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Melinda French Gates on disrupting society with new philanthropic focus, finding her voice

Melinda French Gates' new chapter
Melinda French Gates reflects on personal growth, commitment to advocacy 09:24

Melinda French Gates says her recent departure from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was an "evolution" rather than a sudden move. After years of careful planning and confidence in the foundation's leadership and its CEO, Mark Suzman, the 59-year-old philanthropist felt the institution was in a great place, allowing her to step out.

"This seems like the right time," she said.

Founded in 2000, the Gates Foundation has focused on tackling global challenges such as poverty, disease, and inequity. Her years of experience with the nonprofit showed French Gates firsthand the impact of empowering women and girls and led her to create Pivotal Ventures in Seattle in 2015. 

Through Pivotal Ventures, which now has a fully charitable arm, French Gates will be distributing new grants as part of its funding efforts, bolstered by the $12.5 billion she received from Bill Gates after her departure from the Gates Foundation.

"What we're trying to do is to create social change with Pivotal Ventures, you know?" she said. "Those pivotal moments where you need to step in or to create change."

The first $1 billion will be used to support organizations in the United States that focus on safeguarding women's rights and boosting their influence and power. Among the recipients are the National Women's Law Center, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

At Pivotal Ventures, French Gates says she will have greater flexibility and complete control over the allocation of funds—a step towards revolutionizing philanthropy and changing the conversation about women's rights to also include ensuring the well-being of men and boys.

"I'm trying to disrupt society. I am trying to change social norms," French Gates said.

She is supporting this effort by donating to research groups such as the "American Institute for Boys and Men." French Gates said she believes having good men and boys in society is beneficial, as they can be excellent partners for women and help support their progress.

This weekend, French Gates addressed a group of college graduates, including her daughter Phoebe, at Stanford University. She spoke about being an advocate for women and girls, a journey that began in 2012 when she realized she had lost the confidence she once had.

When asked why she thought she lost her voice, French Gates admitted she didn't realize others saw her as smart and talented. She explained that entering the workforce can be challenging for young women who "come up against 10,000 paper cuts."

"They're told you're not enough, you don't know enough. Somebody speaks over you. Somebody speaks for you," she said, adding that while working alongside a strong and outspoken partner, she gradually lost some of her confidence.

"I just, you know, I became less of myself, and I didn't like myself. And I wanted to be more myself, and truly lean into the work that I was seeing and knew—knew needed to be happening in the world," said French Gates.

French Gates also spoke to "CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King about increasing her political giving, which she said is partially influenced by her children and driven by her belief in the importance of women's rights in the U.S.

She said her son Rory is "definitely very much thinking about politics" and pushes her politically. Her oldest daughter, Jennifer, is in medical school and recently returned from Kenya, providing insights into the needs in the African nation. And her youngest daughter Phoebe engages her in discussions about reproductive rights. 

"We have absolutely seen a rollback in the last two years," she stated. "And we are not seeing good progress on maternal mortality in this country. We're not seeing good progress on women's well-being. So I'm stepping up my political giving alongside my charitable because I think we can move things like paid family medical leave further if I'm doing both."

She encourages women to make their voices heard at the polls, emphasizing their impact in elections. While she has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in the past, she made it clear she will not support former President Donald Trump in the upcoming election and plans to vote for President Biden.

Amid all her philanthropic work, French Gates said she is also embracing uncertainty, especially following her divorce. She said with the help of her family, good friends, and a therapist, she has healed and come out on the other side. She maintains a "friendly" relationship with her ex-husband Bill Gates and looks forward to her milestone 60th birthday with a sense of vitality, optimism, and overall happiness.

"I feel fantastic. Yes, a few things ache a little bit more when I go out and jog or play pickleball. But I still have all my vitality. And I have, I hope, a body of wisdom that I can carry forward," she said. "I'm just happy."

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