A day in the life of Bill Gates

Sharing the helm of the largest private foundation in history, Bill and Melinda Gates make decisions that influence millions of lives.

But they approach problems very differently. While her husband reaches for data and statistics, Melinda Gates said, she looks at the human condition.

"I think one of Bill's enormous gifts is that he can read a book on statistics ... and move to the human condition and say this is something perhaps the foundation could tackle," she said in a recent interview. "For me, I see the human condition on the ground, and I build up to the statistics."

As the foundation moves into its new Seattle headquarters, Melinda Gates is also defining her leadership in more distinct ways.

Born Melinda French, she has an MBA and degrees in computer science and business from Duke University. She met Bill Gates shortly after going to work at Microsoft. By the time they married in 1994, she had already helped persuade him to become active in philanthropy.

"When we were engaged, we talked about how this wealth will go back to society," she said. "That seems like the right thing to do if you're a wealthy person."

The two now share responsibility for high-level strategic and financial decisions at their foundation. They have adjacent offices and meet in a conference room in between to compare notes. "We're constantly in learning mode, but learning from different directions and nudging each other," she said.

In one case, they agreed that too many children die needlessly from diarrhoea. But when it came to how to prevent it, their opinions diverged.

While her husband read up on vaccines, Melinda Gates had been travelling and visited slums in India.


"Is what I'm seeing happening in lots of slums around the world?" She wondered. "That issue that mother and child are facing about sanitation ... what does that look like in Nairobi now that I'm seeing it in India?"

She returned to Seattle convinced that vaccines were not enough. They needed to look for the roots of the problem, she said.

"I certainly came back early and said, 'I don't know what it is, but there's something in clean water and sanitation'," she said. "And Bill was willing to say, 'OK, Melinda, I don't even have time to hardly read in that space. Tell me what you know.'

"That's one where I definitely came back and said I'm not just interested in tackling diarrhoea from a vaccine."

That conversation led to a new focus on water, sanitation and hygiene. Since 2006, they have made more than $US200 million ($A189.64 million) in grants toward those efforts.

Of all the work they do, "the hardest thing we work on is the US education system," she said. "All of our money may or may not make a difference in the end."

But that is what she believes made a difference for her.

"My parents always said you can go anywhere with a great education, and it was not easy to put me through college."

The Gateses both consider technology a particular strength of their foundation and favour solutions where it can play a key role. But Melinda Gates also pointed out its limitations.

Bill "will be deeply into the science of a vaccine", she said. "And I am deeply into when we get that piece of technology, how are we going to get the mother to accept it and put it in her child's arm or mouth? Because we can do all the great science in the rich world ... (but) if we can't get a mother and child to accept it, it's no good."

They divide some of the key program areas by necessity. While Bill Gates spends more time on malaria, she leads the effort to improve the health of mothers and children, through better nutrition and reproductive health.

"That is the piece I hugely drive, inside global health," she said.

On a coffee table in her office is a large wooden sculpture of an infant cradled in a pair of hands.

The foundation's work is a constant part of her family's life, even on holiday.

This year, over spring break, they took their three children to the Amazon in Brazil. In that remote setting, she raved about the potential of a service to allow people to send money by mobile phone, after seeing the success of such a program in Kenya.

"I said, my gosh, if there is any place that would have been ripe to transfer savings from Manaus, the only big city in the Amazon, to all these remote villages, to the wife that still lives in a canoe 200 miles [321.8 km] up the river, it would be perfect. That's the kind of thing that we are constantly talking about."

Gates, 46, comes across as confident, optimistic and down to earth. Yet she began taking on a more public role somewhat reluctantly, describing herself as by nature a very private person.

"If you're going to give voice to the work we do, it is important to speak out," she said.

She's also out in Seattle on a regular basis, walking or running, going out to dinner with her husband or making stops at Starbucks.

She volunteers with two of her children at a local food bank and shelter - "on an anonymous basis", she said.

It's a way to help her children "know what goes on in their backyard so they understand what it's like for kids who don't have the economic means to do what they do".

Asked if her philanthropy has any moral, ethical or religious motivation, she pointed to her upbringing. Both she and her husband came from families who encouraged community service.

Later, as she travelled around the world, she saw more clearly the good fortune that being born in the US had bestowed.

"I was a lucky girl," she said. "To say I ended up in this place and not a woman I met in Bangladesh or the Kibera slum, you can't explain that."


twitter   Follow ExecutiveStyle on Twitter