In this episode of the Wait Wait… Back in the early 1990s, Melinda French was a rising star at a software company when the boss asked her out on a date. This was complicated because he was her boss, and frankly, he was kind of a nerd. But they fell in love and got married, and decided to raise a family, retire from the business, and in their spare time give away more money to charity than anyone else in the history of the world.
Melinda Gates is the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she focuses on family planning, agriculture, nutrition and U.S. education. (That nerdy boss, who’s now her husband, turned out to be Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.) We’ve invited her to play a game called “But I meant well, your Majesty.” Three questions about gifts given to Queen Elizabeth II.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support for NPR and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me. But as host Peter Sagal notes, Melinda Gates appears in this segment “because there’s nothing more hilarious than her foundation’s work to fight poverty and disease worldwide.”
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PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now, the game where we ask people who do important things to do something trivial. It’s called Not My Job. Back in the early 1990s, Melinda French was a rising star at a software company, when the boss asked her out on a date.
It was complicated. He was the boss and rankly, he was kind of a nerd. But they fell in love, they got married and decided to raise a family and eventually retire from the business, and in their spare time give away more money to charity than anyone else in the history of the world.
Melinda Gates is the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We are delighted to have her join us now. Melinda Gates, welcome to WAIT WAIT…DON’T TELL ME!
MELINDA GATES: Nice to be here, Peter.
SAGAL: Am I right in that? I have read this. Is it true that your foundation is, in fact, the largest charitable organization ever?
GATES: That is true, and it’s because of both our wealth that’s in the foundation and also our friend Warren Buffett’s wealth is in the foundation.
SAGAL: I wanted to ask you about this, because you do all this work all around the world, but it must be weird though to have this wealthy foundation that’s involved in this work. Because when I get up in the morning and I read about death, disease, privation, poverty, I go “well, it’s not my problem.”
SAGAL: But you could actually fix it.
GATES: Well, some of the diseases, we do feel that we can make a huge difference in. Something like malaria, we feel like the funding that we’ve given and the scientists we’ve been able to garner in the field that hopefully in our lifetimes will actually eradicate malaria off the face of the planet.
PETER GROSZ: I have a bike that I hope to fix that’s not working.
GROSZ: So I hope to eradicate the non-working bike.
SAGAL: Wasn’t there an event, I remember reading about a few years ago, in which your husband and partner in this venture, Bill Gates, was at some event and talking about your malaria eradication, and he surprised the room by releasing a bunch of mosquitoes into the room to make some sort of point. Am I making this up or did this happen?
GATES: He did. No, and all the people in the front row all kind of cringed and got down. They wanted to climb under their seats. Luckily, the mosquitoes themselves didn’t actually have malaria in the end.
GROSZ: Luckily or…
SAGAL: Wait a minute.
SAGAL: Was that like some sort of oversight?
GATES: Well, one of the things – the other thing is that every now and then, you know, Bill likes to put his scientific brain against things. And so one of the other ideas he’s got with some friends that may actually be promising is zapping the wings off of mosquitoes. Hard to imagine in Africa though.
SAGAL: Wait a minute; zapping them off?
GATES: Well, yeah, it’s not going to be a very good century to be a mosquito, because between that or chopping their legs off when they land on a mosquito net, we don’t think they’re going to be long for this world, this particular flavor of mosquito.
SAGAL: All right, what do you do if a bunch of mosquitoes in suits come to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they go “Look, we’ve got this problem, we’d like your help. These people keep trying to cut off our wings.”
SAGAL: And we’ve…
GATES: We might zap them.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: Wait, I want to back up here. You know, the foundation does so many important things for really serious and global issues. Is there something that was kind of frivolous but it was just so cool you couldn’t resist and that you got involved in?
GATES: Well, it is interesting. I mean, people come up with ideas that sound like completely wacky when you first – when it’s first presented, but there’s a genesis of an idea.
So another thing somebody came up with in malaria that actually had a good idea, is first they wanted us to collect all these sweaty and worn socks to create a mosquito repellant. Well, it turns out the idea of having that human scent on something is a good idea, we’re just not going to collect the sweaty socks to do it.
MO ROCCA: Oh, geez.
SAGAL: Somebody said collect sweaty socks. And then the idea is like you put the sweaty socks over there in that corner of the room and the mosquitoes all go over there because it smells like a person.
ROCCA: Yeah, they were basically asking the foundation to come clean up their house.
GATES: And they probably wanted an allowance to be paid for that too.
SAGAL: I understand.
ROCCA: I’m curious, if you and I went to lunch and then the waiter brought the check…
ROCCA: Well, first of all, would you pay it?
GATES: I’d say chances are is he’d probably bring it to me rather than you.
ROCCA: OK, well what if – like I’m curious – like if I said like “No, no, no, I’m going to pick up the check. Let me take it.” Would you just go “oh god, give me a break?”
ROBERTS: Can I ask a totally personal question? OK, so…
ROCCA: You can ask it.
SAGAL: Try to stop her. Try to stop her, Melinda.
ROBERTS: No, no, I’m going to ask. So you’ve got, I think, two or three kids, is that right?
GATES: We have three.
ROBERTS: I want to know, so what are you going to tell them about workplace romances?
GATES: Well, I think they could answer that for themselves. It worked out for us. I’m not sure it would work in this day and age but it certainly did for us.
SAGAL: Well, the story is – since Roxanne has broached this topic – the story is that you were working at Microsoft. It was the early 90s. And Bill Gates, who of course, famously is the founder and CEO at the time of Microsoft, asked you out in a parking lot?
GATES: He did. The first time he asked me out, he said, “Could you go out two weeks from this coming Saturday night?”
GATES: And I said, well that’s not exactly spontaneous enough for me. Why don’t you call me closer to the date?
SAGAL: What did you think about that? I mean…
GATES: I was like, wow, who knows their calendar two weeks from Saturday night? Are you kidding?
SAGAL: Did the phrase “what a dork” cross your mind?
GATES: Well, actually, one thing is it does show his humor, which is a couple of hours later, he called me and he said, “How about tonight?”
ROCCA: Oh, that’s nice.
SAGAL: There you go.
GATES: Well, the only problem with that he said – right after that he said, “but I do have this user group thing I have to go to and another dinner. So how about sometime later tonight?” I’m like, a user group thing, what is that?
GROSZ: That’s when you said what a dork.
SAGAL: A user group is like people who were using Microsoft products.
GATES: Exactly. He had to go demonstrate a product to them that night.
SAGAL: I mean, I imagine it was awkward. He was your boss. He was the head of the company you were working at and you were an accomplished professional. Did you think about, well what’s this going to do in my career? I mean, was that a concern?
GATES: Put it this way, when I called my mom, she didn’t think it was a very good idea.
SAGAL: I imagine you sitting there, like doing one of those classic pro and con things. Like con, he’s my boss. Pro, he’s a billionaire.
GATES: Well, I didn’t exactly think we were going to get married, so I thought going out with him once wasn’t going to hurt anything.
ROCCA: And who picked up the check?
GATES: Definitely him.
SAGAL: Well, Melinda Gates, we are delighted to have you with us, and we’ve asked you here to play a game we’re calling…
CARL KASELL: But I meant well, Your Majesty.
SAGAL: We understand from talking to you that it’s hard to give away money. You have to be careful and thoughtful, do your research. You know what’s harder? Giving gifts to the Queen of England.
We’re going to ask you three questions about gifts given to Queen Elizabeth II. Answer two of those questions correctly; you’ll win our prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is Melinda Gates playing for?
KASELL: Melinda is playing for Sebastian Nilsson of San Francisco.
SAGAL: Ready to play?
SAGAL: All right. Now, protocol dictates that a visiting head of state is supposed to give something to the Queen that represents their cultures, local craft maybe. So what did French President George Pompidou give the Queen, or more specifically give to her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, when he made a state visit in 1972? Was it A: did he give the Duke of Edinburgh a mistress?
SAGAL: B: a greeting card with $5 in it?
SAGAL: Or C: a six-foot long cooler for wine in the shape of a grasshopper?
GATES: I’m going to have to go with A.
SAGAL: You’re going to have to go with A.
GROSZ: A mistress.
SAGAL: I’m sorry. Your proposition is that in order to represent French culture, craft, the president of France, George Pompidou, in 1972, presented to the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth’s consort and husband, a mistress?
GATES: I’m not going to editorialize on my answer. It’s got to be A.
SAGAL: No, I’m sorry. In fact, the answer was C, a six-foot long cooler for wine in the shape of a grasshopper.
SAGAL: I just have to say that you instantly just became my favorite person ever. So thank you for that.
SAGAL: You still have two more chances. Once, South African President Jacob Zuma thought he came up with the perfect gift for the Queen, a hand-carved chess set, with the pieces modeled after two different tribes of African warriors. But he discovered a problem when what happened? A: The Queen looked at the figures and said, “Oh, my, I can see their most private parts.”
SAGAL: B: he walked past, Zuma did, an identical chess set given to the Queen by Nelson Mandela. Or C: the Duke of Edinburgh muttered, quote, “Chess is a game for wankers.”
GATES: Oh, I’m going to go with B on this one.
SAGAL: An identical chess set given to the Queen by Nelson Mandela?
SAGAL: You’re right, yes, indeed.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: It’s hard to come up with an original idea these days. All right, last question, if you get this, you win. The Queen gets all kinds of gifts from all kinds of people. The official list of royal gifts includes which of these? A: a black velvet painting of Elvis as Henry VIII?
SAGAL: B: A dozen cans of tuna? Or C: a seven-foot high marijuana plant?
GATES: I’m going to have to go with B again.
SAGAL: A dozen cans of tuna?
SAGAL: You’re right, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: The royal family’s website, which lists this gift does not say who gave her the tuna or why.
SAGAL: Perhaps she was hungry. Carl, how did Melinda Gates do on our show?
KASELL: Melinda had two correct answers, Peter, and that’s good enough to win for Sebastian Nilsson. Congratulations.
SAGAL: Well done.
SAGAL: Congratulations, Melinda. Can I ask, is there another big initiative coming up for the foundation? What’s the next big…
GATES: Well, one of the really big things we’ve done this year is family planning, making sure that women all over the world get access to contraceptives.
SAGAL: I understand that birth control has become a personal cause of yours. Is that true?
GATES: That’s absolutely true.
SAGAL: And how many kids do you have?
SAGAL: Yeah, I could really see that inspiration.
GATES: Well, in fact, I open my talk about family planning for the year, to kick this off, by saying, you know, a billion couples a year have sex, and guess what, one of them is me.
ROCCA: That’s excellent.
SAGAL: I am so blushing now.
SAGAL: Melinda Gates is the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she focuses on family planning, agriculture, nutrition and U.S. education. Melinda Gates, thank you so much for joining us.
GATES: Thank you.
SAGAL: Very much appreciate it. You were great to talk to.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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