(Top) Melinda Gates visits UCLA, sponsored by UCLA Burkle Center and the UCLA Center for World Health. Students gathered (second) to hear an interview with Melinda Gates. Before that event, she met with the author and 15 other select students (third) for a more informal conversation. Abraar Karan (bottom) is a fourth-year student and class president in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He participates in the Global Health Pathway through the UCLA Center for World Health.
The room was silent. Sixteen of us sat around a square table, breathing softly but quickly, unsure of what to think, do or say as we waited for one of the wealthiest and most powerful women on earth to walk in. What does one say in these moments? Good afternoon? How are things? How’s the family? We were a group of graduate and undergraduate students studying medicine, global health and international development, anticipating the arrival of Melinda Gates at the Sierra Room of the UCLA Faculty Center.
We had been prepped beforehand; Alexandra Lieben, deputy director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, reminded us that we were about to meet a singular woman, while Mrs. Gates’s chief-of-staff, John Sage, assured us that she was human. Ultimately, it probably didn’t matter what anyone told us before she arrived because we all shared one thing in common: We knew what she and her husband Bill have done for millions of people around the world through their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and thus, she was a hero.
When she entered the room, no one said a word. I wanted to say something, but nothing came out. It was like what you might imagine if a perfect meal is brought out from the kitchen of the world’s greatest chef and placed in front of you — it’s almost more satisfying to not disturb the food, instead admiring it for its rarity and wonder. And so, those first few seconds were just like that — a plate of perfect silence. But that didn’t last for long, as Mrs. Gates immediately showed us who she really is: a mother of two children who, as she said herself, “are never quiet, so I know something is wrong here.” We all laughed — a combination of her humor and our relief that she indeed was real.
Melinda — if it would not be too familiar for me to call her Melinda from this point forward — began the conversation with a brief overview of her vision for the near future. Primarily, she emphasized the need for a broadly inclusive approach to global development, one that incorporates a holistic, bottom-up strategy originating with the people who understand their own problems the best. This approach allows innovation to grow from necessity and cultural pragmatism rather than the traditionally siloed, problem-based projects of the past — ones that we know from experience have been insufficient in addressing the complexity of most global issues.
However, it was not her expertise in the arena of global development that most impressed me; that was something I expected from someone of her experience. But, as we delved into conversation about global issues, such as women’s inequality worldwide and the complex geopolitics of foreign aid and development, Melinda always brought the conversation back to stories of real people and their very real lives. And she could only do this because they were stories that she had experienced firsthand. There are few people in the world who can say that they sit at the head of a multibillion-dollar endowment and also spend many of their days in mud huts talking to people who earn just pennies because they really want to understand.
There is something in Melinda that you only can discern when you speak to her directly. Despite the wearying slog through Los Angeles traffic and facing the prospect of being interviewed in front of 400-plus people right after our more intimate discussion, there was no hesitation, no seemingly pre-fabricated answers, no bull. This is a woman who demonstrates, through her words and her demeanor, that she simply is one person wanting to understand the struggles of people around the world and hoping, with the benefit of her remarkable means, to make a difference. It is true that her contribution is likely to be larger, in both financial and practical terms, than that of almost any other person alive, but she didn’t make us feel that way. Instead, she inspired us to believe that the contributions we and others can make are of equal value and importance. Her democratic persona made it easy for us to talk to her, to share thoughts, beliefs and concerns, and to expect an honest response in return.
I learned a lot that afternoon, and somehow those 40 or so minutes felt both like days and seconds at the same time. As students, we asked her many questions about technical issues — what she thought about X problem this or Y solution that — probably because a part of us wanted to impress her, or at least not to look stupid in front of her. After all, we were chosen for this opportunity, the ones who could supposedly speak her language, who knew what the Abuja Declaration or Millennium Development Goals were, who could challenge her with difficult questions to see if she had all the answers. But everyone in the room knew — including Melinda — that no one person has all the answers.
I wish we had also asked her the questions that we really wanted to ask: What has been her biggest regret in a journey so extraordinary? What is the most important lesson she has learned? If she were young again, what would she do in a world such as ours is today — a world with personal computers, cell phones and the Internet, where many people, even in developing countries, have access to unlimited knowledge within seconds.
And through her example, we must ask ourselves: What will we do in a world in which inequality is more than just a headline? What will be our contributions to making a difference in such a world?