While everyone this week spent time recognising Bill's achievements, I'd like to recognise Mrs. Bill, Melinda Gates. In a quarter-century's time, after her husband has shuffled offstage at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm clutching his gong, after the applause has died down, those people who like to discuss such things will say, "It was the wife wot won it."
From the Fortune profile on her earlier this year (the first ever):
Moreover, they say, she has helped Bill become more open, patient, and compassionate. "Bullshit!" he bellows. Nicer, perhaps? "No way!" he shouts, grinning because he knows it's true. One thing he admits readily: Thanks to Melinda, he is easing comfortably into his new role. About the philanthropic work he says, "I don't think it would be fun to do on my own, and I don't think I'd do as much of it."
An all-rounder, Melinda is the girl you remember from school who was top of her class, good at games, popular, and a volunteer. She rose through the ranks at Microsoft, ending up as general manager of information products, before marriage to Bill, and their three children. And now it's all systems go for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the one-time backroom girl has had to step into the spotlight—not a position she relishes, but where she knows she needs to be in order for the charity fund to realise its full potential.
Would the couple's foundation, expected to dish out around US$100 billion of goodness in its lifetime, have been created without her influence? Perhaps Bill would still be flogging software to the world and beyond, with Ballmer, his Sancho Panza, riding alongside him. Misunderstood, he might claim, just plain weird, we might whisper as his wealth took him further and further away from reality. Melinda had the foresight to see what an aggressive, capitalist lifestyle would do to their family life and steered him away from it. He, in his wisdom, did not fight it.
The way I see it, most rich, workaholic men tend to marry someone who fits into their lifestyle. Bill Gates, on the other hand, has married a woman who has made him fit into hers. When I read about how she handled him in the parking lot at Microsoft after he asked her out on a date, her ballsiness made me weep with laughter. ("That's not nearly spontaneous enough for me. I don't know. Call me up closer to the day." He called her that night.)
Plans for a trampoline room and nonsense-strosity high-tech in his new-build Seattle home were coolly dismantled without even a squeak from her other half. Melinda is credited for making him more open, patient and compassionate. Last week I watched a BBC documentary about him as he prepared to step down from the day-to-day stuff of Microsoft. "As he has grown older, the ratio of shouting to non-shouting has decreased," one of his employees said about him. "That'll be the Melinda effect," I thought.
She is credited for having brought in a whole host of powerful partners to the couple's eponymous foundation—not for nothing is she known as a great team-builder. Rockefeller, Hewlett and the Dells are on board, as well as a couple of big pharma companies. Joel Klein, the man who took the government's anti-trust fight to Microsoft a decade ago, is batting for them on the education front in New York. And then there's the current world's richest man, Warren Buffett, who has pledged all his billions to the cause. "I'm not sure," he said, when asked if he would have done it without Melinda.
Personally, I hope that the Nobel committee does make Gates Nobel Laureate, because that will mean that he did manage to make a difference to the world. And all because she made a difference to him.