Behind the Gates’ divorce

The separation of Bill and Melinda Gates, who stunned their followers by announcing their marriage breakup on Twitter, has become increasingly controversial. At stake is not only the nearly 130 billion dollar fortune that the couple must divide, as they have no prenuptial agreement, but also the impact their split could have on the philanthropic projects they support through their foundation, which has left an undeniable mark on public health globally.

29 July 2021

The breakup. On May 3, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage. The couple met when she joined Microsoft and their relationship began in 1987. Seven years later they married on the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

  • After much reflection and a lot of work on our relationship, we have decided to end our marriage,” they announced to the world in a statement posted on their respective Twitter accounts.
  • “We continue to share a belief in our mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives,” they concluded in the statement released on the social network.

Why does it matter? Because the divorce of Bill Gates (65 years old) and Melinda Gates (56 years old) puts in play a fortune of almost 130 billion dollars, according to Forbes magazine.  And because of the impact this may have on the philanthropic projects they support through their foundation and its undeniable impact, most especially on public health globally.

  • The Gates Foundation is the most important and influential philanthropic institution in the world today,” says Rob Reich, professor of political science at Stanford University.
  • Nevertheless, they have [both] made reassuring statements that nothing will change at the organization. They have explained that they will continue to work together and that the US$ 50 billion budget will remain unaffected.
  • While this is obviously a difficult time of personal change for our co-chairs, together they have assured me of their continued commitment to the foundation that they have worked so hard to build together over the past 20 years,” explained Mark Suzman, the foundation’s executive director, in an e-mail sent to all employees following the Gates’ divorce announcement. 

The foundation’s role.  With 1,600 employees and offices in almost every part of the world, the Gates Foundation donates approximately US$ 5 billion annually in areas such as public health and global development.

  • Since its inception in 2000, the organization has spent billions to advance vaccines in the developing world, working with a variety of pharmaceutical companies.
  • One of the causes they supported starting in 2007 was the eradication of wild polio in Africa, a goal that was achieved in August 2020.
  • Last year, the organization spent US$1.75 billion on the fight against the coronavirus. The Gates Foundation invested in vaccine development projects and also backed Covax, the global initiative that organizes the purchase of vaccines for 92 impoverished countries.

The last pieces of the puzzle. In early 2020, the Gateses surprised their counterparts by excusing themselves from attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, the world’s largest annual gathering of business and world leaders, which the couple had never missed previously.

  • A few months later, in March 2020, Gates announced that he was resigning from the boards of Microsoft and the Berkshire Hathaway investment fund, his friend Warren Buffet’s company. By his own account, he was leaving these positions to focus even more fully on his philanthropic endeavors.
  • According to leading media outlets, the Gateses world began to fall apart for good when some members of Microsoft’s Board of Directors raised questions about the ties between Gates and Jeffrey Epstein, the businessman who committed suicide in jail in 2019 while awaiting trial for alleged child trafficking.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that the real reason Bill Gates left Microsoft’s Board of Directors in 2020 was because of an investigation into a romantic relationship with a female company employee. The extramarital affair was acknowledged by Gates’ current spokeswoman, who confirmed that the relationship had already concluded.
  • In the same vein, The New York Times reports that Bill Gates “developed a reputation for questionable behavior in the workplace” and that on several occasions he sought relationships with women who worked for his foundation or Microsoft.

Inside the marriage. Melinda joined the Microsoft team as a product manager in 1987. She and Bill Gates were seated together at a business dinner in New York that same year. Following that meeting, they started dating.

  • In a Netflix documentary, Melinda explained that she found that Bill was methodical even in “matters of the heart,” making lists on a whiteboard with the “pros and cons of getting married.” While Bill was weighing the idea of marriage, “he was incredibly clear about it not being about me, but about whether he could strike the right balance between work and family life,” she recalled.
  • An article in Time magazine, titled “The Real Bill Gates,” published in 1997, recounts surprising details about their relationship. After marrying his wife, Bill Gates would spend a long weekend every year at a cozy beach cottage in North Carolina with his ex-girlfriend. The tycoon spoke of these getaways as a gathering of two nerds who were just having a good time together. Ann Winblad, the woman involved in these peculiar dates, is now happily married.
  • She also didn’t “spoil” him at home in spite of his wealth. In an interview, Melinda said that “He does the dishes, takes the kids to school and takes the dog for a walk,” and also described how each evening they would leave their twin offices at the foundation to have dinner with their children.
  • The Gateses are the largest agricultural landowner in the United States and own large stakes in the Four Seasons hotel chain, Canadian National Railway and AutoNation, the largest automobile dealership in the United States, among others.

Melinda’s rise. The fact is that Melinda French Gates, who has decided to take back her maiden name following the divorce announcement, had begun to take a much larger role in philanthropic and other areas. Some time ago she had begun to shift her focus from not only the broad problems of global health and children’s education, but also and more specifically to the lack of equal opportunities for women.

  • According to Forbes, “She is playing an increasingly visible role in shaping the foundation’s strategy, solving difficult global issues ranging from education and poverty to contraception and health,” which ranked her fifth on its 2020 list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. In their ranking of philanthropists she placed first.
  • In 2015, Melinda founded Pivotal Ventures, whose website describes “an investment and incubation firm,” that funds “transformational ideas, people, and organizations” to drive “the social progress of women and families in the United States.
  • What I’m doing with Pivotal Ventures is bringing together a lot of different people around me to have groups working on these issues and then also funding them at scale. We don’t fund things for women at scale. And we should,” she explained to The New York Times in October 2020.
  • In her autobiography, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, published in 2019, she writes about the “inspirational women” she has met around the world and how she became an advocate for women’s rights.