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The difference a dad can make

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Graduation of Melinda French (Melinda Gates) from The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University
The guy on the left is my dad, Ray French. (I'm the one looking adoringly at him.) In honor of Father’s Day, I want to tell you a little bit about him and why he’s such an important figure in my life.
Ray French and Melinda (French) Gates at a graduation event
One of the many things I admire about my dad is that he was the first in his family to go to college. As family legend has it, the fall after he graduated high school, he boarded the train to Georgia Tech with just his newspaper route earnings and a jar of peanut butter.

From there, he went on to get a masters degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford and a job at an aerospace company that worked with NASA on the Apollo missions. I can still remember how it felt to see a rocket shoot into the sky, knowing he'd helped make it happen. Even though I didn’t know a lot of women who worked outside the home, I always knew that I wanted to have an exciting career like my dad’s.
Ray French and his children, standing in a grassy field
My parents both did a lot to nurture my dreams. I have lots of happy memories of doing science fair projects with my dad—like growing African violets in the garage and mold in the closet or sticking rods into the fireplace to see how long it took different metals to conduct heat.

Then, when I was 16, Dad brought home this computer and encouraged me to learn to code. I'm pretty sure my sister and I were supposed to share it, but it somehow ended up in my bedroom, where I spent hours playing games and learning the BASIC programming language.

Dad was also the first person I ever heard talk about the importance of diversity in STEM. He made a point of hiring women when he could because he believed the best teams he’d worked on were the ones with women mathematicians on them. That stuck with me.
Apple III personal computer with monitor and disk drive
I’ve seen studies suggesting that a supportive dad can impact a girl’s choice to stick with computing fields. I’m one of the stories behind those statistics. That’s my parents and me on the day I graduated from Duke with degrees in computer science and business. I may be the one wearing the robe in this photo, but it took all of us to get me across that stage.

Because of my dad, I was able to learn about the work of a computer scientist and actually see myself doing it. And that made all the difference.
Graduation of Melinda French (Melinda Gates) from The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University
That’s my dad and me walking down the aisle toward a beaming guy in big glasses (hi Bill). As I prepared to start my own family, I was grateful that I’d learned so much from my dad about the kind of partner I wanted for myself and the kind of father I wanted for my kids.
Wedding ceremony of Bill and Melinda Gates
One last photo. This is from one of my book tour events earlier this year. That's my dad, there in the middle, flanked by my mom and my daughter, Jenn. How incredible to look out into that sea of faces and see them front and center.

The title of my book, The Moment of Lift, was inspired by memories of watching rocket launches together as a family, all of us so proud of the role my dad played in them. I’ve always thought there’s something so special about that moment when the forces pushing us up overcome the forces pulling us down. And I realize now how lucky I am to have a dad who’s always been one of those forces pushing me higher.

Dad, today and every day, I have so much to thank you for. Happy Father's Day. I love you.
Jennifer Gates, Ray French, and Elaine French, sit in the audience during a talk with John Legend and Melinda Gates

Published: June 16, 2019
Edition: Data/Driven