The divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates highlights the work outside the Business and Economy News foundation


In her first public appearance since her divorce announcement, Melinda French Gates traveled to the White House, with leaders from her charity and investment company. He put pressure on Biden officials on two central issues in his priorities: paid family leave and childcare.

On the same day this month, Bill Gates appeared in a virtual address at the Food and Agriculture Organization of Rome in Rome. With his family sweater, collared shirt and glasses, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp. spoke for nearly 11 minutes about the impact of climate change on the global food supply.

The themes exposed the divergent interests of the former multimillionaire couple behind one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world. Their separation after 27 years of marriage, announced in May, now calls into question the fate of their great fortune and the focus of their charitable efforts. It also highlights its individual private investment weapons, which have been quietly built over the past five years.

Both have said they will remain involved in the $ 50 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they have pledged to spend most of their wealth through their commitment to donate. But in the years leading up to their breakup, each spouse has delved into projects outside the scope of the foundation’s work, a trend that is expected to accelerate after divorce.

“A couple is now two single homes,” said Elizabeth Dale, an associate professor of nonprofit leadership at the University of Seattle. The couple’s philanthropic efforts have had a major influence, he said, and are likely to “continue through the current foundation and perhaps also in other ways.”

For 56-year-old French Gates, the divorce could mean more resources will be focused on Pivotal Ventures, its 90-person incubation and investment company, focused primarily on gender equality. He has already received shares worth more than $ 3 billion from Gates’s Cascade Investment, just a small fraction of his combined fortune of $ 145 billion at the time of the divorce, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index.

Bill Gates, 65, has focused much of his work on Breakthrough Energy, an organization launched in 2015 that now employs about 100 people specializing in various aspects of climate change, while funding nonprofits and emerging businesses. which employ hundreds more.

Spokesmen for Breakthrough and Gates’ private office, Gates Ventures, declined to comment. A Pivotal spokesman said the “French Gates commitment to advancing the power and influence of women around the world, whether as co-chair of the foundation or founder of Pivotal Ventures, does not change.”

Less rules

Both Breakthrough and Pivotal operate through LLCs, meaning they can operate as for-profit entities. It is an increasingly popular form of gift, used by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan with his initiative Chan Zuckerberg and the widow of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs, with his Emerson collective.

An LLC does not always provide the same tax deductions as traditional foundations, but it does include fewer rules. The money can be used for political pressures or campaign donations, which cannot be deducted from taxes. And, unlike the foundations, the activities, funding, and staffing of an LLC do not need to be disclosed in the annual tax returns that are made public.

Depending on who you ask, they are an innovative tool in the toolbox of the best philanthropists in the world or a big step backwards in terms of transparency.

“They don’t face the same balances as the basics,” said Linsey McGoey, a sociology professor at the University of Essex, who wrote a book called “No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy ”.

Pivotal, launched in 2015, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 150 organizations to date, according to a spokesman. It uses grants and venture capital to focus on women’s empowerment, including the incorporation of more women into technological and elected positions in public office, support for women and girls of color, and advocacy for layoffs. paid family.

In Washington this month, French Gates met with officials such as President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, along with directors of Pivotal and the Gates Foundation. From Pivotal’s side, they discussed paid vacation and care to relate to Biden’s American family plan, according to a person close to the firm, who asked that he not be named talking about a private meeting. .

In April, Pivotal hired pressure firm Finsbury Glover Hering in Washington to focus on issues of caring and paid leave, the person said, a sign that it may be stepping up its efforts in Washington.

First days

The White House is a long way from the basement of the Gates Foundation, where one of Pivotal’s managing directors remembers working years ago. In the early 2010s, the foundation was taking on projects related to women’s equality (funding initiatives that affect contraception and family planning, for example), but French Gates wanted to accelerate its focus on gender equality. genre and make it a central theme of everything they did.

“Progress was steady, but it was too slow for me,” French Gates wrote in his 2019 book, “The Moment of Lift”. “People were still talking softly about gender at the foundation, sometimes in whispers, not wanting to show up.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle [File: Getty Images]

In 2015 he founded Pivotal as an independent organization of about ten people, a handful of whom were taken from the Gates Foundation, including Haven Ley, the gender expert who joked about working in the basement and John Sage, now executive director of Pivotal. .

French Gates “really started to appear as a philanthropist and as a leader in the early 2010s, and that was kind of a gradual evolution for her,” Dale said. “Pivotal represented it by taking on a kind of greater role of ownership and leadership.”

The purpose of Pivotal has been focused relatively recently. His early years were spent talking and researching what could happen, according to three people familiar with his early days. Until December 2018, Pivotal’s website was nothing more than a landing page where you could read “Melinda Gates Executive Office” with links to French Gates social media pages. Things only started to pick up when his book was published in 2019.

Climate focus

Bill Gates has focused more and more on climate advancement and change, the topic of his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” which came out this year. He said in February that he had spent $ 2 billion on the climate and plans to spend another $ 2 billion.

Gates said his interest in the area began with a meeting with a couple of climate scientists, hosted by two former Microsoft employees, in 2006. For the next 15 years, he has constantly delved into the topic: launching companies, investment funds, projects and pressure efforts aimed at combating climate change.

In 2015, the same year that French Gates started Pivotal, Gates recruited some of his multimillion-dollar colleagues to allocate money to a new $ 1 billion fund, called Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which, when launched the following year, would invest in companies and technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a long-term focus than traditional venture companies. Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, mother of Bloomberg News, signed the first round of the fund.

“What Breakthrough did was bring in a lot more capital and the megaphone and messengers that weren’t part of the conversation before,” said Alicia Seiger, who is general manager of the University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. of Stanford.

Breakthrough’s venture arm closed another $ 1 billion round in January this year and recruited some new billionaire financiers, including Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson and Ben Walton, grandson of Walmart Inc. founder. , Sam Walton, with the goal of investing as many as 50 startups. It is also building a € 100 million pilot fund created last year through a partnership with the European Commission.

Gates has also kept the focus of Breakthrough’s non-innovative work on innovation, funding his own philanthropic, political, advocacy and research work. Its Catalyst program, which seeks to accelerate the deployment of clean technologies such as green hydrogen, is launching a $ 1 billion initiative with the European Commission. Breakthrough Energy Sciences does original research, such as a detailed model of the American energy grid published this year.

Gates started his private office, Gates Ventures, in 2008. He focuses on a wide variety of his interests, including investing in technology and funding education and health projects (including an Alzheimer’s research initiative) outside of the competition of the Gates Foundation.

The fundamentals will become much more active. French Gates said in a column in Time 2019 magazine that it is committing $ 1 billion over the next ten years to women’s empowerment.

Since 2016, her company has invested more than $ 65 million in organizations such as the National Partnership for Women & Families and Paid Leave for All. Last year she pledged $ 50 million to an initiative that aimed to increase the representation and leadership of women in technology in three cities over the next five years.

French Gates is also funding an effort alongside MacKenzie Scott, who has accelerated her own charitable donation following her divorce from Bezos. The Equality Challenge Can’t Wait asks organizations to apply to spend $ 10 million to accelerate women’s empowerment. The winners will be announced this summer.

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