Meeting Melinda - In bed with Bill Gates

What happened when Melinda visited ELLE HQ?


Caption: Editor Lorraine Candy, Melinda Gates, Hearst CEO Anna Jones

Photo Credit: Laura Allard Fleischl

One of the most useful sayings that I’m increasingly mindful of in my career is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Sometimes, I’m privileged to meet the amazing women I can see and would love to be. Last week I met and interviewed Melinda Gates, a role model who has both inspired and impressed me for many years.


Co-founder and chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 50-year-old mother of three has dedicated much of the last 20 years to helping eradicate poverty and improve education globally. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the Foundation’s contribution to humanity, both in terms of money and practical solutions, is unrivaled.

Most importantly for me, Melinda’s work has put empowering women at the centre of almost everything it does because the Foundation recognises the scientific, statistical and measurable results of what it calls ‘lifting women up’.

Its data shows that when you improve women’s worlds, everyone benefits. Why? Because women invest what they learn and earn back into their communities in a way that men don’t. Makes you proud to know that, doesn’t it? Which is why I invited Melinda to London to talk to all the Hearst UK magazine editors as part of our ELLE Feminism debate. Between us we reach one in three women in this country – a statistic that enabled us to set up Hearst Empowering Women, an umbrella group for all our magazines, from Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan.

So what is Melinda Gates like and what can we learn from her? Everyone asked me that question after our hour-long talk about both her personal and private life at ELLE’s Carnaby Street HQ. So I thought I would jot down a few thoughts that may be useful to you as ELLE readers; as mantras to think about, especially if you are just beginning your career journey.



For many years Melinda worked in a male-dominated environment at Microsoft. She explained that she often found it hard to get her voice heard and almost left the company as a result. ‘You had to be pretty abrasive in meetings,’ she recalls. ‘I just got tired of that, so I finally decided to just be me. What I learned was not their game, but to play my game.’ This piece of advice really is as easy as it sounds. Start tomorrow, be you.



Men always answer first. Fact. They put their hands up first – some will even talk over you. It’s important you don’t let this happen and that, as employers, you don’t let it happen in front of you, especially if young women are struggling to be heard.

‘Boys will shout out an answer,’ Melinda acknowledges. ‘A girl may know the answer but she may put her hand up while thinking, “I am not sure.” The boy puts his hand up whether he knows it or not.’

Men will put their hat in the ring job-wise before they are ready, but women will wait, so we need to get over our career shyness and go in early with our CVs. We need to push other women when we see that they are ready, too: be they friends, relatives or employees.


Both Melinda and I have noticed that when you work with men they move on from disagreements, arguments and mistakes quickly; women tend to hang on to things and process them mentally for longer. Stop this – it is holding you back.


Everyone needs support. Don’t be afraid to ask for it from women above you and don’t be slow in offering it to women below you. We need more women at the top, not just to make decisions but so the women below them can see all the different styles of doing things. ‘We need to reach down and pull up, and we need to work out how we sponsor and mentor other women actively,’ Gates adds. Don’t just talk about it – pick a woman on her way up and mentor her now.


As Melinda pointed out, it is helpful when a man says out loud, ‘I have to leave early today to pick up my daughter from a club’, or a woman admits she needs flexible time to look after a sick child, so that everybody is saying ‘this is a priority’; that work and family are important. Men and women need to ‘role model’ this behaviour and be honest about it.'

She went on to explain how shocked Bill was when she decided to give up work to have her first child 18 years ago: ‘Bill is a feminist. He comes from a family with a strong mother. When I had my daughter, I had been at Microsoft nine years, I loved my career, but when I said I was going to quit he was absolutely shocked. I told him that if he was CEO and we wanted our kids to have the family life we did, someone had to be home more. But he was always nudging me in the first year [to go back].

‘It gets easier as they get older. We’ve been very purposeful about planning our family dinners and balancing who does what so it is equal. My generation didn’t ask their husbands to help, but new generations are asking men to help out more.’


One of the things I gained most learning from by talking to Melinda was the power of being prepared and able to measure what you do. Facts and data are so useful in any world you work in because you need goals and results to drive towards. Make sure everything is monitored and measured. Ask yourself what tools you need to reach the goals, write them down and work through them.


I asked Melinda if some of the work she does with poor communities across the developing world still affects her, 14 years after the Foundation was set up. Her answer was moving and underlined how important it is to have feelings, to be empathetic: ‘You have to let your heart break in this work because it keeps you going on the days when you think you may not be able to do it. And you need to focus on the positive things achieved, because it gives you optimism.’


In between her more grueling trips to developing countries for the Foundation, and working in the Seattle office, Melinda will take a morning or a day out to do nothing but be alone. We don’t all have that luxury, but we can all take a moment every now and again to think and just be. As a mother of four who works full time, I highly recommend it!


I had expected a much more serious conversation with Melinda at Hearst HQ, but she was personable and funny. Many of Melinda’s answers to my questions began with, ‘Bill and I were in bed and…’ This is where and when they talk and share their problems. Perhaps the best Gates’ house rule is the one to do with making mistakes: if you have had a bad day, made an error or done something you regret, never sleep on it – get it out in the open. So do that tonight: just say it out loud before you drift off.

There are few women I have met in my career as impressive and personable as Melinda Gates. There are very few women who are putting everything they do through a gender lens and making it better for us all. Melinda Gates really is changing the world, and I hope we can help her do that too.



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