By Britney Grover
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
Jennifer “Jenn” Gates has a lot to be excited about. She’s engaged to the man of her dreams, she’s balancing her passion for riding with her studies at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and she recently acquired grand prix superstar Darry Lou from Beezie Madden and Abigail Wexner.
When Jenn talks about her fiancé, grand prix rider Nayel Nassar, she can’t keep a bright smile from stealing over her face, reaching not just her eyes but her voice as she sits in her New York City apartment. When asked about riding while at medical school, she emanates gratitude for the opportunity to ride and for the people who support her, acknowledging that the situation will continue to evolve as her studies progress.
During the pandemic quarantine, Jenn and her team at Evergate Stables are enjoying the extra time to deepen partnerships with all of the horses, including new arrival Darry Lou. But in a half hour of conversation, the one thing Jenn keeps coming back to, the one thing that makes her voice speed up with so much excitement it nearly derails her eloquent sentences, is learning.
Jenn is passionate about learning itself, from studying the human body to learning how to thrive within the human experience so she can in turn help others. Jenn says the joy of being a lifelong learner came from her parents, Bill and Melinda Gates. In everything from Microsoft and the business world to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supporting major issues like education and global health, Jenn has watched her parents continue to learn and evolve.
Now 24, Jenn is happy to admit she’s learning as she goes — and she’s excited to keep doing so the rest of her life. “I was born into a huge situation of privilege,” she said, “and I think it’s about using those opportunities and learning from them to find things that I’m passionate about and hopefully make the world a little bit of a better place.”
Growing Up a Gates
Horses have been a big part of Jenn’s life since she first started taking “pony lessons” at 6 years old. By 8, she was training with Jack and Hardin Towell, who set her off on her competitive equestrian career. Though no one else in her family rides competitively, her parents have always stood behind Jenn’s endeavors, from horses to medical school.
“They’ve always had my back,” she said. “When I was younger, they told me to pursue whatever it was I was interested in, whether it was math or science or reading or writing. I always felt like I really had a good foundation with them believing in me and being willing to support me in any of my pursuits.”
Finding and developing her passions is another thing Jenn picked up from her parents. “As a young kid, they always talked to me like I was an adult and weren’t willing to shy around difficult conversations,” she said. “I grew up hearing about children’s mortality at the dinner table, about polio, about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Both of my parents are incredibly hardworking people. They’ve obviously had a lot of privilege, but they continue learning and are passionate about making the world a better place. I think that’s really cool, and it has definitely rubbed off on me as I find my way towards my own passions.”
As it turns out, those dinner conversations sparked Jenn’s interest in medicine at an early age. Melinda once found Jenn not just playing “doctor,” but informing one of her dolls that she had HIV/AIDS and that Jenn was going to help her. “My mom thought at that point maybe they were talking a bit too much about global health at the dinner table,” Jenn laughed.
The spark was kindled further by her pediatrician, who inspired Jenn to think about how fortunate she was to be born into a situation where her parents could always provide for her and how many children don’t have that, but that a pediatrician or family practitioner can provide much-needed support. That role model was the catalyst for Jenn to pursue medicine beginning with undergraduate studies at Stanford University, but she discovered that many obstacles can’t be overcome by studying a textbook.
Learning From Life
No matter her family background, Jenn’s had to learn how to overcome trials of the human experience. At Stanford, she struggled with chemistry and had moments of truly doubting herself; in riding, she was once terrified of falling off. But life has been teaching her the tools and strategies to steadily build her self-confidence and stretch outside her comfort zone.
“Everyone struggles with self-doubt, or feeling like we’re not good enough, all these different things,” Jenn said. “Self-care is a bit of a buzzword, but for me it’s about doing the internal work and coming to a place where you can accept and love those parts of yourself, and really feel whole so that you can then be a better partner, a better rider or a better student, and feel more comfortable in everyday moments.”
After graduating from Stanford in 2018, Jenn took a year to enjoy competing around the world and to focus on horses. Last fall, she took a step back in riding to take on a new challenge: medical school.
“The first week of medical school, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of content we had that I kind of forgot about my self-care, which has become really important for me,” Jenn shared. “Since then, I’ve learned to rebalance and make sure I have time for sleep, relationships, exercise, quiet time — all of the fundamentals that help me show up for the schoolwork and to show up for my patients in the future.”
Jenn enjoys ISMMS’s patient-centric curriculum that focuses on the human interaction. The first two years are lecture-based and students study one class at a time, very intensively, with exams on the weekends. Despite the rigors of her studies, Jenn is thus far doing something she’s never heard of: continuing to ride at the 1.60m level. Before the pandemic, Jenn was even able to compete internationally when her school schedule permitted, relying on both her barn team and her school friends, who video call to study.
Jenn gains inspiration and guidance from her female role models like Georgina Bloomberg, who rides as well as pursues her passions in making the world a better place, and Jenn’s own mother, whom she describes as incredibly compassionate, intelligent and always willing to learn. “Without those role models, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to try something new,” Jenn said.
Continuing to ride works for now, but Jenn knows she may have to readjust over time. “I think that’s been really a crucial lesson for me, that you have to have an open mindset and really think about what you’re prioritizing in any given week or month, and know that things can change,” she said. “I’m fortunate right now to be able to do both; I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities and grateful to be able to say that I’m playing it by ear. I might be too busy someday or I might make mistakes, but I think that’s all part of life and the process.”
All About Relationships
As Jenn continues to adapt to her situation, she knows she can’t do it alone. She’s grateful for her support system, including the Evergate Stables team members, who manage her horses and logistics, as well as her school friends, her family and, of course, her fiancé. “Nayel always reminds me to believe in myself, which is so important,” Jenn said. “I’m so lucky to have him as a partner. He’s incredibly supportive, humble and loyal, and someone that I look forward to building a life with, growing and supporting each other through both our shared passions and our individual ones.”
Nayel and Jenn both attended Stanford University, though at different times. They met through horses, were friends for “a very long time,” started dating a few years ago and were engaged in January — which was unexpected for Jenn. “Everything happened organically. We had discussed spending a future together, which I think is very important, but I was surprised — happily surprised — by the proposal,” she said, sounding as though she were reliving the dreamlike experience. “It was really special, an intimate moment just for the two of us to celebrate, and something I’ll cherish forever.”
Jenn and Nayel enjoy sharing the passion for horses, whether that’s discussing their individual horses or going on trail rides together. Though Nayel also rides out of Evergate Stables, they keep their training separate. Jenn rides with Dutch Olympian Harrie Smolders, who has been monumental in helping Jenn gain confidence in her riding.
When she’s finished with medical school, Jenn sees herself working with patients as a pediatrician or family practitioner, but she’s keeping her options open — just as with horses. Eventually, she’d like to represent Team USA in some Nations Cups and attend World Cup Finals. But first and foremost, her goal right now is simply being able to ride and be around the amazing creatures that are horses. “I know I won’t always be able to compete, or even to ride every week. But horses are just too special,” Jenn said. “I can’t imagine not having them as a part of my life.”
Though she doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, Jenn is totally OK with that. With life as her teacher and her passion for learning, Jenn will always have something to be excited about.
“I’m excited to continue to learn, and share what I can with people,” she concluded. “We’re all human and having different human experiences, yet there is something so universal about the way we all experience hardship, growth, love and joy in our lives. Being receptive to learning about others’ experiences, regardless of what they’re pursuing, will help me be a better physician in the future and continue to do my part in the world.”
For more information, visit evergatestables.com/
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com, unless noted otherwise
Styled by Nikki Rose/Visual Therapy. Hair and Makeup by Pablo Rivera.