German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited one of the greatest collections of women leaders ever for a G7 meeting inside her vast concrete-and-glass Chancellery this September. You could find the director of the World Health Organization (Margaret Chan) and the CEO of General Motors GM -1.97% (Mary Barra). The Prime Minister of Norway (Erna Soldberg) and the former Prime Minister of Denmark (Helle Thorning-Schmidt). A Nobel Peace Prize winner (Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) and a queen (Rania of Jordan).
And in the front row of a circular conference table set for about two dozen, sitting directly across from Merkel: a former Microsoft manager turned philanthropist, Melinda Gates.
After Merkel danke schöns her guests and listens to reports on women’s political participation, health and economic empowerment, she opens up the floor. Gates, wearing a fitted inky-blue suit and reading glasses, speaks first, giving a precise, impassioned four-minute address. “When you get women in roles of leadership, we make things happen,” Gates says. “It takes us using our voice, and it also takes us making investments, huge investments, in women and girls.”
Alone in this room of world leaders, Gates can single-handedly make that happen. Prime ministers have parliaments; CEOs have boards; Melinda Gates has a $41.3 billion endowment, and she can deploy it in pretty much any manner that she and husband Bill, the world’s richest person, see fit.
This represents a personal transformation. For the first decade and a half of its existence the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation deployed its remarkable scale toward eradicating polio and malaria, and experimentation in education issues. But over the past few years Melinda Gates has embraced having her name on the letterhead of the largest-ever charitable foundation, along with the influence that comes with that. She has become the most powerful person on the planet whose singular focus is women and girls.
“I kept looking for the advocate who would champion these issues,” she says over lunch at the iconic Hotel Adlon Kempinski, during a break from Merkel’s forum. Gates, 51, has the air of a down-to-earth technocrat, traveling without an entourage but rather with reams of data and determination. “I knew it had to be a woman. We would talk inside the foundation, ‘Could we get this person or that person?’ I considered other women leaders. But I couldn’t find the one who embodied to me the voice of women around the world. And so I thought, ‘If I’m the one, then I just need to do it. I have to have courage and not worry.’”
Women account for six out of ten of the world’s poorest and two-thirds of the illiterate, according to the UNDP. “Excessive female mortality” in the developing world, in the parlance of the International Monetary Fund, means some 3.9 million women and girls are “missing” annually: About two-fifths are never born, one-sixth die in early childhood and more than one-third die during their reproductive years.