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Melinda Gates on tech’s ‘bro culture’ and investing in the next generation of female leaders

In Technology
May 23, 2024

From Microsoft’s (MSFT) bro culture in the early 1980s to empowering the next generation of female leaders.

That sums up the last four decades of Melinda French Gates‘s leadership life.

“I think you get these industries where, when over time they become very male-dominated, then the guys expect that everybody’s going to act the way they act. And when they don’t see somebody leading or acting the way they are there, there’s pushback,” Gates shared in a new episode of Yahoo Finance’s Lead This Way.

Gates spoke to us inside the Kirkland, Wash., headquarters of her venture capital firm Pivotal Ventures, mere weeks before she stunned the philanthropic world in mid-May.

Gates, 59, announced she would be stepping down as co-chair of the Gates Foundation on June 7. She co-founded the Gates Foundation — one of the most influential organizations in global public health — alongside former husband and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates more than 20 years ago.

In a post on X, Gates said it was the right time for her to move “into the next chapter of my philanthropy.”

Through spokespeople, Gates declined to comment further to Yahoo Finance on her decision.

Melinda French Gates talks with Yahoo Finance Executive Editor Brian Sozzi about her next decade as a leader.

Melinda French Gates talks with Yahoo Finance Executive Editor Brian Sozzi about her next decade as a leader. (Yahoo Finance) (Yahoo Finance)

As part of her separation from the Gates Foundation, Gates will be provided with $12.5 billion to invest in her philanthropic endeavors.

“[The Gates Foundation] is a beautiful piece of glue in our lives and has been for a long time … We were even running the Foundation when we were having difficult times in the marriage. And I would say at times it held us together. We were even running the Foundation as we were negotiating a divorce behind the scenes that nobody knew about,” Gates told Yahoo Finance.

Gates’s decision to depart the Gates Foundation and devote more time to supporting women leaders shouldn’t come as a surprise.

After graduating from Duke University, she joined Microsoft in 1987 as one of the few female managers.

Though she worked at the company for nine years, Gates initially disliked Microsoft’s culture and how it influenced her leadership development.

“I loved the hard-charging pace. I loved that we were changing society. We knew we were changing the world. But I almost quit two years in because of what you call this bro culture … There was a leadership style that was very debate-oriented, just constantly debate and rough and tumble,” Gates recalled.

“I didn’t actually like who I was becoming outside of work. Like I could play the game. I knew how to play the game, I knew how to run the meeting. But then I just said, wait a minute, is this who I want to be? And it wasn’t.”

Though Gates received offers from consulting firms, she decided to stay and bust through the barriers at Microsoft.

“It turned out that by being myself and and having a different type of leadership, I could attract all kind of talent around the company who didn’t want to have that rough-and-tumble culture,” she said.

By 2000, she co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (now the Gates Foundation), which aims to reduce health inequities in low-income countries. Thanks to an annual donation of $3.1 billion from friend and famed investor Warren Buffett, it catapulted the Gateses into the upper echelon of the philanthropic world.

The Gates Foundation remains a force in the philanthropic world.

The Gates Foundation remains a force in the philanthropic world. (Yahoo Finance)

Then, in 2015, Gates created Pivotal Ventures, which aims to invest in early-stage companies led by women.

According to a recent McKinsey report, companies founded solely by women garnered less than 2% of the total capital invested in VC-backed startups in the United States in 2022. Only 0.1% of VC funds went to Black and Latino women founders.

To date, Pivotal Ventures has invested in over 150 organizations like Ellevest, a wealth management company for women, and the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit seeking to achieve gender equality.

Within the VC space, Pivotal Ventures makes both indirect and direct investments into series A to C companies. One hundred percent of the funds it invests in have female general partners, while over 60% have at least one general partner of color.

The “bro culture” Gates is referring to is still rampant in the tech industry, and is seen as hindering female-founded companies. According to a survey by the Women Tech Network, 72% of women in tech report experiencing it.

Meanwhile, 63% of those in engineering and IT roles have encountered a “pervasive bro culture.”

“I will say in this next decade, I am also looking to who are the young leaders that I can support that ultimately we can hand the baton off to,” Gates said on her road ahead.

“I hope that women and people of color see that you can lead differently and you can be at the top of your field and you can be a great human being, living your personal life the way you want to and be a leader in your sector,” she added.

Yahoo Finance’s Shelby Boamah and Corey Goldman contributed to this story.

Brian Sozzi is Yahoo Finance’s Executive Editor. He is also the host of the “Opening Bid” podcast. Follow Sozzi on Twitter/X @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn. Tips on deals, mergers, activist situations, or anything else? Email brian.sozzi@yahoofinance.com. Are you a CEO and want to come on Yahoo Finance Live? Email Brian Sozzi.

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