January 7 2008: 3:37 AM EST
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Melinda Gates goes public (pg. 2)

By Patricia Sellers, editor at large

A goal a day

If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped. - Melinda Gates, valedictory speech, Ursuline Academy, 1982

Unlike William H. Gates III, whose parents, Bill and Mary, were civic leaders in Seattle, Melinda French grew up not knowing privilege or wealth. Her father worked on the space program at LTV. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom who didn't go to college and regretted it. Says Melinda, who has one sister 14 months older and two younger brothers: "My parents told us, 'No matter what college you get into, we will pay for it.'"

That Apple III was actually the family's second computer; when Melinda was 14, her father brought home an Apple II, the first consumer computer on the market. "I finagled it to be in my bedroom so I could play games on it," she says. She learned BASIC, the programming language, and taught it to other kids during summer vacations.

Life was a test, and Melinda believed she had to ace it. Susan Bauer, her math and computer science teacher at Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Dallas, recalls, "Every day she had a goal." Melinda laughs, a bit embarrassed at the mention: "The goals were run a mile, learn a new word, that sort of thing." During her freshman year she looked up recent graduates' college choices. She discovered that only Ursuline's top two students had gotten into elite schools. "I realized that the only way to get into a good college was to be valedictorian or salutatorian. So that was my goal," she explains. She hoped to go to Notre Dame.

Didn't we all know this girl in high school? The star student, captain of the drill team, candy striper in the hospital, tutor at the public school on the other side of the tracks? Melinda was all that. At Ursuline, where the motto is Serviam (Latin for "I will serve"), volunteerism was a requirement. Her ambition, insists Bauer, "was never abrasive. Never. She was always lovely and charming, and she would win people over by being persuasive."

She made valedictorian and got into Notre Dame. But Notre Dame did not get her. When she and her dad visited, she recalls, officials at the university told them that "computers are a fad" and that they were shrinking the computer science department. "I was crushed," Melinda says. Duke, which was expanding in computer science, got her instead. She earned her BA and MBA in five years. Then a helpful recruiter from IBM, where Melinda had worked as a summer intern, directed her to Microsoft. "I told the recruiter that I had one more interview - at this young company, Microsoft," she recalls. "She said to me, 'If you get a job offer from them, take it, because the chance for advancement there is terrific.'"

Dating the boss

Arriving in Seattle in 1987 as a marketing manager for a predecessor of Word, Melinda, 22, was naive about what Microsoft held for her. "There were a lot of idiosyncratic people. They were all so smart, and they were changing the world," she says, unfazed that she was the youngest recruit and the only woman among ten MBAs. The culture, though, did faze her. "It was a very acerbic company," she recalls. That culture trickled down from the top, where Gates and Ballmer badgered and harangued managers. Melinda thought about leaving Microsoft.

But four months after she started, during her first trip to New York City, for the PC Expo trade show, she went to a group dinner and sat next to the CEO. "He certainly was funnier than I expected him to be," she recalls. What attracted Bill to Melinda? "I guess her looks," he says.

Later that fall, on a Saturday afternoon ("Everybody worked on Saturday," she says), Melinda and Bill ran into each other in a Microsoft parking lot. "We talked awhile, and then he said, 'Will you go out with me two weeks from Friday night?' I said, 'Two weeks from Friday? That's not nearly spontaneous enough for me. I don't know. Call me up closer to the day.'" Bill called Melinda later that day, rattling off his lineup of meetings and commitments. "I promised I would meet him later that night," she says.

The scrawny brainiac had just become a billionaire from Microsoft's 1986 IPO. Yet even that kind of money can't buy you love. Asked if Melinda played hard to get, Bill replies, "She was hard to get!" Both Melinda and her mother decided that dating the CEO was not a good idea. But, says Bill, "we found ourselves deeply emotionally connected." Melinda was adamant that their relationship would not affect her work. "I wanted no public exposure. And I drew this line in the sand that I would never, ever, ever go to him on anything related to work." She explains, "It reached the point that Bill would say to me, 'You never tell me what you're doing.'"

The CEO's attention notwithstanding, Melinda French was a hotshot. In nine years at Microsoft she rose to general manager of information products (Expedia, Encarta, Cinemania) and oversaw 300 employees. Her record wasn't perfect. Remember Microsoft Bob, the version of Word for people afraid of computers? That was Melinda's baby. ("Too cute," she says.) But even on troubled projects, Melinda was seen as a strong team builder. Says Patty Stonesifer, Melinda's former boss at Microsoft and now CEO of the Gates Foundation: "No question, if she had stayed, she would have been on the executive team at Microsoft."

Melinda worried about marrying Bill. "Bill had money," she says. "To me, it was like, Okay, Bill has money. Big deal." She saw what success was doing to him - robbing him of his privacy and a normal life. Both Melinda and Bill, in fact, questioned whether his conquer-the-world capitalist nature could co-exist with a family. "I thought, 'What would it be like to be married to someone who works that hard?'"

A friend from Omaha juiced the relationship. On Easter Sunday in 1993, Bill and Melinda were visiting his parents at their vacation home in Palm Springs when he announced that it was time to head back to Seattle. They returned to their private jet. The pilot announced the route. Bill drew the shades. To distract Melinda he pulled out a jigsaw puzzle. ("Bill's very good at complicated jigsaw puzzles, but she's unbelievable," Buffett says.) When the plane touched down and the doors opened, "There's Warren with a bugle," Melinda recalls. (This isn't Seattle, Melinda. It's Omaha!) As Buffett drove them to Borsheim's, a jewelry emporium owned by Berkshire Hathaway, he kept ribbing: "Bill, there's a metric of love here. I spent 6% of my net worth on Susie's ring. I don't know how much you love Melinda, but 6% is the yardstick in Omaha." Bill, worth $7.3 billion by this time, inquired about sales per square foot while Melinda checked out the goods. "I said an emerald. Bill said a diamond is more appropriate," she recalls. She chose a diamond scandalously shy of Buffett's price target.

Around that time Bill and Melinda started talking about giving his money away. They both figured they would wait until Bill was in his 60s, despite flak he was getting about his miserliness. "He had been advised by lawyers and accountants that he should have a foundation," recalls his father, "but he refused. He said he didn't need another entity." Melinda's wedding shower in December 1993 shifted the thinking. Bill's mother, Mary Gates, who was fighting breast cancer at the time, read a letter she had written to Melinda. "From those to whom much is given, much is expected" was its essence. Mary Gates passed away the following June. Her message spurred the creation of the first Gates charity, the William H. Gates III Foundation. Bill's dad ran it out of cardboard boxes in his basement.

Initially, Melinda recalls, the idea was to put laptops in classrooms - which was derided by many as a self-serving gesture by a software tycoon. But at the time, she was volunteering in a couple of schools in Seattle, and she realized that "there's a much bigger problem" than a technology divide. She and Bill decided to take on education reform broadly, focusing on secondary schools. "The piece that looked so intractable and no one was touching was high schools," she says.

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