yes to Cause

ENTER SHONDALAND

Photo © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This month, we talk with philanthropist Melinda Gates, about saying Yes to Cause.

With an extremely busy schedule, how do you still find time to do this?

A: The biggest cause of my life is the work I do through our foundation to help expand opportunities for women and girls around the world. But I’ll tell you that starting a second career in global health and development wasn’t always in my plans. Bill and I knew from the beginning that we wanted to give the majority of the resources from Microsoft back to society—but we assumed it was something we would wait to do until our kids were grown and he was retired.

Everything changed when we went on our first trip to East Africa in 1993. It was our first sustained look at extreme poverty, and it gave us the idea to start a foundation focused specifically on the needs of the world’s poorest people. Once we had that idea, we realized we no longer wanted to wait to get started.

But I don’t for a second believe that you have to make your cause your career in order to be an effective agent of change. Time is a precious resource—especially for women—and no matter how much or little you have to give, you can absolutely still make a difference on the issues that matter most to you.

What I would say, though, is that when you find a cause that really pulls at your heartstrings and moves you to action, be willing to disrupt your plans a little bit to see it through—whatever that looks like in your life. Give yourself the chance to see what you’re capable of.

How has saying yes to cause helped you in your life?

A: It’s changed the way I look at the world and made me even more of an optimist. Bill and I are both big data geeks, so we’re always pouring over progress reports on the issues our foundation works on. And I’ve noticed that when you spend a lot of time reading about the way life is changing in the world’s poorest places, you start to get a very different picture of the world than you do from watching the news.

The news tends to focus on what’s going wrong around the world. They don’t spend as much time talking about things like the fact that the world has cut extreme poverty in half since 1990 or that, across the globe, women are living healthier, better lives than ever before in human history. But the truth is that the world is getting better for more people all the time. You and I will probably live to see the end of extreme poverty in our lifetimes. Our grandkids might only know it from history books. And that’s a really incredible thing.

What has been a major accomplishment by saying yes to cause?

A: In 2012, I helped organize a global summit on family planning—which was something that required me to step way outside my comfort zone. I’m a practicing Catholic who was raised in a Catholic home and went to Catholic high school. Catholic teachings about social justice are absolutely central to who I am and what I believe. So I’m not exactly who you might expect to become a vociferous advocate for contraceptives.

But the bottom line is that there are 225 million women around the world who don’t want to get pregnant but don’t have access to modern contraceptives. Every time I traveled for the foundation, I kept getting into these heartbreaking conversations with women who told me that their families were suffering because they were forced to have more children than they could afford to feed or care for. And I just couldn’t turn my back on them. When I realized that no one else was going to speak up on this issue, I knew that I had to.

Next to my three kids, that summit is the greatest accomplishment of my life. World leaders came together to commit to expanding access to an additional 120 million women, and we raised $2.6 billion to fund that effort, which is an unprecedented sum—the first time the world put a “b” in front of a fundraising effort for women and girls. We still have a lot of work to do to make this goal a reality, but I will never stop being proud of the fact that I was able to help with that crucial first step.

What will you say yes to this year?

A: I made a deal with myself: I’m going to say yes to taking on things that are hard. It’s easy to let complexity be the enemy of progress—and to give up on solving big problems before you even get started. But finding the courage to tackle the hard stuff is key to driving progress.

One thing that’s got my attention right now is looking for ways to close the gender gap in the tech industry. I graduated from college with a degree in computer science in 1986, when about 37% of CS graduates were women. Today, it’s just 18%. This is a big, complicated problem with no easy solutions—but the stakes are too high to give up before we begin.

To learn more about Melinda’s cause, visit GatesFoundation.org.

Join in and celebrate you—
by saying YES!