Melinda Gates Wants a Radical Redesign of How We Think About the 21st-Century Workplace

Gates spoke with Hearst COO and Task Rabbit CEO at SXSW

Melinda Gates spoke at SXSW on Sunday, along with with Hearst COO Joanna Coles, Task Rabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot and Time's Up co-founder Nina Shaw. Getty Images
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

When Melinda Gates was hired at Microsoft, she was the only woman in her hiring class. During orientation, a new colleague picked a fight with a vp at the company—Gates later learned that colleague had been advised to be more aggressive—and that moment, which Gates shared during her keynote at South by Southwest in Austin on Sunday, became one of many that lead Gates to question if she could fit into the culture at Microsoft with “abrasive” and “combative” colleagues.

“It took a while to realize that me emulating the people around me to be in their mold [wasn’t working],” said Gates, who is now the co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Maybe I wasn’t the problem. Maybe the mold was the problem. Young people, especially women and people of color, enter the workforce and are so eager to have their ideas take hold but then bump up against barriers and bias and that makes them question whether they belong.”

Gates—along with Hearst COO Joanna Coles, Task Rabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot and entertainment lawyer and Time’s Up co-founder Nina Shaw—laid out how, as Gates put it, the “American workforce has evolved, but the American workplace hasn’t caught up to that.” The group argued for changing workplace culture, rejecting the “old boy’s club” mentality and making the case that change wouldn’t only would be it good for people, but good for business, too.

Gates hopes to help “lead a radical redesign of how we think about work in the 21st century” so that we can “create a future of breakthrough innovations open to anyone who dreams of having them.” And she’s not the only prominent woman in business to commit to speaking openly and making change.

Before becoming the CEO of Task Rabbit, Brown-Philpot explained that, years ago during her time at Google, she looked around and realized there weren’t many black people working at the company. She brought this up to Sheryl Sandberg, saying something had to be done about this issue. Sandberg told Brown-Philpot that she was the person who would change it and that the company had been waiting for her.

The point of the story, explained Brown-Philpot, was to get people in the audience to understand that somewhere down the line, you become the person responsible for advocating for change. Her quest for more black employees at Google was “admittedly … selfish in the beginning,” said Brown-Philpot. “But it changed the conversation about diversity and inclusion in the company.”

Shaw explained that she now hears from people asking, “How do I join Time’s Up?” to which she replies,”You are Time’s Up.”

Shaw continued: “Being the person who initiates [change] doesn’t mean you’re only at the top.”

Of Time’s Up—which today launched an advertising initiative signed by 180 female agency leaders—and the continued quest for change, Shaw said, “We’re not going to stop, and we’re making that very clear. I think there are a bunch of guys waiting for this to be over, and it’s never going to be over.”

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.