Bill and Melinda Gates have announced they are to divorce after 27 years of marriage. The Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist and his wife have built up a combined $124 billion (£89 billion) fortune, making them among the five richest couples in the world. But why are they getting divorced exactly and how will this separation affect the caritative work they’re both leading together? Here’s everything you need to know.
On Monday 3 May, the couple tweeted separately the same statement announcing their divorce, which started with, “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage.”
The couple, who jointly run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an incredible funder of global health and disease prevention initiatives, including the current fight against COVID-19, said they would continue to run the foundation together.
“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. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life,” they wrote.
A spokesperson for the Gates Foundation also issued a statement saying that the pair “will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues and set the organization’s overall direction.” It certainly looks like this divorce won’t result in such a contrasting pair as Jezz Bezos and his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, who became the world’s 18th richest woman after her divorce and decided to give away most of her wealth while Bezos became even richer during the pandemic.
Compared to Bezos, Gates is well-known for his sharing nature. Although he is the world’s fourth-richest person, he would have been even more vastly wealthy if he had not committed to giving away at least half of his fortune before he dies. Since 1994, Gates has donated at least $40 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds IT education in the US and healthcare and poverty initiatives around the globe—including funding large-scale projects tackling HIV and malaria. The couple’s foundation has more than $51 billion in assets, according to The Guardian.
When the pair decided to get married in 1994, Gates, who co-founded Microsoft in 1975, was already a billionaire. He met Melinda in 1987 when she joined the company, he was 31. Speaking later on about her marriage, Melinda Gates said herself that Bill had spent weeks debating on a whiteboard whether he should marry her.
“When he was having trouble making the decision about getting married, he was incredibly clear that it was not about me, it was about, ‘Can I get the balance right between work and family life?’” she further explained.
Over the years, Melinda has been open about how hard marriage can be, especially when both parties are focused on making the world a better place. “Believe me, I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought, ‘Can I do this?’” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2019 to mark their 25th anniversary.
Melinda, 56, has also shared that Bill, 65, regularly works 16-hour days and can find it hard to make time for the family.
I briefly mentioned MacKenzie Scott previously, but what you probably didn’t know is that her divorce with Bezos, which took place in 2019, was the first recent divorce among the super rich. Scott ended up with a $38 billion fortune, which she pledged to fully give away.
Bill and Melinda Gates’ is the second most important divorce among the super rich—and we don’t know exactly how much money Melinda will come out with. The previous record was $2.5 billion paid to Jocelyn Wildenstein when she divorced the art dealer Alec Wildenstein in 1999.
It’s ironic that most of the super rich including Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Bloomberg and George Lucas have all signed the Giving Pledge, which was created by the Gates along with Warren Buffett as a promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity. Even Zuckerberg signed it! Guess the only member of the five richest people in the US not to have signed up? Bezos, who’s probably too busy spending his “time and energy” on his new ventures.
On Tuesday 15 December, MacKenzie Scott, the world’s 18th-richest person, publicly revealed that she was the one behind the donations to dozens of colleges and universities in the US, part of nearly $4.2 billion she had given to 384 organisations in the last four months.
Scott, who was formerly married to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (also known as the world’s richest person), has pledged to give away most of her wealth. Her shares in Amazon were valued at about $38 billion last year but would have gained value during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to The New York Times, Scott made donations to colleges and universities that many people have never heard of, and that tended to serve regional, minority and lower-income students. The money came after weeks of secret conversations between Scott’s representatives and college presidents who were interviewed about their missions, as several of the presidents revealed on Wednesday.
When they learned who was behind the effort, it was a surprise but it could not have come at a better time, when the pandemic was hitting their student bodies hard, they admitted. After Scott gave $50 million, the biggest gift the university had ever received, to Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Prairie View, Texas, its president Ruth Simmons thought she had misheard and the caller had to repeat the number: “five-zero.”
Scott made gifts to more than a dozen historically black colleges and universities, as well as community and technical colleges and schools serving Native Americans, women, urban and rural students. Some of the college presidents said that Scott had put no restrictions on the funds, allowing them to determine how to use them.
The funds were delivered to Prairie View on 20 October, and Simmons said she had been permitted to start disbursing money immediately to students affected by the pandemic. Speaking to The New York Times, Simmons said she was initially asked to keep word of the gift confidential, yet argued that making it public knowledge would send an important message.
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“I used to be the president of one of those big colleges—Brown University—and there, of course, it was quite routine to be in conversations with people about gifts of this size,” Simmons said. “But it rarely happens in institutions like Prairie View, and it rarely happens especially for the kinds of students that we serve.”
The Borough of Manhattan Community College, a predominantly black and Hispanic institution in Lower Manhattan, received $30 million from Scott. A sister school within the City University of New York system, Lehman College, also received $30 million. Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore, was given $40 million, and West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah $15 million.
Scott’s latest gifts bring her charity to almost $6 billion in 2020, an impressive amount. In a Medium post on Tuesday, she wrote: “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling. Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty.”
Of course, many other billionaire philanthropists have previously donated impressive amounts of money to schools but few choose to make donations to colleges and universities that many people have never heard of. To these institutions, a $20 million donation is the equivalent of several times that to a Harvard or Yale, and could have a disproportionate impact.
Scott does not have a personal connection to most, if any, of these universities, which could imply that she simply is conveying a message of support and inclusion to minority and lower-income students.
West Kentucky Community and Technical College said it would use its gift to help disadvantaged rural adults and students prepare for the workforce. Prairie View A&M is using $10 million of its share to create the Panther Success Grant Program, to help juniors and seniors who have suffered financially from the pandemic to pay their college bills. The rest of the money will be allocated to the university’s endowment, raising it to $130 million from $95 million, which would support things like faculty recruitment and undergraduate scholarships.
Scott’s generosity is an endorsement of the value of these schools’ students and what they are doing in striving for education—something that Bezos has never done before and will probably never do in the future.