Melinda French Gates, the philanthropist pursuing her own passions

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A dozen years ago, Melinda French Gates made a modest-sounding request of her then husband, Bill: she wanted to co-author the annual letter for the charitable foundation they had co-founded. He rebuffed her. But he did eventually agree to include an essay from his wife alongside his letter. Two years later she had been promoted to co-author.

This week French Gates achieved full emancipation: three years after divorcing Gates, she announced she was cutting ties with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose $59.5bn endowment and $7bn in annual grants makes it not just a whale among minnows in the philanthropic world but a veritable ocean unto itself. 

As part of a previously negotiated separation agreement, Gates will give his ex-wife $12.5bn to pursue her own philanthropic passion: uplifting women and girls around the world. But even before this week’s news, French Gates had already emerged from her former husband’s shadow to become one of the most influential figures in global philanthropy. 

Her growing reputation as a champion for women has coincided with a fall in Gates’ public standing because of his association with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who died in a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. (Gates has expressed regret about their meetings but said they were only to discuss a charitable venture.)

“I have watched her since she was a young woman and the evolution has been phenomenal,” says Diane von Furstenberg, who first met French Gates at the Allen & Co tech and media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the 1990s. “She was very reserved. She was very shy,” von Furstenberg recalls. “Now she’s a woman in charge.” 

At 59, French Gates is a single grandmother who finds herself at the head of a triumvirate of women — along with MacKenzie Scott and Laurene Powell Jobs — whose former marriages to tech billionaires have made them mega-philanthropists in their own right. One person who has worked with her said this week that she and Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, were now in conversation about a formal philanthropic collaboration.   

People who know French Gates say she is reaching the height of her powers just when the issues dearest to her — including reproductive rights — are under threat from the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House and a resurgent patriarchy. She was already championing these causes within the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says one, but “I think you will probably see she will take more political risk now and focus more advocacy” on such issues.

French Gates grew up in Dallas, the daughter of an aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo missions that eventually landed the first man on the moon. She attended the all-girls Ursuline Academy and took an interest in computer programming, thanks to an early Apple computer. At Duke University she earned degrees in computer science and economics, and then a masters in business administration. 

French Gates appeared destined for a blue-chip company. But a female executive at IBM suggested a talented woman might find more opportunity at Microsoft, a fast-growing software start-up in Seattle. During her 10 years there, French Gates worked as a product manager for Word and oversaw the launch of its Encarta encyclopedia, among other projects.

She began dating the boss about six months after she joined Microsoft. He famously proposed after drawing up a list of pros and cons on a whiteboard. They co-founded their charitable foundation when Bill retired from Microsoft in 2000, seeking to combine their immense wealth with the savvy of the tech world.

The spouses worked as equals, according to Mark Suzman, the chief executive of what will be renamed the Gates Foundation. But, as the letter-writing saga suggests, Gates was often perceived as the first among equals. In her book, French Gates wrote of sometimes feeling “invisible” alongside her famous husband.

Yet she excelled in ways her husband did not, according to former executives. One former senior executive called her “the soul” of the foundation, who used to make new senior recruits feel welcome.

French Gates began to raise her public profile in 2012 when she hosted world leaders at the London Summit on Family Planning. Then, in 2015, she took another step when she launched Pivotal Ventures to invest in funds and start-ups that empower women.

In a July conversation with The Washington Post, she described her approach as focusing on barriers to women and industries where they needed greater power, including politics, finance, tech and media. “We’re not yet fully empowered in the United States,” she said. “You know, we don’t have parity in our halls of Congress, not even close. We don’t have parity in the tech sector. We don’t have parity in finance. So we have a long way to go.”

Whether French Gates will use her new resources to expand Pivotal or for other ventures remains to be seen. In the meantime, she exudes a sense of wonder that her life has arrived at this juncture. “It’s funny,” French Gates mused during a recent interview with the economist Emily Oster. “We end up in these places in life, right? And you think: well, maybe my voice will give way to something that I didn’t even know was there?”

joshua.chaffin@ft.com 

Additional reporting by Andrew Hill

https://www.highcpmgate.com/f0c2i8ki?key=d7778888e3d5721fde608bfdb62fd997

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