The Gates Divorce
S1: Teddy Schaffer’s beat over at Vox is rich people, so Teddy, how rich are Bill and Melinda Gates?
S2: So Bill and Melinda Gates are worth about 145 billion dollars depending on the day how you calculate it.
S1: But that sounds like a lot. That sounds like a small country.
S2: It is a small country. I believe that now the fourth wealthiest people in the world,
S1: Teddy, found out these very rich people were getting divorced because he set up his phone to Pincham every time one of them tweets.
S2: And it was funny because all I saw was like the link to an image, which I remember thinking in that split second was somewhat unusual because Bill and Melinda Gates are fairly traditional tweeters, like they don’t do a lot of weird stuff on Twitter. Their messaging is very kind of practiced. So the fact that there was a tweet with an image and no text certainly piqued my curiosity. So I clicked within.
S1: I love the the Encyclopedia Brown of Bill and Melinda Twitter. What were the first questions you asked yourself when you read the announcement?
S2: So first, making sure I was not missing the word, like not somewhere, you know, there are not divorcing.
S1: I think this is how a lot of us responded to the news. Bill and Melinda Gates divorce like those two, really? Bill Gates isn’t Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. And then that initial shock was followed by a big question. What’s going to happen with all that money?
S2: Tons of private people get divorced and it’s none of our business. But the Gates Foundation, because of its size and the Gates fortune, because of its size, definitely makes this a public matter. There are non-profits around the world that are going to be watching this closely, their governments around the world, drug makers around the world. Critics of income inequality around the world who are going to be watching this closely. So the number one question I had was, what does this mean for everybody who is not Bill and Melinda Gates? And I think the answer is quite a lot.
S1: Today on the show, Bill and Melinda Gates are splitting up, how will this very private decision impact the rest of us? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Can we tell the story of Bill and Melinda Gates a little bit like how they got together in the first place?
S2: So Bill Melinda Gates met through Microsoft. You know, Bill founded Microsoft in the 1970s and by the time, you know, obviously was fresh out of noncollege dropping out and they met and they got married in 1994. And, you know, they sort of began, you know, Gates obviously his his net worth starting getting bigger and bigger. And I think by the early 2000s or so, the Gates Foundation was beginning to spin its wheels. And she was the driving force, especially in the early years when she was doing it much more full time than than Bill was when he was sort of more and more involved in day to day operations at Microsoft. So they’ve now been married for 27 years and largely, you know, over the last the last 10 years especially, they’ve been focused day to day on running the foundation.
S1: Yeah, I mean, when I dug in a little bit to how they first got together, there are all these interesting kind of quirky stories, like the fact that Melinda sat next to Bill at a company dinner and actually turned him down the first time that he asked her out. She said it wasn’t spontaneous enough and they called back two hours later and said, is this spontaneous enough for you? Let’s go out tonight. It’s this funny cat and mouse where you can see where the sparks were.
S2: Yeah, I mean, see any any hopeless romantic pulling a similar move?
S1: Can you tell the philanthropic story of Bill and Melinda Gates, like how they became the philanthropists there today and the steps along the way?
S2: So Bill Melinda Gates obviously had a lot of money. You know, Microsoft became, you know, a tech giant and they had all these resources. And over time, they grew to be something beyond just kind of big donors themselves. They grew to become public citizens in a way that outstripped just kind of their own profile as big donors themselves. They began to see it as a responsibility of the wealthy to give away their fortune.
S1: The Gates family started to sell others on this idea to they created what’s called the giving pledge, a public commitment they and other billionaires made to give away at least half their money to charity, either in their lifetimes or in their wills. It’s just one example of how Bill and Melinda Gates were able to bring their wealthy network on board with their vision. Another example is the couple’s partnership with Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors in the world. He and Bill Gates call themselves best friends. They also work together on philanthropy.
S2: So in 2006, Warren Buffett tells the world that he is going to essentially equip the Gates Foundation with the bulk of his charity. I think it’s technically the largest charitable pledge ever, though not all the money comes at once. And just to put a give a sense of how unusual this is, I mean, in the world of mega charity, there are tons of fights about control. And, you know, you can only do X if you know, you do it with Y, you submit me, report to Z and there’s going to be this this string attached and that string attached. This was so unusual. Hmm.
S1: Bill Gates tells the story about Warren Buffett, about how he taught him about friendship and and what it really means. And I was thinking about it this week because Buffett apparently told him, you’ll move in the direction of people you associate with. So it’s important to associate with people that are better than yourself. And I looked at the relationship between Bill and Melinda Gates over the years, and it struck me that in some ways it seems like that’s what he did with Melinda because he said he’s been pretty honest that he would not be as philanthropic without his marriage to Melinda.
S2: I think lots of wealthy billionaire men would feel similarly, I mean, sadly, you know, gender is is a part of kind of how billionaire philanthropy is practiced. Often, you know, you see lots of wealthy male CEOs make a lot of money and they say they don’t have the time to deal with it and they sort of hands it off to their wife. And, you know, I think what was different about Bill and Melinda Gates, his relationship is that Melinda really knew what she was doing. And in those early years, you know, as I mentioned, Bill Gates was not that involved. So Melinda Gates was the driving force of this, especially in the early years. And, you know, Melinda Gates and Bill Gates cosigned the annual letter every year. That is sort of, you know, a key piece of writing in the charitable sector that the two co-chairs, the foundation, you know, they have to agree on all these major decisions. Some folks I feel like sometimes, right. Melinda Gates a little bit out of the narrative of the foundation. But make no mistake, she was you know, wasn’t is the key player.
S1: I want to focus on Melinda a little bit, just because you’ve alluded to the fact that she really asserted herself as a full partner in the foundation work and of course, over the course of their marriage, I felt a little like she went through a coming out process, like she was pretty private at the beginning. The first time any journalist did a solo profile of her was 2008, which was many years into their marriage. They had three kids already. She did an interview in Fortune. And I noticed something when I dug into her interviews, which is that she was pretty open to speaking about her privilege and her wealth. Well, first of all, we are incredibly privileged and lucky to have the resources we have from Microsoft. That is that full stop we do give up. She talked about like when people came to her and Bill’s massive state, she saw it as her job to make them comfortable. And she talked about how, you know, she might come to the FOIR with no makeup and the dog and yoga pants and just kind of be normal for a bit to make people feel comfortable in their home. And it stood out to me because knowing Bill Gates passed, you know, he never seemed to see his job as making people more comfortable. Quite the opposite. He liked to spar with people at work. He was known for it. And so it stood out to me. I was like, oh, this is a key difference between these people. And, you know, they might complement each other, too, but also real different.
S2: That’s a great point. And, you know, credit to Melinda Gates for sort of acknowledging the privilege that, frankly, you know, Bill Gates grew I grew up with to some extent to right. And he was at a private school and he’s had the ability to, you know, have access to computers and people who cultivate his interest in kind of coding from a young age. Lots of, you know, billionaires like to make it themselves seem like they’re these totally self created men and women. Right. And the idea of talking about privilege and the idea that, you know, there was some luck as part of the part of the draw, can almost they see it as compromise their their success. Melinda Gates, as you point out, has stood out and that she has not done that again, even in relation to her husband and lots of billionaires frequently like to talk about. Poverty in a way that almost pretends that they are not the winners of the same system that produces that poverty, they often want to talk about all the nonprofits that are helping all the good they’re doing in the world. And I actually find it fairly unusual to find folks who truly reckon with that. Their own success is a symptom of that same system. And Melinda Gates has done that.
S1: The other thing I noticed in these profiles of Melinda Gates is that she alluded at changes to come like she talked in one about how she looked forward to the moment when she’d be able to live in a 1500 square foot house, which is, of course, very different from where she was living with her three kids and Bill and this massive shorefront home in Seattle. And, you know, she’d also alluded to, you know, I don’t talk about my personal beliefs about something like abortion, but I may do that in the future. It was sort of these tantalizing tidbits of someone thinking about what their public life will look like years down the road as opposed to right now. I wonder if you noticed some of that, too.
S2: You know, I think Melinda Gates has over the last few years, it’s been interesting, mentioned reproductive issues over the last few years, Melinda Gates has started to kind of build a little bit more of a profile that’s independent of the Gates Foundation. I think in 2015, she started something called Pivotal Ventures, which is an organization, the investment company that’s focused on gender equity issues, which is totally separate from the Gates Foundation. So you’ve seen some efforts over the last few years to sort of reclaim a little bit more of her personal narrative, I would say, and issues that she’s personally interested in, as opposed to things that are byproducts of kind of her relationship with Bill Gates.
S1: When we come back, what this split will mean for the philanthropic ecosystem the Gates has created together. In the last few days, we learned that Bill and Melinda have already been separated for some amount of time, a secret that made the divorce revelation even more surprising. Reporters are speculating now about whether the two ever signed a prenup. But the biggest question swirling about this breakup is still what’s going to happen to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Can you just lay out the scope of the Gates Foundation and the work it does? Like what areas? Where does it have influence?
S2: It has influence everywhere. I believe they’re in 135 countries they work in. So if you are listening to this podcast, no matter where you are, you are affected by the Gates Foundation probably in some way or another. But, you know, there’s 1500 staff that work there. So it is a huge lumbering organization. If anybody’s been to Seattle, they have this huge, magnificent building in downtown. There are 50 billion dollars that are committed to the Gates Foundation’s work for now, more to come in all likelihood. And they’ve been around for 20 years. They give away about five billion dollars a year, more than any other U.S. philanthropy. So it is the the big fish in the world of American nonprofits.
S1: I’m trying to put myself in the position of someone at the Gates Foundation right now, and to me it feels like being a 10 year old and mom and dad walking and saying we need to talk only this is a massive foundation. So it’s not just one 10 year old. It’s like there’s just a huge building full of people who now have to negotiate what their relationship is with these two people and what it means for their work and their day to day. Have you heard from people inside the foundation about what this week has been like?
S2: I think the dominant emotion is just sadness. You know, Bill and Melinda Gates are mentors to a lot of of the Gates Foundation, 550, 500 employees. And there’s even more, obviously, alumni over the last 20 years who have gone through that place. So the dominant feeling, just to be sure is is, you know, almost a sorrow for, you know, a relationship that was lost. You know, that that that is totally understandable. That’s that’s the dominant emotion. The the second question, obviously, is what happens to the Gates Foundation? Publicly, the Gates Foundation is signaling that not much is going to change. They say that we’re not expecting any change in the strategic direction. Bill and Melinda Gates are sticking around as co-owners, which is,
S1: of course, what you say for
S2: sure. You know, I was playing the sort of game yesterday when I was talking with a few different former hire people at the foundation. I was asking them if you were to give me a number one to 10 for how big an impact do you think this will have on the foundation? It’s this it’s just to give you a sense of how people have no idea what’s going to happen here. One of them gave me a one, one of them gave me a three, and one of them gave me at least a seven. They said, make sure at least a seven. So folks are predicting, you know, a wide range of what could happen. And I think it just speaks to how no one really knows anything at this point.
S1: Teddy says that most of the organizations that benefit from Gates Foundation funding are probably safe from any sudden financial changes. It’s not Bill and Melinda making most of the day to day decisions about how money spent after all. So any groups receiving donations now are probably going to keep getting them even years down the line.
S2: I think actually a lot of the drama here and the consequence for the public is going to have to do with all the money that’s outside of the Gates Foundation, not the money that’s inside it.
S1: What do you mean?
S2: So the Gates Foundation actually only has about 50 billion dollars that’s, you know, contractually committed to it. There is another hundred and fifty billion dollars that exists totally outside the walls, the Gates Foundation. This is the money that is attributed basically on a personal level right now to Bill Melinda Gates and the idea the plan had always been for the vast majority of their assets to go to the Gates Foundation eventually. Maybe when they die, maybe it will maybe in the decades before they die.
S1: And they’re known very publicly for saying this money is not going to our children because we don’t think that’s right.
S2: Let me read you their their giving pledge letter from a decade ago, that giving pledge, their commitment to give away all their money to charity. They said that they had, quote, committed the vast majority of our assets to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Look, the giving pledge is not a contractually binding document. Obviously, that was written when they were together was wrong a decade ago. One of the big questions I personally have is, is that still the case? You know, that’s not an answer going to get immediately. Probably. Obviously, these things will be sorted out in a probably a lengthy divorce proceeding. Maybe they won’t want to necessarily answer that right now. But there’s 140, 150 billion dollars that’s truly at stake here, which theoretically, you know, even though that is the quote unquote, vast majority of their assets, maybe that money will go to things like Pivotal Ventures, the kind of the women’s focused group that Melinda Gates started that I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’ll go to something called Breakthrough Energy Partners, which is an investment firm that Bill Gates has started focused on climate change efforts. I don’t believe that there is some requirement, you know, signed in blood that all the hundred fifty billion dollars will go to the Gates Foundation that had always been presumed to have been the plan. But obviously, plans are changing.
S1: Well, I think part of the reason why you might be asking that question, lots of people are asking about that money is because we’ve just seen a very public billionaire divorce, the Bezos family, Jeff Bezos, Mackenzie Bezos, which previously was, I think, the record for largest divorce settlement. It was. And this divorce will probably dwarf that. So what we saw there, I wonder if you can talk about it a little bit, because in the two years since that divorce happened, Mackenzie Bezos has really shaken up the world of philanthropy quite suddenly.
S2: Yes. And that, I think, is an interesting parallel to this divorce. Obviously, people see that as very accessible because, you know, it’s another Seattle Tech billionaire getting divorced late in life. And it was interesting at the time, we didn’t necessarily know that that was going to shake up the world of philanthropy. Right. Mackenzie Scott, you know, had no more public profile as a charitable donor than than her husband, Jeff Bezos did, which is to say virtually no, none at all. Here we are entering it with a lot more information. We know the costs that Melinda Gates is interested in and we know that she is willing to put in the time and effort to to work on this stuff. Look, I think this divorce is going to be probably more complicated overall. Their lives are so intertwined with the foundation, you know, the price tag on it. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to split. If you recall, Mackenzie took about a quarter of the assets. So it doesn’t necessarily need to be 50/50 either. Depends in part on the questions about like the prenup you mentioned earlier. We don’t know where the price tag is going going to come in on this. But, yes, that is the historical comparison that is not totally inaccurate for folks to be thinking about.
S1: So there’s no reason to think that Melinda Gates is going to do what Mackenzie Bezos did here, which is basically get a divorce and then start shoveling money out the door to all kinds of groups, no strings attached?
S2: I don’t think so. Melinda Gates has a strategy. She’s had a strategy for a long time. If there is some, you know, huge strategic impasse between Bill and Melinda Gates that, you know, Melinda Gates now feels able to pursue in a way that she was not able to during their marriage. It’s news to me, I think. I think the Mackenzie Scott Jeff Bezos separation was probably more impactful, probably more impactful for the world of philanthropy than this one.
S1: Interesting. I wonder a little bit how you think about the Gates’s and their money and the Gates Foundation as a force in the world, like there’s so much conversation about Facebook and how much power they have and whether they have too much power. And I wonder at all if you see a conversation about whether a place like the Gates Foundation or the Gates themselves have too much authority on what happens, because they’re this philanthropic powerhouse
S2: that is the thrust of the critique of billionaire philanthropy, that it is not just an act of generosity to give money away, even lots of money away, but it is fundamentally an expression of private power on public questions. You know, let’s take public health, for instance, and, you know, the coronavirus pandemic. Bill Gates has certainly been a leader in the US’s response and frankly, in the world’s response to covid. All good. Right. Well, what have you say to yourself? Should Bill Gates have this much power? Should Bill Gates have as much influence in the world? He’s just a voter like me and you one person. Why does Bill Gates have more authority over, you know, how Americans respond to the pandemic than than you or I do? That’s the thrust of the critique. Now, I think Bill and Melinda Gates are interesting, flashpoint in this debate, because Bill Gates and a lot of ways makes the best case for billionaire philanthropy that I think any wealthy person can make. You know, if you believe that wealthy people should be giving away lots of their money, Bill Gates is giving away almost all of his money. So it’s not a question of like, you know, Scrooge McDuck. Why aren’t you spending more of your fortune on this? But with that outlay of cash comes questions about power. So, look, this is a complicated topic. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But Bill Melinda Gates certainly have more power in American democracy than than almost anybody else who’s unelected does. Obviously, people who are elected have power, but theoretically, that’s democratically derived. You know, this is a great example of just how much influence billionaire philanthropists have that a private matter between two individuals. That is none of our business. Can have these ripple effects and in a way that maybe will be profound, maybe it’ll be overstated in the sweep of history, but the fact that we need to understand it and unpack it and do podcasts about and write stories about it, that all speaks to just how unequal America has become. To some extent, that to people’s romantic troubles can can not wrongly be seen as important news.
S1: Teddy Schleifer, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: Sure thing. Thanks for having me.
S1: Teddy Schleifer writes for Recode over at Vox. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Davis Land, Kamal Dilshad, Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewett and Elena Schwartz were led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Make sure you stick around this feed, because tomorrow our Friday show will be here. What next? TBD with Lizzie O’Leary. I will catch you back here on Monday. So is Melinda Gates going to have a hot billionaire this summer,
S2: is the question that people really want to make this happen?