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Melinda Gates talks Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and female empowerment

Brian Sozzi

Melinda Gates has done a lot in her lifetime. She’s a computer scientist and former manager at Microsoft; co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charitable organization; and traveled the world to champion women’s rights and promote education among other major accomplishments.

Now she can add author to the list. In her new book ‘The Moment of Lift,’ Gates reveals insights on how to empower women based on her lessons from meeting people through all walks of life.

Gates tells Yahoo Finance that it just felt like the right time to pen the book.

“Societies are better off when we have men and women equal. And I feel like we have this moment in time because of what happened with the MeToo movement all over the world. ... And I want to make sure this window doesn't pass us by,” Gates says.

Yahoo Finance’s Brian Sozzi talks with Gates about her book, husband Bill and how to empower women globally. Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Sozzi: Why write this book right now?

Melinda Gates: Because equality, it can't wait. And societies are better off when we have men and women equal. And I feel like we have this moment in time because of what happened with the MeToo movement all over the world. You see so many women running for Congress in 2018 in the midterm elections. And I want to make sure this window doesn't pass us by. And so now is the time. We've got all pull up together.

Sozzi: What will it take to have more women to have their moment of lift in the business community?

Gates: It will take us all looking at what's actually going on. A company needs to look at what's going on for their women inside their company. You know, what percentage of women are actually in management roles? What does pay look like? Are we-- in meetings, are men over explaining things that women have already said? So business by business, everybody has to look at those issues. And men have to also say we're going to help women. It takes men and women to help lift up women.

Sozzi: Well, what is the roadblock? Why aren't people moving fast enough? You say in your book that you're an impatient perfectionist. What is taking so long to move that needle?

Gates: Well, I think we just in society, sometimes, we don't look at what we've done in the past and the barriers that hold women back. And so we think, of course, women are moving up. But even if you look at this last rate of women going into Congress, which I think we all thought was fabulous news, at that rate, it's going to be 60 years until all women have parity in Congress with men. And so I think there are these barriers like unpaid work, or the fact that we have no paid family medical leave policy. We're the only industrialized nation that doesn't have that. And yet of our U.S. workforce, 47% are women.

Sozzi: How do you expect policy to change given that we do have more women in Congress?

Gates: Well, I think what you're seeing is women putting policies forward, and then — and sometimes, what I call many enlightened men, too, and saying, it's finally time. So unpaid family medical leave for the first time, we actually have a bill from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Neither one of them are perfect yet. But the fact we will actually eventually have a bill move forward in Congress, it takes women bringing issues like that forward.

Bill Gates, left, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett take questions during a press conference Monday, June 26, 2006, in New York.   Buffet, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, recently announced his intention of giving 10 million shares of his company to charitable organizations, the majority going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Bill Gates, left, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett take questions during a press conference Monday, June 26, 2006, in New York. Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, announced his intention of giving 10 million shares of his company to charitable organizations, the majority going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Sozzi: But you also write in the book it's important to have male allies.

Gates: Absolutely, because ... men are part of these families, and they do a great job. But I think one of the things I talk about in the book is that men have to support women, open their networks of power, create seats at the table, move venture capital funding. So we have to look — they have to look at what roles they have in business and how are they helping bring women along. And then they have to look in their home and say, what's actually in the distribution of labor in our home, and how do we maybe look at redistributing that a little bit.

Sozzi: We've had a lot of tech IPOs. I don't see a lot of women involved certainly at the top, but involved at these companies. What's the root problem of this?

Gates: Well, because — so women come forth in droves with ideas for businesses that could be very successful. Less than 2% of women get venture capital funding. Less than 1% of people of color get venture capital funding. So to me, that talks about a structural inequity. And I know there are people of color and women who have fabulous business ideas. And so one of the things I'm doing is not only using my voice — I'm a computer scientist — to say that shouldn't be. I'm also putting capital down.

Sozzi: Through Pivotal Ventures?

Gates: Through a company — an office I have called Pivotal Ventures, yes. And putting money in and believing in these early stage investments. I'm trying to show the way. And I expect a good return on that money. And I'm certain I'll get it.

Sozzi: Is there a path out of this? When will we see more women bringing companies to public markets?

Gates: I think once we start moving funding towards their businesses. That early seed stage funding, then Series A, then Series B. Then you will have far more female led companies taking companies public.

Sozzi: And on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, phenomenal initiatives there, where are you taking some your biggest risks?

Gates: I would say our biggest risk that we took was stepping into this contraceptive space. Because of intense political pressure in the United States, and some religious pressure, the global health community had backed off on contraceptives. And in 2012, we led an initiative and stepped back in, because it is the greatest anti-poverty tool in the world. When women can time and space ... the children are healthier, they can educate the kids, women can stay in school longer, and they can enter the workforce. We forget in the United States that it was the advent of the birth control pill that allowed women to work. And I believe that women should be able to do whatever they want. Raise a family, work, or work and raise a family. But without contraceptives, they can't realize that dream.

Sozzi: Do you think the issues around Medicare and Medicaid are potentially destabilizing, from an economic standpoint?

Gates: I think they could be. We know that we have the highest health care costs in the world. And we have a phenomenal health care system. However, the costs are disproportionate in terms of our GDP right now.

In this photo taken Feb. 1, 2019, Bill and Melinda Gates are interviewed in Kirkland, Wash. From their perch as the "unofficial deans" of big-ticket philanthropy, it's business as usual for the Gates amid questions about whether altruism by the wealthy is a force for good. They are speaking out as their annual letter reviewing their work and vision is released. This year's note focused on 2018's surprises in the areas where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are involved, including global health and development and U.S. education and poverty. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Melinda Gates pictured with husband Bill Gates. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Sozzi: What about Warren Buffett? What have you learned from him?

Gates: Oh my gosh, I could list about 100 things. He has been our shining light, I would say, for Bill and me in terms of our inspiration. You know, and just also, the wind at our back. You know, when I do something like step into the contraceptive space, he constantly says to me, ‘That is right.’

The other thing, Warren, it was his big idea to make sure that people of great means joined something that we formed called The Giving Pledge. And he's gone out and called, as have Bill and I — a number of billionaires — we now have 190 billionaires who've committed in 22 countries to give away half their wealth, either at their death or during their lifetime. That was Warren's big idea.

Sozzi: Does he encourage you to take risks?

Gates: Absolutely. When he gave his fortune from Berkshire Hathaway to his children's three philanthropies and to ours, he told all four of us, swing for the fences. I want you to take risks. The job of philanthropy, which Warren knows well, is to take this catalytic — to be the catalytic wedge, to take risk where government can't take risk — but you wouldn't want them to with taxpayer money. And he said, you were trying to fill in the gaps where capitalism has failed. So absolutely, swinging for the fences, take educated risks, and I'm here to watch you and to applaud when you do, and see what works.

Sozzi: Any interesting story you can share just from working with him?

Gates: Oh my gosh. Warren is just — he's just a delight. And so when you pick up the phone and call Warren or he calls you, he's always got a story to tell you, and a chuckle, and a laugh. And he just — I don't know, he just for Bill and me, he is our lift. That's what I would say — Warren is our lift. Bill talks to him now, I think, at least once every about 10 days. And whenever he gets off the phone, he'll come to dinner that night, say, oh, I talked to Warren today. He's talking about the following three things. And so Warren has been both of our lift in philanthropy.

Sozzi: Key to giving back, and giving money, and helping the next generation is capitalism — the ability to earn a return on your investments. Where do you fall in capitalism? Is it broken? What tweaks need to happen?

Gates: I absolutely want to live in a capitalistic society. And the people I meet in so many countries in Africa and Asia want to live in the United States because of capitalism and democracy. We don't have it all right, though. And so I think it's time for us to look at our tax policy. We should be taxing the wealthy more than middle class, middle class more than low income. We have too much inequity in society. So we need to have some of these policy discussions, and we need to tweak our capitalistic system so it works for everybody, not just the wealthy.

Sozzi: What does the future of tech look like? I know you believe in the power of software, as you write in the book.

Gates: Yes and I believe — I see tech is so pervasive in all of our lives, right? And even when I go in the developing world, people have cell phone in their pocket. And can save $1 a day in the Philippines, and Bangladesh, and Tanzania, and Kenya. And then they have the means to put their kids into school. So tech is transforming our lives.

But I'm a computer scientist by training. When I was in school, we were on the way up just like in law and medicine, to reach parity in terms of men and women. Those numbers have dropped precipitously, and that is a concern to me, and why I'm using my voice through Pivotal Ventures to talk about why we need more women in computer science and AI. Because it is setting our future for the world, and women have to have a seat at that table to innovate and create great products, and to make sure we don't bake bias into our system.

Sozzi: Do you think some of this tech is just being created is not for good, per se? It seems very service oriented, and more needs to be done in health care.

Gates: I think you're going to see more work being done in health care in the United States. What I would like to see, though, is more done in health care to help people around the world, not just in the highest income nation in the world.

Sozzi: Melinda Gates, thank you for joining Yahoo Finance.

Gates: Thanks, Brian.

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