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The female force that is Melinda Gates

updated 7:34 AM EDT, Thu September 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gates is co-founder of the multi-billion dollar philanthropic foundation she runs with her husband
  • She plans to get contraceptives to 120 million women around the world by 2020
  • Gates elaborates on her early relationship with Bill while working together at Microsoft

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

Hong Kong, (CNN) -- In the history of power couples who met at work, there's Michelle and Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and, yes, even Pam and Jim from "The Office."

And then there's Melinda and Bill Gates. Jointly helming a multi-billion dollar philanthropic foundation, they are firmly at the top of the power couple pyramid.

A married couple who met at work is not a particularly rare thing. Three in ten workers who have dated a colleague said in a recent survey by CareerBuilder.com that their office romance eventually led to marriage.

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But for Melinda, the situation was different. While at Microsoft, where she rose to General Manager of Information Products, she was dating the big boss.

Read: Lessons from the C-suite

Let me rephrase that.

She was dating the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful founder of Microsoft whose software powered the PC revolution.

So, was it tough?

"Sure," she tells me. "I had very clear boundaries, and my teams knew that -- that I did not go home and discuss work with Bill because he was the CEO."

"And I think that allowed me to be effective with them and for them to know that I was leading them as a team."

Recently in Kuala Lumpur, we had a wide-ranging and refreshingly frank conversation about her work as the co-founder of one of the world's largest private foundations.

We talked about her goals at the foundation, namely her plan to get modern contraceptives to another 120 million women around the world by 2020.

But for CNN's Leading Women series, I wanted to get to get something else out of the interview -- a chance to hear straight from one of the world's most powerful women on how to power ahead (without relying on that overused phrase "work-life balance".

Read: Richer than Trump or Oprah

As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, her job involves major policy goals from education reform to polio eradication. A typical day at the office may include strategy reviews and one-on-one meetings, but a substantial amount of her work happens out on the field.

Gates spends a third of her time on the road. She says carving out quality time for both her work and her family is a struggle that she manages through considerable planning and bringing the kids to work.

"Some of my trips I actually plan around their school breaks," she says. "So, all three of our children have been with us to Africa."

"Bill and I go over our calendars a lot to make sure as much as we can that one of us is home when we can be and to make sure that the kids know they really are the center of our lives."

Both Mr. and Mrs. Gates endeavor to drive the children to school, tuck them into bed at night, and cheer them on from the sidelines.

And if Bill is about to shirk family time for other matters, Melinda will call him on it.

"There was a science fair recently at at school. Bill had promised he would be there. I signed up for something on the road and he had a pretty important trip come up. I had to say, 'You know, you said you were going to do that.' So, sure enough, he followed through."

So yes, Melinda Gates prompts Bill to "lean in" when it comes to parenting duties. Bill in turn honors her career triumphs with the family, including her being named by Forbes the third most powerful woman in the world.

"We don't show the kids all the press because they don't need to know everything that Bill and I are doing. But at the dinner table, Bill actually brought it up and the kids said, 'Wow, mom that's really fantastic!'"

Read: Sheryl Sandberg: Why men need to speak up in gender debate

"Our youngest daughter who's 10 said to me later that night, 'You know mom, you should tell us more about what you do.'"

And she does, especially as the Gates prepare for their children to make their own way in the world.

Bill Gates has famously said he would leave only a fraction of his fortune to his heirs. Earlier this year on Reddit, he said, "I definitely think leaving kids massive amounts of money is not a favor to them."

Melinda couldn't agree more.

"We both feel like we benefited enormously from feeling like we had jobs, we had income, we were watching how we were spending our money. I want my kids to have that opportunity.

"So that's another reason why it's important for me to be a role model, particularly for my girls to see what it's like to be a woman and do that juggle between work life and family life."

So she works to inform and inspire her own children.

She works to bring her partner on side to share the responsibilities and joys of raising a family.

And she works to extend access to lifesaving medicine, quality education and modern contraceptives to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

For the female force that is Melinda Gates, that's all in a day's work.

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