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melindaMelinda French grew up without privilege or wealth.

Her father Ray French worked as a space engineer. Her mother had never attended college and always wished she had.  But such was the family’s ethics that Melinda and her three siblings spent weekends maintaining their rental properties as a means of earning money for their College tuition – which meant  “scrubbing floors and cleaning ovens and mowing the lawns” according to Melinda.

There was little to suggest that Melinda French, born August 15, 1964, in Dallas, Texas would grow up to be Melinda Gates, co-chair and founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a leader in the world of philanthropy.

In May 2013, Melinda Gates  ranked Number 3 on the Forbes annual list of the world’s most powerful women. That placed her ahead of such identities as Michelle Obama, in fourth place, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at number 5, Oprah Winfrey (13), and Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi  (29).  In fact, she was only outclassed by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel ( 1) and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff ( 2).

Yet, signals showing promise of things-to-come did flash throughout Melinda’s schooling and career. She developed an early interest in computers while taking an advanced math class at the Ursuline Academy, a Catholic school for girls and went on to pursue this interest in college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from Duke University and a Master’s in business administration, with a focus in economics, from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In fact, Melinda is more educated than her famous husband Bill who is tagged with the infamous title ‘Harvard’s most celebrated dropout.’

The top student in her year, Melinda graduated as valedictorian  from  Ursuline Academy of Dallas in 1982.  As part of her speech, she said “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.

In her nine years at Microsoft, aside from meeting and marrying the CEO, Bill Gates,  she rose to general manager of information products (Expedia, Encarta, Cinemania) and oversaw 300 employees.

Now, as co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda is dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world.

In 2012, Melinda pledged $560 million toward improving access to contraception for women in third-world countries. “Empowered women and girls will save lives, make families more prosperous and help the poorest countries in the world build stronger economies, Melinda wrote before attending the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur. “One key to empowerment – and an issue that’s a personal priority to me – is letting women decide when to have children.”

But accessibility to contraception is only one of her passions. Global health is another. After Melinda read a front-page New York Times story about children in developing countries dying of diseases that most Americans have never heard of such as rotavirus, which kills more than 500,000 children every year and others like malaria and tuberculosis that barely exist in the U.S., she acted.

She has been responsible for the funding of insecticide-treated bed nets to ward off malaria-carrying mosquitoes; providing microbicides to prevent the transmission of AIDS microloans; and insurance to help the poorest of the poor start businesses and farms. After visiting Kenya several years ago, Melinda instigated a plan to recreate for Africa a green revolution similar to the program that increased crop yields in Latin America and Asia beginning in the 1940s. Education has also benefitted from her concern.

Melinda Gates’ ranking as third on the Forbes annual list of the world’s most powerful women, comes as part of a year where the Foundation has announced the following  primary goals :  the eradication of polio worldwide by 2018 and the delivery of modern contraceptives to another 120 million women by 2020.

Not only has she come a long way, she’s still got a long way to go to achieve her goals. An incredibly inspiring woman.

[image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/7557040782/ ]