Bill And Melinda Gates On How They Work Together For Good

Speaking at TED, the philanthropic couple discussed the origins of their foundation, what they plan to leave to their children, and their working relationship–which combines data and emotions.

Bill And Melinda Gates On How They Work Together For Good
[Image: TED 2014 via Flickr user TED Conference, Photo by James Duncan Davidson]

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most recognizable philanthropic organizations in the world, and its founders, Bill and Melinda Gates, will unquestionably be remembered as two of the most important philanthropists of our time. And it all started with a trip to Africa in 1993, before the couple was married. This was the Microsoft founder’s first time seeing extreme poverty, and it changed the course of his–and Melinda’s–life.


On the TED stage this week, Bill and Melinda discussed the origins of their foundation, how they work together, and what they’ll be leaving for their children at the end of their lives (hint: it’s not nearly as much as the couple has right now).

When the foundation started in 1997, the Gateses decided to pick two broad issues to focus on: combatting health issues and poverty in developing nations and reforming the education system in the U.S. Many of their efforts, including support of genetically modified crops and birth control, have been met with controversy.

Melinda, a Roman Catholic, took it upon herself to highlight contraceptives as an antidote to extreme poverty. “We had backed away from contraceptives as a global community. We weren’t providing them because of the political controversy in our country. To me, that was just a crime,” she said on stage.

While Bill and Melinda are known as a team, they have different approaches to the foundation. They often travel separately, Melinda said. Bill looks at the statistics surrounding various issues, while Melinda operates with more intuition, looking at the human stories that data doesn’t always reveal. “I think we have a really collaborative relationship. But we don’t spend every minute together, that’s for sure,” she said, to much laughter from the audience.

The couple has three children, and none of them will ever be poor. But Bill, who was partially responsible for launching the Giving Pledge–a commitment from some of the wealthiest people in the world to give away most of their money to philanthropic causes–said that his kids won’t be billionaires. “No, they won’t have anything like that,” he explained. After reading an article where Warren Buffett talked about the issue, Gates concluded that “it wasn’t a favor either to society or the kids.” Ultimately, the kids will have enough money to do anything they want, Gates said, but not so much that they can do nothing.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.