We all know the old saying “behind every successful man there is a strong woman.” And until the couple recently announced the end of their 27-year marriage, the strong woman behind Microsoft’s billionaire founder Bill Gates had been his wife, Melinda Gates.
During their marriage, Melinda not only stood by and supported her workaholic husband and raised their three children, but earned her own reputation as a philanthropist and advocate for the rights and well-being of women and children, especially in the developing world, according to the Independent. Although Bill shared her interest in charitable giving and the two value the same causes, leading them to found and operate the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation together, it was she who threw herself wholeheartedly into philanthropic work, raising awareness for causes ranging from mitigating malaria across the globe to promoting the rights of women here in the U.S., according to NPR.
We don’t know what happened to Bill and Melinda Gates’ marriage — and curious as we are, it’s none of our business. What we do know is Melinda Gates is an accomplished person in her own right who’s well worth knowing about.
Like her soon-to-be ex, she was a computer geek early on
While best known for her philanthropic work, Melinda Gates is also a serious nerd — and that’s part of what brought her and Bill Gates together. In a way, she was born into a life of geekdom. As she relates in her book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” her father was an engineer on the Apollo program, and as a child growing up in Dallas, she enjoyed road trips to watch rocket launches, a regular family activity. When she was in high school, she got her first introduction to computers and was hooked, learning to program in Basic, according to the Independent. This interest led her to major in computer science and economics at Duke.
And this, in turn, led her to Bill Gates. After graduating, she arranged for an interview with a small, new-ish software company called Microsoft, which she mentioned to a recruiter. “If you get an offer from them, take it,” the recruiter told her, “because the chance for advancement there is terrific.”
She caught Bill Gates writing the pros and cons of marrying her on a whiteboard
The decision to marry a person is one of the biggest and most important choices you’ll ever make, so it’s wise to reflect on it carefully before you pop the question (or accept a proposal). Melinda Gates knows this well, as she got an accidental view of how seriously Bill Gates took his decision to marry her. According to CNBC Make It, the couple, who had met at Microsoft, had been dating for about a year, and Bill realized it was time for a decision. “We cared a lot for each other and there were only two possibilities: either we were going to break up or we were going to get married,” he said.
But instead of taking a walk to think it over or calling up a friend to discuss it, Bill used another decision-making tactic. He set up a whiteboard in his bedroom and started writing down all the pros and cons of marrying Melinda — just as Melinda walked in and saw what he was doing. It’s not known exactly what he wrote on that whiteboard, but it’s a safe bet that on that day, the pros outnumbered the cons.
Melinda Gates is a mom to three children
Melinda Gates’ passion for issues involving women and children comes from a deeply personal place — she’s a mother of three herself and, as she told NPR, had to face a lot of the same challenges around a work-life balance experienced by women around the world. As she recounts in her book, “The Moment of Lift,” she made the choice to step down from her career at Microsoft to raise her children, noting that she was fortunate to be financially able to make this choice.
Today, her children with Bill Gates are thriving young adults. Oldest daughter Jennifer Gates is a medical student; her career choice inspired by her parents’ work in public health campaigns, according to Parade. Her middle child and only son, Rory Gates, has attended the University of Chicago, and is, according to an essay written by his mother in Time, “compassionate and curious” and is “intelligent and well-read and deeply informed.” Her youngest daughter, Phoebe Gates, is known to be a gifted dancer, and has studied at the School of American Ballet at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Juilliard, as noted by Parade.
Melinda Gates' mother influenced her philanthropic work
Melinda Gates’ passion for philanthropy was born in part by tragedy. At her “wedding shower” in 1993, her terminally ill mother, understanding the enormous fortune her daughter would soon marry into, read her a serious letter. According to the Independent, it read in part, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Her mother died a few months later, but her words stayed with Melinda. This advice inspired the creation of the William H. Gates Foundation, which was run by Bill Gates’ father and dedicated to putting laptops in schools. But after reading about how millions of children were dying of diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, in the developing world, she shifted her philanthropic focus to world poverty. The current Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grew from this concern, and today has 1,600 staff members and distributes $5 billion in grants to 135 counties around the world each year, according to The New York Times.
She's won numerous awards for her philanthropic work
Melinda Gates’ philanthropic efforts have not only helped disadvantaged people around the world, but they have won her, along with Bill Gates, numerous international awards. In 2002, she and Bill were co-winners of the Jefferson Award for Public Service in the category “Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged,” according to the Jefferson Awards website. In 2006, the couple earned the Princess of Asturias Award for International Cooperation from the Princess of Asturias Foundation, according to the foundation’s website.
This was just the start of the recognition and appreciation she has received for her work. She was named one of Glamour’s women of the year in 2013 for her work as “an effective and strategic leader … dedicated to solving the world’s toughest problems.” In 2016, she and Bill — along with numerous other luminaries in their fields, such as architect Frank Gehry and actor Tom Hanks — were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Barack Obama, as noted by the White House. As if this weren’t enough, the pair has also been named, along with musician and philanthropist Bono, Time’s Persons of the Year in 2005, according to CNN.
She has her own investment firm to promote women and families
Although she’s led a privileged life as the wife of a billionaire, Melinda Gates has made supporting the underprivileged — especially women and children — a central concern in her life, according to NPR. And her concern for the less fortunate is not just lip service. She’s not one to just cut a few checks, attend a few charity balls a year, and call it a day.
As if co-directing the high-profile, multi-billion-dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation weren’t enough work, Melinda Gates also founded Pivotal Ventures, which its website calls “an investment and incubation company created by Melinda French Gates to advance social progress in the United States.” In practice, this means Pivotal Ventures invests in and supports initiatives and people who work towards greater equity and access to opportunity for underserved groups. As an example, Pivotal Ventures recently co-organized the $40 million Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, which awards grants to promising leaders who are women of color to enable them to “make decisions, control resources, and shape policies and perspectives.”
She's a best-selling author
It’s not uncommon for celebrities to write books, but Melinda Gates’ 2019 book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” is a far cry from your typical celebrity tell-all memoir. Instead of name-dropping or showing glimpses of a life of luxury, Gates uses her book to promote the rights of women and turn the spotlight on others — specifically, the women around the world who inspired her during her travels for work on the Gates Foundation. She also shares revelations from her own life that led her to her mission of promoting women and children: Even as a wealthy, educated professional woman in the U.S., she had to make some hard personal choices about balancing work and family — choices, she noted, that men rarely have to consider.
Her New York Times best-selling book has attracted praise from high places — including from her famous then-husband, Bill Gates. “I would say this even if I weren’t married to the author: ‘The Moment of Lift’ is a terrific read,” he wrote in GatesNotes, his blog. “It is a wise, honest, and beautifully written book about how empowering women lifts up everyone.”
She has been on the boards of major organizations
Melinda Gates’ philanthropic efforts aren’t limited to the organizations she runs. Rather, she has been active in a broad range of endeavors, sitting on the board of directors of both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. This has allowed her to expand her influence, apply her business skills to new challenges, and give back to causes meaningful to her.
Among the organizations benefitting from her expertise were her alma mater, Duke University, whose board of trustees she joined in 1996, according to a press release put out by Duke. She also served on the board of directors of Drugstore.com, according to the company’s website. In addition, she sat on the board of directors for The Washington Post from 2004 until 2010, according to the Washington Business Journal. These weren’t purely symbolic positions, either, and her experience and skill set were much appreciated. “With her knowledge of technology, education and media, Melinda Gates has been a uniquely wonderful board member, taking time out of one of the world’s busiest and most impressive lives to help our company,” Washington Post’s CEO Donald Graham said.
She and Bill Gates were equal partners in their marriage
From the time they started dating, Melinda Gates made it clear to her future husband that she wasn’t going to play second fiddle. As she recounted in her book, “The Moment of Lift,” both she and Bill Gates love puzzles and are fiercely competitive — and he was both surprised and intrigued when she beat him in math puzzles as well as in their first game of Clue together. And Bill was genuinely stunned when Melinda told him she wanted to step down from her position at Microsoft to raise their first child — he simply couldn’t picture her as a stay-at-home mom. But even then, she made it clear to him that he’d have to play his part in raising their children too (via NPR).
Bill’s willingness to be an equal partner to his wife came naturally to him. According to CNBC Make It, Bill likely modeled his marriage after that of his parents — his lawyer father and entrepreneur mother were both equally professionally ambitious and took on equal responsibilities in their family. So Bill understood the challenges of simultaneously running Microsoft and later the foundation, while trying to be a responsible husband and father.
Here's what happened when she made Bill Gates drive their kids to school
Melinda Gates is probably best-known for her philanthropic efforts on behalf of women and children in the developing world. But as she told NPR, during her travels abroad, she had an important realization: Even in the U.S., women do a lot of invisible, uncompensated work and see their efforts constantly ignored or undervalued. This is why she founded an organization separate from the Gates Foundation, Pivotal Ventures, to promote efforts supporting women in the U.S.
As an example of the invisible burden many women bear, she recounted to NPR how she got her then-husband, Bill Gates, to take over the chore of driving their children to school on some days. Soon after, she started noticing something unusual at the school entrance: a lot more men dropping off their kids. Apparently, as she heard from parents, other moms had seen Bill dropping off his kids, then went home and gave their husbands a challenge: If Bill Gates can take his kids to school, why can’t you? “The reason I wrote that specific story [is that it’s] an example of this unpaid labor that women do all over the world,” Melinda explained.
Melinda Gates may become the world's second-richest woman after her divorce
Melinda Gates may be walking away from her marriage, but she won’t be walking away from a life of wealth. According to The Guardian, her divorce petition, besides stating that her marriage to Bill Gates was “irretrievably broken,” requested the court to divide up their estate, estimated at a whopping $146 billion.
This request is interesting because it suggests the couple did not have a prenuptial agreement. And Washington State, where the couple met and made their home, is a community property state, meaning that couples must share their assets equally if they divorce. This means it’s likely Melinda will leave her marriage with around $73 billion. This will make her the world’s second-richest woman, behind L’Oreal owner and heiress Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, who’s worth $83 billion. She will also join Mackenzie Scott, formerly married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in the Seattle billionaire divorcee club. Scott is now the fourth-wealthiest woman in the world with assets worth $60 billion.
Melinda Gates raises and gives away enormous sums of money
With a net worth close to $70 billion, according to Celebrity Net Worth, Melinda Gates has more cash than any person could possibly spend in a lifetime. And she’s chosen not to spend it all on herself, instead directing it to charitable causes around the world through both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Pivotal Ventures, her other advocacy organization. The Gates Foundation alone has an endowment of over $50 billion, according to The New York Times, and disburses $5 billion in grants annually.
But Gates doesn’t just bring money to the table — she brings clout. Besides being a generous donor, she’s proven to have a knack for coaxing others to open their wallets for worthy causes as well. In 2006, she spearheaded a campaign to raise $300,000 for Seattle Children’s Hospital to fund research and facility improvements and to care for patients unable to pay, according to a press release from the hospital. How effective was she in this effort? By the time the campaign was publicly announced, Gates and her team had already managed to raise $200 million.
Will Melinda Gates keep working for the Gates Foundation?
Splitting up after over a quarter of a century together has to be tough for any couple. Besides the emotional hurt, there’s the matter of splitting up any joint assets. But some shared elements of a marriage — a couple’s children, house, or a family-owned business — can’t simply be cut in half. This leads to the most legally and emotionally contentious parts of most divorces: deciding how to divide up the indivisible.
And sometimes — as in the case of child custody — the best solution is for the couple to continue to share responsibility for assets they’ve created together. Bill and Melinda Gates have yet to work out how they will divide their enormous estate, which includes $166 million in real estate and an art collection worth $130 million, according to CNBC Make It. However, they have agreed to continue sharing leadership responsibilities for the Gates Foundation, whose mission continues to drive both of them. “We will continue to work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives,” she posted on Twitter.
This is why Melinda Gates' foundation has never funded any program alone
Melinda Gates has enough money that she could just give any worthwhile organization a blank check and consider her work done. And while this would no doubt do a lot a good, Gates feels there is an even more effective way to support beneficial projects around the world — get other caring people and organizations on board to help, as Britannica reported.
Thus, despite its vast resources, the Gates Foundation does not singlehandedly fund any programs, no matter how worthy or urgent they may be. Instead, the foundation enlists other people and organizations, including companies, other non-profits, and sometimes governments, to help fund the programs the foundation supports. Gates has both philosophical and practical reasons for this approach. First, this multiples the Gates Foundation’s impact — their investments are multiplied by the contributions of others. Second, getting others on board raises the profile of the causes they support and increases the impact they can make. As Britannica noted, the philosophy behind this strategy can be summed up in an old African proverb that Melinda has shared: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
Does Melinda Gates want her children to inherit her and Bill's fortune?
When planning their estates, most families aspire to leave a fortune — or at least a reasonably sized nest egg — behind for their children. As possibly the second-richest woman in the world, according to The Guardian, Melinda Gates (and her soon-to-be ex Bill Gates) could easily make each of her three children billionaires many times over.
But as deeply as they love their children, this isn’t going to happen. Instead, Bill and Melinda plan to leave each of them just $10 million, according to the New Zealand Herald. While this is a generous amount any of us would be ecstatic to have, it represents less than 1% of the Gates family’s fortune. “I definitely think leaving kids massive amounts of money is not a favor to them,” Bill explained. “Warren Buffet was part of an article in Fortune talking about this … and it made me think about it and decide he was right.” While it’s unclear if Bill and Melinda’s divorce will change anything, it seems Melinda is also committed to having her children work hard for their income.
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