Giving spirit: Melinda Gates

As we celebrate this season of giving, all of us at Alaska Airlines are honored to feature Melinda Gates In the December issue of our inflight magazine and here on the Alaska Airlines blog. Melinda and Bill Gates have been incredibly successful in their lives – success that is perhaps only matched by their incredible generosity.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become the world’s largest private philanthropic foundation. Their focus is on global health, global development, U.S. programs (primarily focused on education), and global policy. Their work is based on the simple, but important, principle that all lives have equal value.

Started in 1997, the Foundation has had a profound impact on people around the world. I hope you enjoy reading about it, and also reading about Melinda’s interest in helping women of all ages. Her philosophy of pushing “upstream” to find solutions to challenging global issues is proving as effective as it is inspirational.

While the scale may be different, this spirit of giving regularly comes to life at Alaska Airlines. We’re doing more and more from a company perspective to give back to the communities we serve. But it’s really the employees of Alaska that are leading the way. From our 6th annual Pack the Plane food drive this month, to thousands of hours volunteered with local charities, to innovative new approaches for helping those with physical challenges to more comfortably travel by air, our team is doing a lot of good. I am immensely proud to be part of a community here at Alaska Airlines that truly understands how to give back and serve others.

In their own words, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is “focused on the areas of greatest need, on the ways in which we can do the most good.” Theirs is generosity on a stunning scale, and their impact on the lives of people around the world is—and will continue to be—profound. Melinda, we are deeply honored to feature you and your work and are grateful to you and everyone at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for your amazing generosity.

To you, our customers, I hope you’ll be as inspired as I was by the article on Melinda. Thanks for flying with us, and our best to you and yours from all of us at Alaska and Horizon this holiday season.

Brad Tilden, Alaska Airlines CEO

By Kristianne Huntsberger, for Alaska Beyond Magazine

It is early morning in Seattle and several hundred teachers from across the United States are gathered in a hotel ballroom for the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers conference (ECET2). This morning’s surprise guest is Melinda Gates and as she arrives on stage the teachers cheer like sports fans. From the back of the room I can see hundreds of tiny images of Melinda on cellphone screens seconds from being published on social media channels everywhere. We’re caught up in a star sighting: She’s here, and she’s real.

Because I live in Seattle, I’ve followed the Gates Foundation over the past 15 years. Some of my friends got jobs there on fascinating projects around the world, and I watched the headquarters rise between the Space Needle and Highway 99. But it all seemed rather distant, geographically and metaphorically, and I didn’t start truly noticing the foundation’s work until Melinda stepped up in 2012 to advocate for women and girls. I’d just returned home after a few years living and teaching in Myanmar, where my female students were removed from class for their arranged marriages, and my friend in her early 30s explained that since she’d had three children and wasn’t able to support more, a hysterectomy was her only option. Melinda Gates’ new family planning mission resonated with me, as for millions of women.


As a young student at a Catholic girls school in Texas, Dallas’ Ursuline Academy, the school motto, Serviam (I will serve), was taken seriously. Melinda volunteered at the local hospital, at local public schools and at the Dallas county courthouse. The experience convinced her that one person can change the world—or a part of it anyway. Her math teacher, Mrs. Bauer, who was raising her three sons alone and taking night classes to get her Ph.D. in computer science, particularly motivated Melinda.

Mrs. Bauer brought computers into the school and into Melinda’s life and encouraged the girls to not only learn from her as a teacher, but to surpass her. Melinda was inspired to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science, followed by an MBA, both at Duke; and, ultimately, to start her career at the then-fledgling Microsoft company. Clearly, neither Mrs. Bauer nor Melinda could know that the company would become a global corporate titan; that she’d meet and marry its cofounder, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals; that together they would create a $44 billion philanthropy, the world’s wealthiest private foundation.

Melinda’s devotion to serving has channeled the significant fortune she and her husband Bill share toward helping some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. The couple started the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to advance their belief that “all lives have equal value. And we’re very serious about that,” she adds. “All lives, anywhere on the planet.”

At the beginning, Melinda felt most comfortable behind the scenes. By 2012, when Melinda delivered her now-famous keynote address to the London Family Planning Summit and set an outspoken course for the foundation to help answer the needs of women and girls around the world. , she was prepared to take a more public role. She’d spent years making room for her family to keep its anonymity but, she recalls, she was also asking herself: “Am I role modeling for my daughters? If I’m telling my daughter to use her voice in the world, to stand up and be a strong woman, am I doing that myself?”

Today, Melinda Gates is a role model to more than just her own daughters; she’s an inspiration to women and girls across the world—and, let’s assume, to millions of men as well. For the past three years she has been dubbed third among the 100 Most Powerful Women, named annually by Forbes. Her 2015 placement rests just behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.

When I sit down with her in her office, I ask Melinda how she maintains optimism when faced with some of the world’s toughest problems. Finding meditative moments to be still, she explains. Even despite her busy schedule: Amid foundation strategy reviews, meetings with program presidents, learning sessions with experts, and a dozen annual trips to meet grantees, beneficiaries and leaders around the world, she makes time to reflect on the results of the work. She savors the positive changes she can see, like Nigeria marking its momentous first polio-free year this past summer.

If a girl is educated,” Melinda explains, “she’s twice as likely to educate her daughter. The way she interacts with the health system changes significantly if she’s educated. And when a woman gets an extra dollar in her hands, 90 percent goes to her family. That sort of information helps me stay optimistic.”

Melinda brings to the Gates Foundation a highly tuned radar for data and efficiency—in person, when numbers come up she gets a gleam in her eyes and it’s easy to remember she’s a computer scientist. She believes it is important to help, but essential to know that the help is actually effective. “We totally believe in innovation and so when we looked around, we asked what organizations are really moving things in a huge way for the poor through innovation? Each year the couple participates in rigorous foundation-wide strategy reviews to focus and implement more efficient approaches. Good philanthropy, Melinda believes, involves collecting and comparing both personal experience and empirical data. “It’s on the ground that I go and meet people and make the connections. You see the needs and you see where the gaps are, but then you see what’s possible.”

The upstream approach was an important lesson taken from the failure of their early Sound Families Initiative, which didn’t solve the problem it was intended to. The houses that were built didn’t stop families from becoming homeless, so the foundation learned to look upstream and develop assistance for families on the verge of homelessness, rather than treating the symptoms too late. Another valuable lesson she said they learned involves delivery. The focus on innovation created great resources, but without the efforts upstream within communities, the resources couldn’t help. “You can have the best vaccine or polio drops,” she explains, “but if the mother won’t accept the polio drops in her child’s mouth or the father won’t accept the vaccine, that great piece of medical science isn’t going to help a child.” Focusing on delivery, getting personal and working closely with communities at the source of an issue have become keys to the foundation’s work.

As the foundation began looking upstream, Melinda noticed a significant factor that was personally meaningful to her. The research was clear: When women are educated and make family decisions, the entire community prospers. Melinda saw it face-to-face on her travels, and saw it reflected in the data. What she didn’t see was global advocacy for key issues that women ask for, such as family planning.

“We raised $2.3 billion for contraceptives to give 120 million women voluntary access by 2020,” Melinda explains. “We put it back on the global health agenda; we’re making our way toward our goal, measuring very closely.”

“In fact 220 million women are saying they want to have access to contraceptives,” Melinda points out. “We weren’t doing anything because of controversy in our own country. And there was extremely little research being done in the area of family planning on behalf of women. If you really want something to change in the world, you have to be willing to show leadership, even when it’s bold, even when it’s uncomfortable, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Gates Photo 2

“So how do we make sure we empower women and girls today? I’m particularly interested in how do we get more girls to go into STEM fields? I graduated at a time when we thought computer science for women was on the rise; but it turns out when I was in college it was at its peak and now we’re down to 18 percent female computer science graduates. That makes absolutely no sense. … But I’m still optimistic.”

It does not require a fortune to change the world; we all can help. And there is no small part to play. The 2014 World Giving Index ranked the United States and Myanmar as tied at No. 1 for philanthropy. Yes, one of the world’s least developed countries, the nation where my girl students were taken from class for arranged marriages; and one of the world’s wealthiest countries, home of the world’s biggest private foundation, created by the marriage of two computer virtuosos.

Melinda Gates may be just one person—an exceptional one, true—but she’d like to belong to a very large club of change agents.

Let’s not be afraid to fail. In fact, let’s be afraid to not try.”

Making a Difference

Each of us can contribute in all kinds of ways. Melinda Gates suggests getting involved in your own community. Food banks and shelters always need volunteers to make sandwiches or transport food. You can donate things you think would be useful to a family in transition or maybe give a few hours of your day to a local organization.

“Just get out in the community and see all these amazing organizations that do their work, and you’ll realize: OK, if I go in and give three hours of my time, that makes a difference,” Melinda urges. “And you start to meet people who are in the community who aren’t in circumstances that you’re in, and you get drawn in by them and their stories.”

Some Groups Melinda Gates Recommends

Recovery Cafe
A retreat offering recovery support for low-income and homeless Washington state adults in need of substance abuse treatment.

Eastside Baby Corner
Over 100 people, ages 7 and up, volunteer with weekly community drives for baby goods to support families who are rebuilding their lives in King County, Washington.

Ongoing volunteer opportunities are available to assist with food banks, donation pickups and deliveries, moving assistance, adult education and child care for low-income and homeless families, seniors and people with disabilities in King County.

Nothing But Nets
A global campaign to try to eradicate malaria. Contributions as small as $10 help provide long-lasting, treated bed nets to communities in need around the world.
A way to help alleviate the prevailing educational disparity in the United States. Give as little as $1 and you can then choose where the funding goes, whether it is toward needed books, technology, supplies or field trips.

Boys & Girls Clubs
Donate or volunteer time and support young men and women who need safe places to learn and grow.

Global Citizen
The Global Citizen community is a virtual platform supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Here you can learn about the world’s most significant challenges, get involved and spread the word.