Face-to-face with Melinda Gates

“You have to let your heart break. That’s what actually moves you to action.”

That was my favorite takeaway from a wide-ranging discussion I had with Melinda Gates last week at the celebration for the University of Washington Department of Global Health’s tenth anniversary.

“I think it’s in our common humanity that we see one another and we realize how connected we are as a world. You really can’t turn away from it.”

While the computer scientist turned philanthropist emphasized the need for outstanding science and data to be applied toward solving health challenges, she also shared how she keeps a collection of women’s stories in her heart—especially the very difficult ones. She says, “You can’t turn away, because if you do turn away, you close off.”

It was enlightening to hear that meeting the people she and her husband work to serve is one of the great honors of her life. And how, after talking with women around the world about vaccinations and access to medicines, she has learned to allow time for them to ask her questions. That’s how she heard about the need for access to contraceptives.

She said, “When you listen, women will tell you the stories of their families and what their true needs are.” She credits conversations with women as her rallying cry, which she promptly turned into a commitment to the Family Planning 2020 partnership to provide 120 million women access to contraceptives.

Learning from failure

Melinda didn’t shy away from acknowledging some of the Gates Foundation’s failures over the past 15 years. Some, like the continuing struggle to develop vaccines for malaria and HIV, are the nature of science, but sometimes it’s because other factors weren’t considered at the outset. For example, how painful an injection might be or considering how to control the cause of the disease—in one case it was sand flies. “We just went into this completely naïve. We’ve since learned that you need to ask a lot better questions.”

The new political era

We also talked about how to make the case for foreign assistance since many in Congress and the new administration are questioning the investment (which is less than 1 percent of the total US budget) when there are many needs at home.

That less than 1 percent of US government budget [to foreign affairs] is highly effective. If we want peace and security in the world—families don’t want to uproot from their communities, they want to stay where they are, and they certainly don’t want to go across the high sea in a terrible boat to try to get to Europe, but they’re not finding economic opportunities; they don’t have good health where they are. It’s incredibly important both for humanitarian reasons and for peace and security reasons, and it could be that this administration will feel more comfortable with investments in peace and security and we can make that argument too.”

Meanwhile, back in Seattle . . .

Let’s not lose sight of the backdrop for this discussion—celebrating the UW’s Department of Global Health. Clearly Melinda now shares her husband’s family’s commitment and passion for the UW. They’ve made two significant investments over the past year—in a new building for the department to house the Population Health Initiative and in the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. But she also called out what she called the “amazing ecosystem of partnerships” in Washington State, adding, “It’s just getting stronger over time.”

I couldn’t agree more. You’ll hear more from us in the weeks and months about the other significant anniversaries being celebrated in our community this year. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the long history of contributions. And though I’m not usually starstruck, I have to confess I’m amazed and grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with one of the leading women of our time. I hope that you are equally inspired and energized about the potential we each have to, in Melinda’s words, “put our weight down somewhere to make great change.” You can also learn more about how Bill and Melinda Gates measure progress in their annual letter released earlier this week.

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