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Melinda Gates

After graduating from Duke University with degrees in computer science and business, Melinda Gates could have worked for any number of companies. She ended up following the advice of an IBM hiring manager — not to join IBM, but instead to take a job at an up-and-coming company called Microsoft, if she had the chance.

“The chance for advancement will be incredible there,” she recalls the hiring manager saying. “IBM’s a great company, but Microsoft’s going to grow like mad. If you have the talent I think you have, the chance you will have there to advance as a woman will be meteoric.”

That’s one of the pivotal moments described by Gates in her book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.” As she explains, she discovered that she did have an affinity for Microsoft. “I loved the pulse, the electricity, of the place. Everyone was so passionate about what they were doing, and when they talked about their projects, I had a feeling I was seeing the future.”

This was years before she would start dating and ultimately marry Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. She was Melinda French at the time.

But a year and a half after she joined Microsoft, she writes, she started to think about quitting.

“It wasn’t the work or the opportunities; they were awesome. It was the culture. It was just so brash, so argumentative and competitive, with people fighting to the end on every point they were making and every piece of data they were debating. It was as if every meeting, no matter how casual, was a dress rehearsal for the strategy review with Bill.”

Melinda Gates ended up staying at Microsoft for nine years, and she writes in the book about what she learned. In short, she figured out ways to be herself inside the company, working with people with her “arms and heart wide open.” And she found like-minded women and men inside the company, including a colleague who became a longtime friend, Charlotte Guyman; and Patty Stonesifer, her “boss and mentor and role model,” who would go on to become the first CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

She writes, “If I had to summarize the lessons I learned at Microsoft, where I started work more than thirty years ago, it’s that I reported to a woman who supported my efforts to work in my own style in a culture that rewarded results, which is why I was able to get promoted and do well.”

Melinda Gates still follows the company closely, and recently spoke at an internal Microsoft event with CEO Satya Nadella, as part of her book tour.

All of these experiences, combined with her work to remove barriers for women around the world, give her a unique perspective on the challenges women face in the tech industry.

They also give her insights into the evolution of Microsoft, and its ongoing issues with some of the same cultural challenges that she faced at the company. In the latest example, earlier this year, Quartz reported on an extensive email chain in which women at Microsoft described incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company, getting the attention of the company’s senior leadership team.

Melinda Gates, right, discusses her book. The Moment of Lift, with GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Melinda Gates touched on these issues during a recent podcast discussion with GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg and me.

Todd Bishop: You were writing about your early experiences at Microsoft and that was in part, in large part, a culture that Bill created. Did you have any moments in the process of writing this book where two of you talked about that, and discussed what that meant for you and your life? Because it was a dramatic impact. You talked about leaving at one point.

Melinda Gates: Bill and I have talked about this over the years, not during the time I was at Microsoft because it would be inappropriate when I was there for me to discuss work with him, I felt, if I was still managing teams, which I was. I was there for nine years. I had a fabulous career. But yes, Microsoft was started by a group of very young guys, and I would say that you’re not at your most mature when you are around age 21 and starting a company. Some things got set in motion there and patterns that now I think Satya is working very consistently to break down, and he’s very clear about that.

What I will say about Bill is that he has become a much more mature leader over time. The way we run the foundation both as true equal partners, and what we expect of ourselves as leaders and what we expect of others, is the culture that I think more people would like to work in. It’s been an interesting journey for us as a couple to name what we want and need in culture and it’s been a maturation process for both of us.

Monica Nickelsburg: In some ways, things haven’t changed that much since when you were there though. There was that email chain that went around where a lot of women were describing experiences where they didn’t really feel supported at Microsoft. Is that discouraging to you?

Gates: I am optimistic and the reason I am is it takes transparency to create change. Satya and Kathleen [Hogan], who’s the head of HR, have been very outspoken about what they expect in their company culture. I think they’ve been creating change and I think this latest wave, where you saw so many women come forward with their stories, meant that they felt safe bringing their stories forward and you see Microsoft’s response in the last few weeks. What I know is that consistent transparency followed by a consistent response is what will create change. So I’m quite optimistic.

TB: What would be your message for the tech industry, big picture, on these issues? …

Gates: For the tech industry there is no silver bullet, but what I would say is absolutely make sure that in every single meeting you’re in, women have a seat at the table. Not one woman. Many women. Women cannot act alone on behalf of other women. You want to have the most creative products? You want to sell to the biggest market? Which is actually women who make purchasing decisions on behalf of the family. You should have women at the table, and if you don’t, then it’s time you do and have transparency. Make sure that you are promoting women equally to men. You’re paying women equally to men and you’re walking the talk. What I’m starting to see, because of the labor force shortage, the supply of women coming out with computer science degrees, they’re voting with their feet and they’re choosing now companies that have the culture they want. So if you don’t get with the times, the times are going to leave you behind.

Listen to the full podcast above, and read a transcript here.

Melinda Gates recently concluded her book tour with an appearance in Seattle. Her book, The Moment of Lift, presents the central thesis, “When we lift up women, we lift up all of humanity.” In addition to her own experiences, the book is heavily informed by the time she has spent visiting and living with women in a wide variety of cultures around the world.

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