The incredible life and career rise of Melinda Gates - one of the world's richest and most powerful women

Natasha Dailey
·10-min read
Melinda Gates
She heads a foundation with a $40 billion endowment. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Melinda Gates is one of the most powerful women in the world, according to Forbes.

  • She could be worth $73 billion if she and Bill Gates split their fortune equally in the divorce.

  • Gates will continue in her role as co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Melinda Gates is the fifth most powerful woman in the world, and the second American - after Vice President Kamala Harris - to make Forbes' The World's 100 Most Powerful Women list.

She and her husband, Bill, announced on May 3 plans to divorce after being married 27 years. Though they don't have a prenuptial agreement, if they split their $146 billion fortune equally, Melinda would be worth around $73 billion.

Gates has become one of the most prolific philanthropists in the world as co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which she helmed virtually on her own for the first six years of operation. She is now co-chair of the foundation with Bill, positions they said they will maintain even after the divorce.

She said in a statement posted to Twitter that she and Bill continue to believe in the mission of the foundation and will continue their work there.

Read more: Agritech startup Enko just raised $45 million in a funding round led by the Gates Foundation

In addition to the foundation's education and healthcare initiatives, Gates takes a personal interest in women's issues around the world. At the forefront of her agenda is expanding the availability of contraception and bringing awareness to the concept of time poverty - the notion that hours of daily unpaid work like household chores end up "robbing women of their potential."

In 2016, Gates was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US, by President Obama.

Keep scrolling to learn more about her life and how she became one of the world's richest and most powerful women.

Additional reporting from Tanza Loudenback.

Melinda Gates (neè French) grew up in Dallas, Texas, with her parents - a stay-at-home mother and an aerospace-engineer father - and her three siblings. The family belonged to the local Roman Catholic parish.

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St. Monica Catholic Church, where the French family attended church, in Dallas, Texas. Facebook/St. Monica's Catholic Church Facebook/St. Monica's Catholic Church

Source: Telegraph

The Frenches were intent on sending all four of their children to college, so Melinda's father started a side business for rental properties. "We would help him run the business and keep the books," she said. "We saw money coming in and money going out."

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The family used an Apple III computer to keep the rental business organized. Melinda was in awe of the computer at the time but would later denounce the brand when she became a Microsoft employee. Photo by Mark Madeo/Future via Getty Images

Source: Photo by Mark Madeo/Future via Getty Images

Gates was valedictorian and head of the drill team at her high school, Ursuline Academy of Dallas. In 2007, the Gates Foundation donated $7 million to Ursuline for the construction of The French Family Science, Math, and Technology Center - a 70,000 sq. ft. LEED Gold certified laboratory and classroom building.

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Melinda Gates visits 3rd grade students at Solar Preparatory School for Girls in Dallas, TX on May 3, 2019. Pivotal Ventures UrsulineDallas.org

Source: Ursuline Dallas, Marie Claire

She went on to earn a double bachelor's degree in computer science and economics from Duke University and an MBA from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in just five years.

Duke University
Gerry Broome/AP

Source: Duke Today

But Gates' dedication to her school work did not deter her from a social life. She was a member of Duke's Beta Rho chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. In a 1995 interview, a sorority sister remembered her as a serial monogamist and a reserved dresser.

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Philanthropist Melinda Gates participates in AOL's BUILD Speaker Series at AOL Studios on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in New York. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Source: Heritage, Seattle Times

Gates has been generous to her alma mater. Her gifts include The French Family Science Center, the University Scholars Program, and the DukeEngage Program. She also served as a Duke trustee from 1996 to 2004.

Melinda Gates with parents Ray and Elaine French
Ray French, Melinda French (Melinda Gates), and Elaine French on commencement day at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, May 1987. Gates Archive Gates Archive

Source: Duke Today

Shortly after graduation, Gates was recruited by Microsoft just after the company went public and its stock began to soar. During her time at the company, she served as project manager of Microsoft Bob, Microsoft Encarta, and Expedia.

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William Gates, the father of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, sits in the crowd waiting for the start of Windows 95 Launch Event held on the Microsoft corporate campus in Redmond, Wash., on Aug. 24, 1995. Seated next to him is Melinda French Gates, the wife of Bill Gates. AP Photo/Gary Stewart AP Photo/Gary Stewart

Source: Seattle Times

At a company picnic, Gates' soon to be ex-husband, Bill, asked if she'd like to join him on a date in two weeks. She turned him down because he wasn't spontaneous enough. Within an hour, he asked to take her out that night and she agreed. The pair kept a low profile at work and asked colleagues and family members to respect their privacy.

Bill and Melinda Gates
File photo from November 24, 1998. Reuters Reuters

Source: Business Insider, Seattle Times

Gates called the couple's first trip to Africa in 1993 the turning point. During a walk on the beach in Zanzibar, they decided to do something about the devastation they'd seen. Thus, the Gates Foundation was born.

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FILE - In this Wednesday, March 23, 2011 file photo, Microsoft Corp. founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, right, and his wife Melinda Gates attend to a child as they meet with members of the Mushar community at Jamsot Village near Patna, India. The Gateses won the Lasker public service award "for leading a historic transformation in the way we view the globe's most pressing health concerns and improving the lives of millions of the world's most vulnerable," the Lasker foundation said Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui

Source: TED.com

In 1994, after seven years of dating, Bill and Melinda married in a secret ceremony on the 17th hole of a Hawaiian golf course after a pre-wedding fireworks display and a performance by Willie Nelson. The wedding tab was reportedly $1 million. The two were married for 27 years before filing for divorce.

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Computer mogul Bill Gates III and bride Melinda French greet guests in a reception line at a private estate in Seattle, Jan. 9,1994. The couple was married in Hawaii the week prior. AP Photo/Dave Weaver Dave Weaver/AP Images

Source: People Magazine

Gates gave birth to their three children in 1996, 1999, and 2002. Though they won't be poor, the Gates children will not inherit their parents' billions, most of which will go to the foundation. "We want to strike a balance where they have the freedom to do anything but not a lot of money showered on them so they could go out and do nothing," Bill said in 2014.

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(L-R) Jennifer Gates and her parents, Bill and Melinda Gates, listen to former U.S. President Barack Obama speak at the Gates Foundation Inaugural Goalkeepers event on September 20, 2017 in New York City. Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Source: TED.com

The Gates children have all been to Africa a number of times for philanthropic work. In 2014, Gates and her eldest daughter traveled to Tanzania to do a homestay for the first time. In a TED talk, Gates said, "As they get older, they so know that our family belief is about responsibility, that we are in an unbelievable situation just to live in the United States and have a great education, and we have a responsibility to give back to the world."

Melinda and Jenn Gates
Melinda and Jennifer Gates visit Tanzania. TED.com/YouTube

Source: TED.com

U2 frontman Bono once said of Melinda: "Lots of people like him [Bill] - and I include myself - are enraged, and we sweep ourselves into a fury at the wanton loss of lives. What we need is a much slower pulse to help us be rational. Melinda is that pulse."

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Olivier Chassignole, Pool via AP Olivier Chassignole, Pool via AP

Source: Fortune

In 2006, Warren Buffett agreed to give 80% of his multi-billion dollar fortunate to the Gates Foundation. Buffett, a close friend of the family, told Fortune that Bill is "smart as hell, obviously ... but in terms of seeing the whole picture, [Melinda's] smarter."

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AP Photo/Seth Wenig AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Source: Fortune

In 2014, Gates joined Bill for a speech during Stanford's commencement. She gave advice to students and families about hands-on charity: "Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism."

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Bill Gates and Melinda attend the 123rd Stanford commencement ceremony June 15, 2014 in Stanford, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: Stanford

In 1995, a Seattle Times article predicted that perhaps Gates would one day head up a Gates foundation. For the last 15 years, she has been the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a private, global foundation with a $40 billion endowment.

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Melinda Gates participates in the "No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project," in New York, Monday, March 9, 2015. Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP

Source: Seattle Times, Gates Foundation

Gates is taking a number of domestic and world issues head-on. Despite her Catholic faith, she has worked to expand the availability of contraception for women, writing in a Fortune article that birth control is "too important to let it be a politicized issue."

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Melinda Gates talks to reporters about the 2016 annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in New York, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. AP Photo/Seth Wenig AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Source: Huffington Post, Fortune

She's recently begun a new initiative to transform the 21st century workplace into one of inclusivity, specifically when it comes to the gender gap.

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Melinda Gates appears on stage at the 2013 Glamour Women of the Year Awards on on Monday, November, 11, 2013 in New York. Photo by Brad Barket/Invision /AP Images Photo by Brad Barket/Invision /AP Images

Source: LinkedIn

In November 2016, Gates was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Obama, the highest civilian award in the US, for her work in health and poverty in America and abroad.

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President Barack Obama, accompanied by Bill Gates, left, presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Melinda Gates, center, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Washington. Obama is recognizing 21 Americans with the nation's highest civilian award, including giants of the entertainment industry, sports legends, activists and innovators. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Gates describes the legacy she hopes to leave: "On the day I die, I want people to think that I was a great mom and a great family member and a great friend. I care about that more than I care about anything else."

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Melinda Gates attends a meeting at the G-7 Finance in Chantilly, north of Paris, on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Philanthropy is in a unique position to speed global change, but government action is necessary to implement it, Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Wednesday, March 17, 2021. AP Photo/Michel Euler AP Photo/Michel Euler

Source: Fortune

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