Gates, Bill and Melinda

▪ 2007

      On May 4, 2006, the Prince of Asturias Foundation in Spain announced that the 2006 Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation would go to computer entrepreneur Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda French Gates. The international prize was only the most recent honour granted to the pair on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization that they directed. On June 15 Bill Gates announced that he would gradually reduce his role at Microsoft, Inc., and would “reorder [his] personal priorities” through 2008, at which time he planned to turn his full attention to the Gates Foundation. One week later billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a personal friend of the Gateses, announced his plan to direct some $30 billion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation in the coming years.

      William Henry Gates III was born Oct. 28, 1955, in Seattle. He developed an interest in computer programming as a teenager, writing software for his school payroll system and selling a traffic-management program to municipal governments. He dropped out of Harvard University in his junior year to join Paul G. Allen in the development of an operating system for personal computers. Gates played an essential role in licensing the system, MS-DOS, to IBM. Having paired with one of the world's leading computer suppliers, Microsoft grew into the world's dominant software supplier and made Gates the wealthiest person in the world.

      Melinda Ann French was born on Aug. 15, 1964, in Dallas. She credited her interest in computers to a seventh grade teacher who placed her in an advanced math class. After graduating from the Ursuline Academy (a Catholic girls high school), she studied computer science and economics at Duke University (B.S., 1986; M.B.A., 1987). She joined Microsoft in product development in 1987 and rose to be general manager of information products. French married Gates on Jan. 1, 1994, and when their first child was born in 1996, she left the company to concentrate on her family and the couple's charitable work.

      Bill and Melinda Gates initiated their charitable endeavours in 1994, largely at the behest of Bill's father, William H. Gates, but also from the example of Bill's mother, a devoted philanthropist who had died earlier that year. Their first effort, the William H. Gates Foundation, pursued global health programs as well as projects in the Pacific Northwest, where they lived. Three years later they launched the Gates Library Foundation (renamed Gates Learning Foundation in 1999) to benefit North American libraries, with a particular focus on bringing Internet technology to public libraries. Next came the Gates Millennium Scholars program (1999), which directed $1 billion toward minority study grants. The couple consolidated their charitable interests in 2000 as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with a reported endowment of $17 billion.

      By 2006 the foundation was by far the world's largest—counting Buffett's pledge, its assets would total roughly $60 billion. Anticipating its growth needs, the Gates Foundation made two significant changes during the year. It broke ground for a new headquarters in Seattle, and it reorganized into three divisions: global health (including nutrition), global development, and community and education causes in the U.S. Through this change the foundation underscored its commitment to solving health problems around the world, with particular emphasis on developing treatments and vaccines for malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis; controlling insects that transmit diseases; and developing superfoods in the fight against malnutrition. Despite the huge endowment and the Gateses personal wealth, the foundation funded no program single-handedly; instead, it compelled other organizations, firms, and even countries to help underwrite programs. Their collaborative approach evoked an African proverb cited by Melinda Gates and others at the Gates Foundation: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

Sarah Forbes Orwig

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Universalium. 2010.

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