Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s son died at age 26. Here’s what he taught the leader about empathy

March 2, 2022, 3:53 PM UTC

Microsoft chairman and CEO Satya Nadella’s son, Zain, died Monday at the age of 26, a company spokesperson confirmed to the Wall Street Journal. Zain had suffered from cerebral palsy.

“As [Zain’s] parents, it was up to us not to question ‘why,’ but instead to do everything we could to improve his life,” Nadella wrote in a LinkedIn post in 2017. He called his wife, Anu, an “amazing woman, mother, and partner,” whose empathy has inspired his own. “From her I have learned that when I infuse empathy into my everyday actions, it is powerful, whether they be in my role as a father or as a CEO.”

Zain’s challenges showed Nadella why technology must become more inclusive and accessible to users with disabilities. Shortly after becoming Microsoft’s CEO in 2014, Nadella unveiled a new mission statement for the company, saying, “I define my mission and that of my company as empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

“Becoming a father of a son with special needs…has shaped my personal passion for and philosophy of connecting new ideas to empathy for others,” Nadella wrote on LinkedIn. “And it is why I am deeply committed to pushing the bounds on what love and compassion combined with human ingenuity and passion to have impact can accomplish with my colleagues at Microsoft.”

He added that inclusive teams advancing inclusive principles will have the deepest impact in building products designed for everyone, and that many people, at some point in their lives, will come to rely on assistive tech. 

“Our work in accessibility has an incredibly deep meaning to me personally,” he wrote. “Our family’s experience has required me to continually hit refresh on my emotions and on my outlook, and it is in this constant quest for renewal that I realize—despite the fact we are making progress—we still have much to do, quickly, for so many.”

In May 2021, the Nadella family donated $15 million to Seattle Children’s Hospital to advance its neurosciences medicine and mental health care. Nadella and his wife, Anu, also established the Zain Nadella Endowed Chair in Pediatric Neurosciences.

When he was born, Zain received lifesaving care at Seattle Children’s, and ongoing treatment throughout his life, the hospital wrote in the donation announcement last year. 

“Zain will be remembered for his eclectic taste in music, his bright sunny smile, and the immense joy he brought to his family and all those who loved him,” Dr. Jeff Sperring, the hospital’s CEO, wrote in a message to Microsoft’s C-suite commemorating Zain’s loss, according to GeekWire

In a passage in his 2017 book, Hit Refresh, Nadella recalled visiting Zain in the ICU shortly after becoming Microsoft’s CEO in 2014, and noticing all of his son’s medical devices running Windows, connected to the cloud.

“It was a stark reminder that our work at Microsoft transcended business, that it made life itself possible for a fragile young boy,” he wrote. “It also brought a new level of gravity to the looming decisions back at the office on our cloud and Windows 10 upgrades. We’d better get this right, I recall thinking to myself.”

The Nadella family is taking time to privately grieve Zain’s loss, Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s chief people officer, wrote in a message to company executives sharing the news of Zain’s passing.

“I know we all want to support Satya during this difficult time,” she wrote. “The best way right now is to hold him and his family in your thoughts and prayers, while allowing them the privacy and peace to process such a grave loss.”

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