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Zain Nadella, 1996-2022: Microsoft CEO’s son remembered for love of music, profound impact on his dad

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his wife Anu Nadella, photographed with their son, Zain. (Photo courtesy Microsoft and Seattle Children’s)

Zain Nadella, the son of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his wife, Anu Nadella, died Monday at the age of 26, according to a message sent to the company’s executives.

“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,” wrote Jeff Sperring, CEO of Seattle Children’s Hospital, in a message distributed to Microsoft’s executive team by Kathleen Hogan, the company’s chief people officer.

Zain Nadella suffered from asphyxia in utero that left him with cerebral palsy. Satya Nadella wrote about his son in his 2017 book, Hit Refresh, candidly describing how Zain’s birth required him to grow as a person.

“I was devastated,” he wrote. “But mostly I was sad for how things turned out for me and Anu. Thankfully, Anu helped me to understand that it was not about what happened to me. It was about deeply understanding what had happened to Zain, and developing empathy for his pain and his circumstances while accepting our responsibility as his parents.”

Zain was taken to Seattle Children’s shortly after his birth, and spent significant time there throughout his life, receiving treatment and care. Last year, the Nadella family donated $15 million to Seattle Children’s to support its work in neurosciences medicine and mental health care, including the establishment of the Zain Nadella Endowed Chair in Pediatric Neurosciences.

“As parents, our lives have been shaped by the needs of our children, and it is our hope that in honoring Zain’s journey, we can improve and innovate care for future generations in every community,” Anu Nadella said in a statement at the time.

The Nadellas also have two daughters. Satya Nadella wrote in his book that being Zain’s dad impacted him profoundly.

“Zain loves music and has wide-ranging tastes spanning eras, genres, and artists,” Nadella explained in one anecdote. “He likes everything from Leonard Cohen to Abba to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and wanted to be able to flip through these artists, filling his room with whatever music suited him at any given moment.”

However, Zain wasn’t able to control the music himself, which became a source of frustration for him and his family. Three high school students heard about the problem and volunteered to build a Windows app that allowed Zain to tap his head against a sensor on the side of his wheelchair to easily flip through the music.

“What freedom and happiness the empathy of three teenagers has brought to my son,” Nadella wrote.

Nadella recalled visiting Zain in the intensive care unit after he became Microsoft CEO in 2014. He noticed all of the 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. 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.”

Microsoft says the Nadella family is taking time to privately grieve the loss of Zain.

“I know we all want to support Satya during this difficult time,” Hogan wrote in her message to Microsoft executives. “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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