Press Room




Melinda French Gates - Washington Women's Foundation Annual Meeting

April 6, 2000
Remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair

Good Afternoon. Thank you for those kind words, Colleen. And thank you for inviting me here. It's an honor to be here to celebrate the five-year mark in the life of the Washington Women's Foundation.

Today I'd like to talk about that brave five-year adventure as a member of and believer in your foundation. I'm also going to share something of my own journey, and of the dreams my husband and I have for our foundation concentrating –in particular—on our concern for the health of the world's people. There are a lot of similarities –I think—between the way we approach our philanthropy and you approach yours. People are curious I know, about why we give to the things we give to, and how we go about making those decisions.

Well, something most of our Medina neighbors could tell you is that we're in the habit of taking long, long walks together through our neighborhood. And it's on those long walks that we make many of those decisions. Of course before that we do a lot of reading and consider the counsel of experts from places within and far beyond our foundation. But it's occurred to me that those walks are the perfect metaphor for our approach to philanthropy. (And maybe for yours.)

Like some of you, my husband and I are really just beginning our journey in philanthropy. And I can't think of any better way to describe it than to say that it is a long walk we hope is in the right direction. And it is definitely a journey of the heart. Journeys of the heart are by their very nature unpredictable, which is why I admire what Colleen Willoughby and all of you did five years ago when you took the first step of a walk in the right direction, founding the Washington Women's Foundation. For those of you who are either new members or guests today, the Washington Women's Foundation was started to give women of all ages and from varying socio-economic levels a chance to become not just donors but leaders in the field of philanthropy.

Members pledge $2000 a year—and one thousand of it goes to the charities of their choice. Another thousand gets pooled and distributed out to good causes in grants that go all the way up to a hundred thousand dollars. So each member has a voice in how some major money gets spent. There are five basic committees a woman can become involved with -- they are health, education, social services, the arts and the environment. These committees do research on groups that are prospective grant recipients. The committees select finalists and then all foundation members vote on which groups get grants.

Recipients of Washington Women's Foundations grants have ranged from programs like one that helps homeless men and women find jobs and new beginnings -- to research that studies brain tumors in children at Children's Hospital -- to the Woodland Park Zoo, the Big Sisters, Zion Preparatory Academy, and many other less well known groups. A guiding premise of this group is that private dollars—something women have more of now—are meant for taking risks. And that the same thing holds true of ideas.

Colleen tells the story of how in the first year of the foundation's operation a woman thinking about joining came to a meeting and sat in a corner. Asked if none of the group's five committees appealed to her, she said, " No." Her interest was in violence. She said, "If we don't solve the problem of violence, then none of those other things will matter." So now she's formed her own committee dedicated to violence prevention.

The Washington Women's Foundation is a group that walks and runs at the same time. I say you run in that there's no waiting around to build up an endowment. And no waiting for groups you like to come to you. You go to them. You walk, in that you really study what you give to. And study a lot, in general. And you take a long term/ big picture view in defining things like success. And effectiveness. You've been known to ask a group to apply for a grant and it happened that they don't get one from you. But in the process they wake up to their potential and get an even larger grant from someone down the street. And that's success.

The 1.7 million dollars you've put into the Puget Sound community are dollars that weren't here before with women behind them who never before saw themselves as philanthropists, and are now involved. And that's success.

On "effectiveness," I like what your support of the STARS program says about your definition of "effectiveness." STARS is designed to break the cycle of crime in our area early, by intervening to help youth offenders after their first brush with the law. The average 13-year old offender here is typically readmitted nine times to a detention facility before the age of 18. So this STARS group tries to help that teen right away after the first offense. It's apparently a very expensive business when you look at it on a cost-per-child basis.

But if you go deeper—as your foundation does—you see that this intervention could avoid nine other brushes with the law before we lose that teen to the system forever. And research says if you get the oldest child in a family turned around, you can head off problems with all the children in a family. Of course, you can't even come close to defining the value of a human life in words like "effectiveness." That's something we wrestle with all the time at our foundation.

When I say that your philanthropy is similar to my husband's and mine, I mean that both our approaches are entrepreneurial. Even experimental. They make our philanthropy an extension of who we are and where our hearts call us. They acknowledge the power in collaboration. Turn peoples's attention to needs that might escape their gaze. And embrace groups who are well down the path on their own walk. And just a little money or encouragement short of doing something great. Ours is an approach to philanthropy that requires taking risks. Taking risks is something I learned a lot about at Microsoft. You see Microsoft pushes you to take risks, and they support you even if you're wrong. In fact, it used to be a joke at Microsoft that you become a vice president right after your biggest mistake. I think the success my husband achieved in business was achieved on the basis of taking risks. And that's one reason he's willing to go out there and take some big risks with our philanthropy.

Our approach is that we'll test a number of things, figure out what works and doesn't and then go back and try again. The only thing we know for sure is that our philanthropy will continue to grow out of who we are and where are hearts are.

We are both lovers of technology. Bill has a special affinity for biotechnology. He loves it. He understands it. And he believes in it as a means of helping people.

I love technology because I've seen what it can do—and has done—for women. I've seen what a computer science degree can do to lift a woman's career. Lift it above some of the systemic flaws in our society—like racism and sexism that might otherwise become obstacles that stand in her way. It's a booming, very entrepreneurial industry with an almost insatiable demand for women with computer science degrees. Jobs are earned strictly on merit. Not what color your skin is or anything else. And I love that about it! And so I've always encouraged girls to pursue studies in technology.

Now Bill and I have gone down the path of becoming parents. A walk some days, but a run on most. And for sure the reason we have to get out of the house to talk about our foundation. Thanks to my children, I've now learned to love technology from a different perspective. That of a mother with a baby in her arms, experiencing its benefits in the pediatrician's office.

It pains me to know that not all mothers and children in the world can partake of those overwhelming benefits, especially if they live in the developing world. There are huge gaps that exist in our world. Glaring gaps that are growing between the deprivation mothers and children in the developing world face and the abundance and efficiency that define our way of life. The gap between the life of that American farmer working in his air conditioned space with Vivaldi in the background, and the lives of those in the developing world who are starved of so very many things is immense. Trying to make their lives better does seem like a long daunting walk. I know. But advances in technology are giving us unprecedented opportunities to improve the lives of people. And I am inspired by the walk of another woman. A woman on the other side of the world in Africa who has her heart set on getting her children a vaccination, a vaccination she believes will save their lives.

Last year, 800,000 children in the world died of measles. Can you imagine dying of measles today in this country? But in the developing world, malnutrition and often the lack of measles vaccine make children especially vulnerable, particularly infants. So try for a moment to put yourself in that mother's shoes. Imagine that you have two small children and you hear they're vaccinating children for measles in a village 20 miles away. You've already lost one child to measles and so you know you have to go. There are no buses. Or even roads.

And so you prepare for a 20-mile walk over dirt trails. You pack the only food you can find, a gourd of grain called manioc. You begin your walk just before dawn. It's a two-day walk but it will take you longer. Your one child that's old enough to walk can't walk far without resting.

The other one you have to carry on your back, and you, you are weak from malaria. You know all this and you know that when you get there you'll have to stand in line to get those vaccinations. But you also know how much you love your children. And so you walk.

The good news in this story is that once that mother gets her children that vaccine, they're protected from the disease it's targeting for a lifetime. In fact, that number of children we lost to measles last year is 80% lower than it was five years ago. Vaccines work. That's why we're trying to get existing vaccines to those who need them. And supporting research we hope will lead to new vaccines.

We desperately need an AIDS vaccine. In Africa, a woman's single greatest risk factor for AIDS is that she is married and in an—ostensibly—monogamous relationship. In 1998 AIDS killed 2.6 million people, most of them in the developing world. And the world death toll so far exceeds 16 million. If those numbers are hard to get your BRAIN around…just think of what a blight the Jewish holocaust has been on our spirits. And know that from a numbers standpoint we have a virtual holocaust going on annually with AIDS, stealing mothers from their children, and exacting a staggering economic and social cost.

We also need a vaccine for malaria. In one hospital in the developing world there are (on good days) three infants in every crib. During the high season for malaria—there are seven infants in every crib. Just imagine a baby already has malaria, and it is placed in a crib where it's exposed to the likes of tuberculosis and whatever else its crib mates have. Somewhere in the world a child dies every 20 seconds from malaria. We have to find a vaccine. You see the poorest of the poor in the world, many of whom live in the tropics and don't usually live long enough to die of cancer or heart disease as we do. The average life span of the poor in the tropics is about 51 years old. And there aren't a lot of advocates for these particular members of our human family.

Drug companies can't rationalize making huge investments in vaccines for diseases like malaria when the people afflicted can't afford to pay for them.

So we're working with a number of collaborators—including President Clinton—on programs designed to create incentives for drug companies to make those investments.

With existing vaccines, there's about a 15-year lag time between the time that we get a vaccine here and the developing world gets it. And so we believe if we can get the vaccines we have now to the children who need them —we can save the lives of 3 to 4 million children a year. Is this effective? Well, there are huge impediments that make it terribly expensive, but yes it's effective.

The World Bank has an economic measure they call "dalys" which they use to measure the production of a person's daily life. And there's a cost benefit in helping a child grow up healthy rather than letting it live ill and die early. Of course it's hard to talk effectiveness measures when you're dealing with the agony of losing a child. Is the loss of a child less tragic in one place on the planet than another? I think we'd like to think that. But it just isn't so.

An author named Jack Kornfield writes that there is a tribe in East Africa where the birth date of a child isn't counted from the day of its physical birth.

Or even the day of conception as is common with cultures like our Native American one. For this tribe, the birth date of a child is marked from the very first time its mother ever thinks of having that child. On that day when she first thinks of the child, she makes up a song for him. Then after a child is conceived, she teaches the song to the village midwives so they can sing it to him on the day that he is born. And, after the birth all the villagers learn the song so they can sing it to him when he falls or hurts himself, and sing it all though his life in times of triumph. They sing it on his wedding day. And they sing it gathered around his deathbed. And they sing it for the very last time, then never again as they lay him in the ground. That song goes the distance of a lifetime, carrying unto the grave the intimate connection that binds that mother and her child. Of course for that intimate connection to flourish, a mother has to live through childbirth. And while labor isn't a song anywhere in the world in the world's poorest places it often costs you your life. In Africa the maternal mortality rate is one in 16.

It's one in every 3,700 here.

Even where there are hospitals (and in many places there aren't) a mother who has a baby is pushed out of the hospital one hour after delivery. At which point she begins a long painful walk—more of a shuffle really—all the way home. Most maternal deaths in the world could be prevented with even the bare minimum of the medical advances we have here.

My dream is that one day a mother in the developing world will be able to bring her child in for a vaccination and right there have gynecological care and screening for things like cervical cancer (a huge preventable killer).

I know. It's a long walk to get from here to there. And the most intimidating part of it is taking the first step. Opening ourselves to an encounter with sorrow that seems bigger than we are. But those who face that fear like this young Seattle student have life changing stories to tell.

I'm in awe of that young woman. In awe of her COURAGE. And her love. She took what she saw and heard in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to heart, knowing she would help however she could. And then she shared what she experienced with the rest of us through the medium of her art. (That was her art, you saw.)

And that's really all my husband and I are trying to do with our Foundation.

We've seen and heard and read some things we simply can't forget. And so we have to do whatever we can to try to help.

Will it make a difference?

Well, some very experienced people like the World Health Organization, and UNICEF and medical experts who have been at this longer than we have seem to think it will. But we'll never know unless we try. In any case, I will remain encouraged and buoyed by the example of this group, the Washington Women's Foundation. And I will be ever inspired by the image of that African mother walking for days to get her children their measles shots. A growing body of research says that she—(not unlike you) is fully capable of lifting up the quality of life of her family, of her village, and of the whole developing world given only half the chance.

If she just keeps walking, I suggested a moment ago that we try to quote, "put ourselves in her shoes for a while."

The truth is my most vivid memory of Africa after being there is that the women I saw there had no shoes. They did most of the work and most of the walking often with one baby strapped on their back in a goyu. And another baby in their belly. And all the while they went barefoot. (If you saw shoes at all, they were always on a man.) Well, you don't have to work too hard to imagine what the bottoms of their feet were like. And I think there might be a message in that for all of us. Having calluses on your feet is utterly human.

They can't keep you from walking, and they can't rob you of your soul, but there are few places worth going that you can get to on the strength of a callused heart.

So I agree with writer Parker Palmer when he says that, "Our culture's fearful obsession with results has sometimes led us to abandon the great objectives and settle for trivial and mediocre ends." He says, "as long as 'effectiveness' is the ultimate standard by which we judge our actions, we will act only toward ends we can be sure we will achieve." People who undertake projects of real breadth and depth are very unlikely to be "effective," since effectiveness is measured by short-term results.

Never mind the fact that such people may be creating cultural legacies by their failures. When I think of great works we are called to in our lives, works we avoid at peril of our souls, I think of works in which we cannot possibly be effective.

Things such as loving other people, opposing injustice, comforting the grieving, bringing an end to war. There can be no effectiveness—and I would add guarantees—in these tasks. There is only the commitment to work away at them.

Thank you.

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