of the iceberg if proper measures aren't taken. "We need to invest in primary health-care centers so you can stop a disease before it can get to the place Ebola has gotten," she explained. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the charity run by Gates and her husband, donated $50 million to the fight against the Ebola. As part of The Giving Pledge, the amount of money the Gates's have donated is mind-blogging, but it's not enough. "All the Foundation can do is be a catalytic wedge," she said. [It] takes government money to scale up."
Amidst the heavier topics, Fulenwider made sure to get some personal anecdotes about Bill and the couple's three children. Needless to say, the Gates household puts a high premium on research and data. In fact, "data geek," is a term of endearment. What really surprised us? For Gates' 50th birthday, her family threw her a Sound of Music themed party where the women wore dirndl dresses and men were decked in lederhosen.
Fulenwider also pulled some question from Marie Claire's signature, rapid fire question column 20 Questions. Gates' answers may or may not surprise you:
Greatest Indulgence: "Chocolate, chocolate, and chocolate."
Can't Miss Television: "Modern Family and Newsroom."
Secret Talent: "Dancing. [As the head of her high school drill team: If you can manage 50 girls with pom pomps on the field, you can do anything.]"
Best Advice: "Trust yourself and take quiet time. We live in a frenetic, fast paced society. It's those quite moments you come back to who you are."
Greatest Fear: "Claustrophobic."
Movie With Greatest Ending: "Nowhere in Africa (2003)."
Trip That Changed Your Life: "A couples safari in fall of 1993. Our first trip to Africa."
To learn more about Gates' mission or to make a donation, head to betterbyhalf.org.
Photos via Andrew H. Kim