Lt. Uhura. Dr. Mae Jemison. Melinda Gates. Onward.

on October 20, 2014

Mae Jemison turned 58 last Friday. Jemison was the first African American woman to travel into space. As a child, one of her influences was Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura. I hope some one, some day writes the definitive piece on all the girls inspired by this popular television character.  

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Role models are vital. They help clear the path, guide our future and quite possibly change the world. But where do they come from? 

Many look toward Silicon Valley, land of the smart, home of the super-rich. This strikes me as a rather limiting vision. The next Lt. Uhura is not likely to be employed at a company with a rock-solid 401K.

Increasing the numbers of women and minorities at the already highly successful, exceedingly rich Big Tech conglomerates — Apple, Google, HP, Oracle, Facebook — may be laudable, but it’s unlikely to blaze a trail.

Silicon Valley was once about disrupting the world, not meeting its numbers. To change the world now, we must cross the valley. First stop, Washington State, home of Melinda Gates.

Melinda Gates is changing the world. One girl, one woman, one dollar at a time. 

These Are The Voyages

Melinda Gates is not a self-made woman. Not as traditionally defined. In 1994, she married Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the world’s richest man for, it seems, as long as all of us have been adults. Do not let the primary source of her wealth mislead you. 

I have never met Melinda Gates but am repeatedly struck by how deeply involved she is in aiding girls, women, the poor, the sick, the marginalized, children who deserve a better education, those dying of 19th century illnesses, fixing America’s profoundly broken school system.

Perhaps I should not be surprised. Melinda Gates was her high school’s valedictorian. She earned Bachelor’s Degrees in Economics and Computer Science, and an MBA from Duke. She likewise earned her way into Microsoft, back when it possessed the very highest concentration of hard working, fast charging, manifest destiny brainpower.

And then she married Bill Gates. 

If I had Melinda Gates money, I can attest, hand to God, I would use the vast majority of it to promote education, health, opportunity. I cannot swear, however, I would do it so vigorously, so personally, expending so much effort, so much of my heart and soul.  

A billion to my university. Receive honor.

A billion to aid those in my hometown of Detroit. Receive honor.

A billion to Food for the Poor. Anonymously, in this case.

Then back to the private jet, the infinity pool, the party.

Why is Melinda Gates so different? Does having everything motivate you to do more? Is she smart enough to know she can truly change the world?

As much as I admire Bill Gates, I give a great deal of credit to Melinda Gates for harnessing Bill’s Microsoft money and brainpower — along with hers, which is well documented — to focus on not just improving life for the world’s marginalized but on laying the groundwork for ongoing, self-led improvements.

Melinda Gates is more Silicon Valley than Silicon Valley.

Note the values of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

Our foundation is teaming up with partners around the world to take on some tough challenges: extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries, and the failures of America’s education system.

We focus on only a few issues because we think that’s the best way to have great impact, and we focus on these issues in particular because we think they are the biggest barriers that prevent people from making the most of their lives.

To Boldly Go

Computing technology has progressed in our lifetime from the once unfathomable vision of a computer on every desktop to several billion smartphones, tablets, clouds and things. We possess the tools to fundamentally re-make our world.

Are we blowing this confluence of opportunities on games, hook-ups and selfies? Are we ignoring our chance to tackle the really big problems — while the call of change avails itself to us? Not if Melinda Gates has anything to do about it.

Some of the projects we fund will fail. We not only accept that, we expect it—because we think an essential role of philanthropy is to make bets on promising solutions that governments and businesses can’t afford to make. As we learn which bets pay off, we have to adjust our strategies and share the results so everyone can benefit.

Yes, everyone. Change, disruption — and new role models — are blooming all about us.

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While Silicon Valley looks inward, focused as much on backwards-looking hiring targets and mimicking each other’s business model, Melinda Gates is focused on sustained improvements all around the world. As her work in Africa reveals, this most often means empowering women and girls.

“If you want to lift up an economy in Africa, you basically start with the women.”

According to Gates, a woman with a job — and her own money — is more inclined to plow it back into her family. That increases opportunities for her children and her community. As she wrote only last week:

Research tells us that women invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being—as much as ten times more. They prioritize things like healthcare, nutritious food, and education. When a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive—and much more likely to thrive. Healthier, better educated children today lead to a stronger workforce and more prosperous communities tomorrow.

Frankly, this is a rather damning indictment of the men in those under-developed communities. As Mrs. Gates notes:

  • Infant and maternal mortality rates are falling, because mothers and midwives are working together to embrace new innovations to make childbirth safer and infants’ first days less risky.
  • We are within reach of eradicating polio forever, because a cadre of frontline health workers—almost all of them women—are working to bring basic healthcare services to even the poorest, most remote corners for the globe.

Brainpower, belief, vision, technology, money and a commitment to learning made these possible, as did directly empowering very poor women. As governments around the world seek to stem the spread and disruptive power of technology, they should instead consider how to accelerate this new world order Melinda Gates is helping to usher in.

Gates’ Twitter bio is concise and revelatory:

Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, businesswoman, and mother. Dedicated to helping all people lead healthy, productive lives.

I write. My Twitter bio makes that much clear. The very wealthy Melinda Gates reminds me I can do much more. I suspect you can as well. We are not surrounded by work but by opportunity.