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French Lessons (From Mrs. Bill Gates)

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Melinda French doesn't do just a whole lot of interviews -- she usually lets her husband, departing (or is that, departing?) Microsoftie Bill Gates, do the couple's heavy high-profile lifting for the two of them, as she's off running their foundation and raising their three kids. But this week, the Dallas native sits for her longest interview to date with Fortune; the piece refers to it as "her first-ever profile." There's even an excerpt from her Ursuline Academy valedictory speech in 1982, when 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."

She spends a large part of the 5,400-word profile talking about those someones and sometimes -- including her father Ray (who "stretched their budget to pay for all four children to go to college") and Susan Bauer, Gates' math and computer science teacher at Ursuline. (Melinda often mentions Bauer in speeches, matter of fact.) Turns out, going to Ursuline was probably the best thing to happen to French:

During her freshman year she looked up recent graduates' college choices. She discovered that only Ursuline's top two students had gotten into elite schools. "I realized that the only way to get into a good college was to be valedictorian or salutatorian. So that was my goal," she explains. She hoped to go to Notre Dame.

Didn't we all know this girl in high school? The star student, captain of the drill team, candy striper in the hospital, tutor at the public school on the other side of the tracks? Melinda was all that. At Ursuline, where the motto is Serviam (Latin for "I will serve"), volunteerism was a requirement. Her ambition, insists Bauer, "was never abrasive. Never. She was always lovely and charming, and she would win people over by being persuasive."

She made valedictorian and got into Notre Dame. But Notre Dame did not get her. When she and her dad visited, she recalls, officials at the university told them that "computers are a fad" and that they were shrinking the computer science department. "I was crushed," Melinda says. Duke, which was expanding in computer science, got her instead. She earned her BA and MBA in five years. Then a helpful recruiter from IBM, where Melinda had worked as a summer intern, directed her to Microsoft. "I told the recruiter that I had one more interview at this young company, Microsoft," she recalls. "She said to me, 'If you get a job offer from them, take it, because the chance for advancement there is terrific.'"

I knew I should have gone to Ursuline, instead of just their silly Christmas dances. --Robert Wilonsky

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