They built an empire that was essential in the pandemic. Now, their impending divorce makes personal a shift that confidants say was well underway in their philanthropic roles.
Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates were stuck at home.
When the pandemic hit last March, the couple retreated to their 66,000-square-foot home on the shore of Lake Washington, venturing out infrequently to minimise their potential exposure to the virus. From their home offices they continued running the influential foundation that bears their name, video chatting with world leaders to secure financial commitments for vaccine distribution, and talking about the health of American democracy with their youngest daughter, who was finishing her senior year of high school remotely.
For a couple who had spent much of the past three decades travelling the world, so much time together at home was an abrupt change of pace. "Working from home — that was a piece that I think we hadn't really individually prepared for quite as much," she told The New York Times in October.
In a November podcast, Bill Gates also spoke about adjusting to life at home after decades on the road. "My life has changed utterly," he said. "It's very abnormal."
Now, life has changed in another way, too.
The news last week that the power couple of global philanthropy would be dissolving their marriage sent shock waves through the field. For those who, unlike the Gates, had never thought about mRNA vaccines before Covid-19 hit, the pandemic brought home in the clearest way possible just how influential their foundation is in the field of global public health. And the divorce announcement, and subsequent spotlight, has made clear how dependent such an essential organisation is on its ultrawealthy founders.
Foundation staff members were surprised by the announcement. Bill Gates, 65, and Melinda French Gates, 56, are both hands-on leaders, and much of the power of the foundation lies not just in the billions of dollars they have given it but also in their public standing and connections.
But for years the couple had already been building out closely connected but different worlds, nurturing their respective — and sometimes overlapping — interests through independent channels. She had spent more time supporting women's issues while he had been pursuing clean energy projects. Inside the foundation, they each had their own areas of focus, too.
"Institutionally, the foundation had already absorbed the separation," said Benjamin Soskis, a philanthropy expert and senior research associate at the Urban Institute. "They each have their own areas of interest. It's not as if this was a unitary entity that is suddenly shattered."
Sharing a global stage
The foundation has made reassuring statements that nothing will change. It will continue with its US$50 billion ($686 billion) endowment and important range of issues. But because each co-founder has a separate project — Gates Ventures for him, Pivotal Ventures for her — there is anxiety within the foundation that it may not be the dynamic centre of their work.
"If you're at the ventures, you think the foundation is slow, doesn't get it, is mired in the wonkery of development," said a former foundation staff member who has worked with both Gates and requested anonymity to discuss the internal rivalries. "Whereas if you're at the foundation, your theory is, 'We do the real work and these cowboys are rushing in at the last-minute demanding to change things, demanding to justify things.'"
Hovering over everything is the question of what caused their breakup and how deep the rift ultimately is between them. Why they announced the divorce when they did is a mystery.
With their youngest child about to graduate from high school, several observers in their orbit noted it is often a time of reassessment for couples, and a moment that partners go their separate ways. The timing of the announcement also came just days after Warren Buffett, a close friend and the foundation's third trustee, had his annual meeting, which may not have been a coincidence. "They spared Warren having to deal with it, by waiting until after his annual meeting," one associate said.
The recent example of MacKenzie Scott, who divorced Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and went on to a higher profile as a solo philanthropist than she ever had in the marriage, cannot have escaped Melinda French Gates' attention. Indeed the two women worked together on a project on women and power called Equality Can't Wait Challenge.
In the past few years there were few obvious signs that the Gates were growing apart, at least to the public. Melinda French Gates continued to appear at Microsoft functions alongside Bill Gates, including an annual dinner for chief executives and other business leaders the couple hosted at their home each spring.
Melinda French Gates, however, had hinted that she had sometimes felt overlooked when sharing a stage with her husband. She wrote candidly about those feelings in her book, The Moment of Lift, which was published in 2019. "I've been trying to find my voice as I've been speaking next to Bill," she wrote, "and that can make it hard to be heard."
A person who knows her well but spoke on condition of anonymity about such a private family matter said anyone watching her body language at events for the Giving Pledge — through which billionaires promise to give away at least half of their fortunes — and other public engagements could see that she was unhappy.
To many who saw the couple only in the professional setting of the foundation, it was more surprising. "People just seemed shocked," a former longtime foundation executive said. "They're speechless. They're really blindsided. After such a difficult year of people working so hard it just feels like more whiplash." The question everyone is asking now is how it will affect the foundation moving forward. "There's already these divisions, how are they not going to be more reinforced?"
'This just might end the marriage'
In the annual letter for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates became accustomed to recapping the past year and setting the agenda for the next. In late 2012, following some especially formative travels and a global conference on family planning, his wife asked to write that dispatch with him.
"I thought we were going to kill each other," Melinda French Gates, as she now prefers to be known, incorporating her maiden name, wrote in her book. "I felt, 'Well, this just might end the marriage right here.'"
The heated dispute paved the way for a fuller public partnership, but that didn't come instantly: In January 2013, Bill Gates' signature still stood alone, with their compromise being a short piece on contraceptives by Melinda French Gates that accompanied his letter.
"I told him that there are some issues where my voice can make an impact, and in those cases, I should be speaking — separately or along with him," she wrote. "It got hot. We both got angry. It was a big test for us — not about how you come to agreement but about what you do when you can't agree. And we took a long time to agree."
After their divorce, how the couple will collaborate on joint projects like their annual Goalkeepers report, the Giving Pledge and the foundation's major communications is an open question.
When the Gates Foundation was formally established more than two decades ago, Melinda French Gates took on a bigger role in running it than her husband did because of the demands of his work at Microsoft. In spite of that, she initially shied away from a public role, leaving speeches and appearances to him. "I wanted to work behind the scenes," she wrote, noting she had wanted to guard her privacy.
But that changed after Buffett made his historically large gift in 2006. He announced that he would give US$31 billion ($425 billion) to the foundation, vaulting the already huge organisation to a new level, handing out billions of dollars each year equivalent to the entire endowments of sizable philanthropies.
At an appearance addressing Buffett's gift at the New York Public Library, Melinda French Gates participated in her first news conference on behalf of the foundation. She outlined plans to invest in agricultural yields, microlending and fighting infectious disease, and she did so in personal terms that invoked her own travels. She has called that moment a turning point, one that made her want to take on a more prominent public role.
"She started to speak out as she started to observe some things the foundation wasn't focused on that she thought were really important, around social and cultural elements, the importance of behavior change, the importance of systems, the importance of an integrated approach," said Gary Darmstadt, a medical doctor who teaches at Stanford. He worked closely with Melinda French Gates at the foundation, focused on maternal health and access to contraceptives.
"She realised 'OK, I'm going to have to step into a global leadership position on this issue because no one else is really doing it, and I've been equipped," said Darmstadt, who joined the foundation in 2008 and travelled widely with French Gates to places like India, Malawi and Tanzania. "I think it became clear to her that she had to use her voice on behalf of women."
Creating parallel ventures
It was also in 2008 that Bill Gates announced that he was stepping down from his full-time duties at Microsoft. He would remain chairman of the board and the company's largest shareholder, but he said that he would devote himself to the foundation.
Yet that year he quietly incorporated a new company, called bgC3 LLC, in Washington state, for pet projects that were related to neither Microsoft nor the Gates Foundation. There, he incubated work on climate change and clean energy that became Breakthrough Energy, along with education and health projects separate from the foundation, especially work on Alzheimer's. (He changed the organisation's name to Gates Ventures in 2018.)
In 2015, Melinda French Gates created a parallel world of her own, starting Pivotal Ventures, an enterprise focused on gender equality and social progress. In doing so, she was able to more fully explore interests that had been of little prominence in the early years of the foundation.
"I thought, 'I want to have a company that has all the tools to work on social issues for women and minorities, even in addition to our education work that we were already doing in the foundation," she said to The Times in October. "What I'm doing with Pivotal Ventures is gathering many other people around me to have these cohorts who work on these issues, and then also fund them at scale. We don't fund things for women at scale. And we should."
In recent years, Melinda French Gates began to shift her focus not just to the broad problems of global health and early childhood education but more specifically to the lack of equal opportunity for women. In 2019, she pledged US$1 billion to an effort aimed at expanding women's power and influence in the United States by 2030, a sign that Pivotal would be an important player moving forward.
"I think Melinda has become a force of nature in this space and really thoughtfully, selectively using her voice," said Gary Barker, founder of Promundo, an organisation focused on positive masculinity and gender equality. Barker received a crucial early grant from the Gates Foundation in the early 2000s, he said, and has received subsequent support from both the foundation and Pivotal. That support is powerful for its domino effect, he said, which goes beyond money.
"They're using the celebrity influencer status to say 'We're behind this idea more than just giving tons,'" he said.
An Organisation 'filled with uncertainty'
Former foundation insiders noted another force pushing the Gates toward their separate initiatives: Struggles at the foundation over staffing levels.
"It was a constant tension point of the foundation," the former executive said. "It was Warren who limited it, but Bill's appetite is always, 'We should do this, we should do this.' Teams end up with this massive to-do list."
Buffett acknowledged in an interview with The Times last year that he opposed institutional bloat. "That's the one piece of advice I don't shut up on, ever, because it's the natural tendency of every organisation," he said.
Employees at the foundation often have to wear multiple hats to keep up with the demands. For instance, one staff member, Anita Zaidi, serves in the highly technical role of director of vaccine development and surveillance but also serves as president for gender equality.
Bill Gates famously gave a TED Talk in 2015 warning about the global threat posed by contagious respiratory viruses. The foundation was packed with top talent working on developing vaccines. It did not, however, have a single person out of roughly 1,600 staff members at the time devoted full time to pandemics before the Covid-19 outbreak began.
For all the workarounds with contract employees and consultants, there was only so much bandwidth, and the decision was made not to have a dedicated team working on the matter. Instead the foundation threw its weight behind the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which helped develop vaccines to combat outbreaks.
When the pandemic struck, the foundation put its resources and expertise to work. It has dedicated US$1.75 billion ($2.4 billion) to combating the pandemic so far and played a key role in shaping the global response.
Even without the divorce, the foundation was in the midst of change. Buffett, the third trustee, turns 91 this summer. Bill Gates' father, Bill Gates Sr., who was co-chairman and a guiding hand at the foundation, died this past September. Some observers have wondered if the couple's three children could get involved soon. The elder two are already in college and medical school. Others have raised the possibility that this is the moment to loosen the family's grip and install a board drawn from professionals outside the inner circle.
"It's a family foundation," said the former foundation executive. "Bill and Melinda's names are on the door, which means anytime something changes there's just this whole ripple effect. You put this in the middle of it, it just feels like it creates even more uncertainty in an organisation that's always filled with uncertainty."
Written by: Nicholas Kulish, Rebecca R. Ruiz and David Gelles
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES