How Melinda Gates became the woman she is today

As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an outspoken advocate for human rights, she has the platform to make a difference — and she uses it. 

Photo: Chatham House

Melinda Gates is one of the most powerful women in the world. As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an outspoken advocate for human rights, she has the platform to make a difference — and she uses it.

But Gates was not always so high-ranking, nor was she so well-balanced. In a recent InStyle profile, she shares insights about how she became the professional she is today.

Finding her career

The tech industry has long been male-dominated, and research indicates that it still is. Despite that, Gates graduated from Duke University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics. A year later, she joined Microsoft.

How did she find herself in a business sector with so many male colleagues?

Gates learned how to program under the recommendation of a nun at her all-girls Catholic high school, according to the profile. At college, “she often found herself on all-male coding teams, but by junior year, she was running them,” it reads.

But Gates told InStyle that while she knew how to play the game in a male-dominated world, she did not enjoy it. “I had to learn how to be myself in this culture and see if I could succeed,” she said.

Gates excelled at Microsoft, eventually becoming general manager of information products. But in 1996, she left the company to concentrate on philanthropy and her family, according to her bio. 

Making time for life

Gates is a high-powered businesswoman, but she’s also the mother of three children. “That’s one of the things we underestimate about women in the business world,” she told InStyle. “We spend our whole lives juggling, which is badass or kick-ass — I like either.”

But she wasn’t necessarily always so skilled at this balancing act. When her oldest daughter Jennifer was young, Gates eventually learned to take time between commitments to “reset,” according to the profile.

“[When] Jen was little, I’d flown off to God knows where to meet women out in fields and do world-stage events — you could come home a little full of yourself,” Gates told InStyle. “I showed up at home in my suit, and Jen shunned me for a few hours.”

But, she continued, “Jen would wait on our mudroom floor with a book, and if I sat down in my yoga pants and read to her, then I was back in her world.”

Fearlessly speaking out

Gates may have been inspired to go into programming by a nun at a Catholic school. But that hasn’t stopped her from shepherding $1.2 billion of spending for family planning that includes access to contraception — “much to the consternation of the Catholic Church,” according to the profile.

In fact, when it comes to her voice, Gates doesn’t hesitate to express what she thinks is right, even if it’s to her husband, the principal founder of Microsoft. She supports her recommendations to him with data, especially when she’s advocating for women’s issues.

“He (Bill Gates) doesn’t always take my word as the gospel truth — that would be nice,” she told InStyle. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘I need you to trust me.’ ”

For those who wonder what keeps Gates going, this is her definition of success, in her own words:

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived,” she  told InStyle. “This is to have succeeded.”

Alexandra Villarreal|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at avillarreal@theladders.com.