Bill and Melinda Gates separation send shockwaves through world of global philanthropy and healthcare

·5-min read

Watch: Bill and Melinda Gates announce they are ending their marriage

One of the dangers of getting married to someone a bit older and much, much wealthier, is that people can question your motives.

When Melinda Gates, nee French, was asked why she had married the CEO of Microsoft, who was nine years her senior, she insisted it was for love.

“I met Bill when we were both still young. I was 23 and he was 32, and he was still building the company. I saw what that took. So while the media would talk about him in one way, that wasn’t the person I knew, she told the Seattle Times in 2013. “So we grew during those times together.”

And a danger of that marriage working and becoming a seeming success, is that people can turn to you for advice - what’s the secret of all those long contented years?

“There’s definitely some tactical day-to-day pieces where you may not always agree,” Melinda Gates, 56, told director and musician Lin Manuel Miranda, in a 2018 interview that streamed on Facebook.

“But I would say this, neither of us are afraid of a little bit of grist in the system, neither in business nor in our marriage. That’s how you actually grow. And so we will have tough conversations.”

On Monday, the couple announced their marriage of 27 years was over, having concluded after much thought they did not believe they “can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives”.

Melinda Gates once said choosing partner more important than career (Getty Images for Global Citizen)
Melinda Gates once said choosing partner more important than career (Getty Images for Global Citizen)

The announcement by the couple, who have three children, Jennifer, Phoebe and Rory Gates, and are worth an estimated $130bn, reverberated through the worlds of global philanthropy and healthcare. In 2000, together they established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable organisation that hold close to $50bn in assets and which funds work in at least 135 counties. The programmes focus on development, healthcare and education. 

“We have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives,” they said in their statement. “We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life.”

The announcement came little more than Seattle-based Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, announced he and his wife of 25 years, Mackenzie Scott, were splitting, Earlier this year, Scott announced she had married a high school teacher, Dan Jewett. The writer is now worth $63bn after she and the Amazon founder divorced, after a period of separation.

While Bezos is the world’s richest man, worth an estimated $200bn, Gates has seen his position slip to fourth, behind Tesla founder Elon Musk and Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy.

The two were co-chairs and trustees of their nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which launched in 2000. As the news of their announcement spread last night, there was no doubt speculation as to how the Seattle-based foundation would continue to operate it. 

They sought to address any fears in part of their statement

“We continue to share a belief in that 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.” 

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Melinda Gates had often stressed that finding the right partner was more important than finding the best job. 

“One of the lessons we try to talk to our kids about, or I say to them quite often, is: if you choose to have a partner in life, whoever you choose is probably the most important decision you make,” she said during a 2019 talk at a New York secondary school. “Even more important than what career you have, where you go to college, where you go to high school”.

She added: “People do have a do-over with partners in life, but it’s easier to have a do-over in your job and to change careers a lot than it is to change partners. So I say, try to pick very carefully and wisely.”

Over the years the couple also indicated they had disagreements about things. “I’m always interested in his point of view and I know he’s always interested in mine, I think sometimes our disagreements sharpen the questions that we ask each other,” she said. 

Bill Gates, 65, dropped out of Harvard to co-found Microsoft with school-friend Paul Allen in 1975. He owned 49 per cent of Microsoft at its initial public offering in 1986, which made him an instant multi-millionaire. With Microsoft’s explosive growth, he soon became the world’s richest person. 

After making the company one of the world’s most valuable technology firms, he stepped down from the board in March 2020 to focus on philanthropy. Earlier this year, Bezos announced he was stepping down as CEO of Amazon, to be replaced by Andy Jassy.

Bill Gates appears to have less to say about marriage than his wife. With a somewhat geeky take on things, he did once say: “Married life is a simpler life. Who I spend my time with is established in advance.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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