The Separate Worlds of Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates were stuck at home.

比尔·盖茨(Bill Gates)和梅琳达·弗兰奇·盖茨(Melinda French Gates)被困在家里。

When the pandemic hit last March, the couple retreated to their 66,000-square-foot home on the shore of Lake Washington, venturing out infrequently to minimize their potential exposure to the virus. From their home offices they continued running the influential foundation that bears their name, video chatting with world leaders to secure financial commitments for vaccine distribution, and talking about the health of American democracy with their youngest daughter, who was finishing her senior year of high school remotely.


For a couple who had spent much of the past three decades traveling the world, so much time together at home was an abrupt change of pace. “Working from home — that was a piece that I think we hadn’t really individually prepared for quite as much,” Ms. French Gates told The New York Times in October.


In a November podcast, Mr. Gates also spoke about adjusting to life at home after decades on the road. “My life has changed utterly,” Mr. Gates said. “It’s very abnormal.”


Now, life has changed in another way, too.


The news on Monday that the power couple of global philanthropy would be dissolving their marriage sent shock waves through the field. For those who, unlike Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates, had never thought about mRNA vaccines before Covid-19 hit, the pandemic brought home in the clearest way possible just how influential their foundation is in the field of global public health. And the divorce announcement, and subsequent spotlight, has made clear how dependent such an essential organization is on its ultrawealthy founders.


Foundation staff members were surprised by the announcement. Mr. Gates, 65, and Ms. French Gates, 56, are both hands-on leaders, and much of the power of the foundation lies not just in the billions of dollars they have given it but also in their public standing and connections.


But for years the couple had already been building out closely connected but different worlds, nurturing their respective — and sometimes overlapping — interests through independent channels. She had spent more time supporting women’s issues, while he had been pursuing clean energy projects. Inside the foundation, they each had their own areas of focus, too.


“Institutionally, the foundation had already absorbed the separation,” said Benjamin Soskis, a philanthropy expert and senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “They each have their own areas of interest. It’s not as if this was a unitary entity that is suddenly shattered.”

“从制度上来说,基金会已经接受了这种分割,”城市研究所(Urban Institute)的慈善专家、高级研究员本杰明·索斯基斯(Benjamin Soskis)说。“他们有自己各自的兴趣领域。并不是说一个统一的实体突然破碎了。

Sharing a global stage


The foundation has made reassuring statements that nothing will change. It will continue with its $50 billion endowment and important range of issues. But because each co-founder has a separate project — Gates Ventures for him, Pivotal Ventures for her — there is anxiety within the foundation that it may no longer be the dynamic center of their work.

基金会发声明做出保证,称一切都不会改变。它将继续拥有500亿美元的捐赠基金和重要的关注范畴。但是,由于两位联合创始人各自拥有一个独立的项目——他的项目是盖茨创投(Gates Ventures),她的项目是枢纽创投(Pivotal Ventures)——基金会内部有一种焦虑,担心基金会可能不再是他们工作的动态中心。

“If you’re at the ventures you think the foundation is slow, doesn’t get it, is mired in the wonkery of development,” said a former foundation staff member who has worked with both Gateses and requested anonymity to discuss the internal rivalries. “Whereas if you’re at the foundation, your theory is, ‘We do the real work and these cowboys are rushing in at the last-minute demanding to change things, demanding to justify things.’”


Hovering over everything is the question of what caused their breakup and how deep the rift ultimately is between them. Why they announced the divorce when they did is a mystery.


With their youngest child about to graduate from high school, several observers in their orbit noted it is often a time of reassessment for couples, and a moment that partners go their separate ways. The timing of the announcement also came just days after Warren Buffett, a close friend and the foundation’s third trustee, had his annual meeting, which may not have been a coincidence. “They spared Warren having to deal with it, by waiting until after his annual meeting,” one associate said.

他们最小的孩子即将高中毕业,他们圈子里的几位观察人士指出,这通常是夫妻重新评估对方的时候,也是伴侣分道扬镳的时候。宣布这个消息是在沃伦·巴菲特(Warren Buffett)——他们密友和基金会的第三位受托人——召开其年度会议的几天之后,这可能不是巧合。“他们等到沃伦的年会结束后才宣布此事,让沃伦不用被迫面对这个问题,”一位同事说。

The recent example of MacKenzie Scott, who divorced the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and went on to a higher profile as a solo philanthropist than she ever had in the marriage, cannot have escaped Ms. French Gates’s attention. Indeed the two women worked together on Ms. French Gates’s project on women and power, the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge.

近期的例子还有麦肯齐·斯科特(MacKenzie Scott),她与亚马逊(Amazon)创始人杰夫·贝佐斯(Jeff Bezos)离婚后,作为一个单独行动的慈善家,获得了比她在婚姻中更高的知名度,这不可能不引起弗兰奇·盖茨的注意。事实上,这两位女士曾在弗兰奇·盖茨关于女性与权力的项目“平等是不能等待的挑战”(Equality Can ‘t Wait Challenge)中合作过。

In the past few years there were few obvious signs that the Gateses were growing apart, at least to the public. Ms. French Gates continued to appear at Microsoft functions alongside Mr. Gates, including an annual dinner for chief executives and other business leaders the couple hosted at their home each spring.


Ms. French Gates, however, had hinted that she had sometimes felt overlooked when sharing a stage with her husband. She wrote candidly about those feelings in her book, “The Moment of Lift,” which was published in 2019. “I’ve been trying to find my voice as I’ve been speaking next to Bill,” she wrote, “and that can make it hard to be heard.” A person who knows her well but spoke on condition of anonymity about such a private family matter said anyone watching her body language at events for the Giving Pledge — through which billionaires promise to give away at least half of their fortunes — and other public engagements could see that she was unhappy.

不过,弗兰奇·盖茨曾暗示,与丈夫同台时,她有时会觉得自己被忽视了。她在2019年出版的《女性的时刻》(The Moment of Lift)一书中坦率地描述了这些感受。“当我站在比尔旁边说话时,我一直在努力寻找自己的声音,”她写道,“这让我很难被别人听到。”一位熟悉她、但因为谈论家庭私事而不愿透露姓名的人说,在“捐赠承诺”(Giving Pledge)活动——亿万富翁们通过该活动承诺捐出自己至少一半的财富——和其他公开活动中,任何人都可以通过肢体语言看出她不开心。

To many who saw the couple only in the professional setting of the foundation, it was more surprising. “People just seemed shocked. They’re speechless. They’re really blindsided. After such a difficult year of people working so hard it just feels like more whiplash,” a former longtime foundation executive said. The question everyone is asking now is how it will affect the foundation moving forward. “There’s already these divisions, how are they not going to be more reinforced?”


‘This just might end the marriage’


In the annual letter for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Gates became accustomed to recapping the past year and setting the agenda for the next. In late 2012, following some especially formative travels and a global conference on family planning, Ms. French Gates asked to write that dispatch with him.

在给比尔和梅琳达·盖茨基金会(Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)的年度信函中,比尔·盖茨习惯于重述过去的一年并确定下一年的议程。在2012年底,经过几次特别的旅行和一次全球计划生育会议之后,弗兰奇·盖茨要求与他一起写那封信。

“I thought we were going to kill each other,” Ms. French Gates, as she now prefers to be known, wrote in her book. “I felt, ‘Well, this just might end the marriage right here.’”


The heated dispute paved the way for a fuller public partnership, but that didn’t come instantly: In January 2013, Mr. Gates’s signature still stood alone, with their compromise being a short piece on contraceptives by Ms. Gates that accompanied his letter.


“I told him that there are some issues where my voice can make an impact, and in those cases, I should be speaking — separately or along with him,” she wrote. “It got hot. We both got angry. It was a big test for us — not about how you come to agreement but about what you do when you can’t agree. And we took a long time to agree.”


Following their divorce, how the couple will collaborate on joint projects like their annual Goalkeepers report, the Giving Pledge and the foundation’s major communications, are open questions.


When the Gates Foundation was formally established more than two decades ago, Ms. French Gates took on a bigger role in running it than her husband did, because of the demands of his work at Microsoft. In spite of that, she initially shied away from a public role, leaving speeches and appearances to him. “I wanted to work behind the scenes,” she wrote, noting she had wanted to guard her privacy.


But that changed after Mr. Buffett made his historically large gift in 2006. He announced that he would give $31 billion to the foundation, vaulting the already huge organization to a new level, handing out billions of dollars each year equivalent to the entire endowments of sizable philanthropies.


At an appearance addressing Mr. Buffett’s gift at the New York Public Library, Ms. French Gates participated in her first news conference on behalf of the foundation. She outlined plans to invest in agricultural yields, microlending and fighting infectious disease, and she did so in personal terms that invoked her own travels. She has called that moment a turning point, one that made her want to take on a more prominent public role.

在纽约公共图书馆(New York Public Library)为巴菲特的捐赠致辞时,弗兰奇·盖茨首次代表基金会参加了新闻发布会。她概述了在农业产量、小额贷款和防治传染病方面进行投资的计划,她以个人名义这样做,并谈及了自己的旅行经历。她将那个时刻称为转折点,一个让她想扮演更重要的公众角色的转折点。

“She started to speak out as she started to observe some things the foundation wasn’t focused on that she thought were really important, around social and cultural elements, the importance of behavior change, the importance of systems, the importance of an integrated approach,” said Gary Darmstadt, a medical doctor who teaches at Stanford. He worked closely with Ms. French Gates at the foundation, focused on maternal health and access to contraceptives.

“当她开始观察一些她认为基金会没有关注到的重要问题时,她开始发声,比如对社会和文化,行为改变的重要性,制度的重要性和兼容并蓄的重要性,”在斯坦福大学授课的医生加里·达姆施达特(Gary Darmstadt)说。他在基金会与弗兰奇·盖茨合作密切,重点关注孕产妇健康和避孕用品的获取。

“She realized ‘OK, I’m going to have to step into a global leadership position on this issue because no one else is really doing it, and I’ve been equipped,” said Dr. Darmstadt, who joined the foundation in 2008 and traveled widely with Ms. French Gates to places like India, Malawi and Tanzania. “I think it became clear to her that she had to use her voice on behalf of women.”


Creating parallel ventures


It was also in 2008 that Mr. Gates announced that he was stepping down from his full-time duties at Microsoft. He would remain chairman of the board and the company’s largest shareholder, but he said that he would devote himself to the foundation.


Yet that year he quietly incorporated a new company, called bgC3 LLC, in Washington State, for pet projects that were related to neither Microsoft nor the Gates Foundation. There, he incubated work on climate change and clean energy that became Breakthrough Energy, along with education and health projects separate from the foundation, especially work on Alzheimer’s. (He changed the organization’s name to Gates Ventures in 2018.)

然而就在那一年,他悄悄地在华盛顿州成立了一家名为bgC3 LLC的新公司,负责的项目与微软和盖茨基金会都无关联。在这家公司,他孵化出气候变化和清洁能源方面的成果,后来变成了突破能源联盟(Breakthrough Energy),还有独立于基金会的教育和健康项目,尤其是对阿尔茨海默症的研究。(2018年,他将该机构改名为盖茨创投。)

In 2015, Ms. French Gates created a parallel world of her own, starting Pivotal Ventures, an enterprise focused on gender equality and social progress. In doing so, she was able to more fully explore interests that had been of little prominence in the early years of the foundation.


“I thought, ‘I want to have a company that has all the tools to work on social issues for women and minorities, even in addition to our education work that we were already doing in the foundation,” she said to The Times in October. “What I’m doing with Pivotal Ventures is gathering many other people around me to have these cohorts who work on these issues, and then also fund them at scale. We don’t fund things for women at scale. And we should.”


An organization ‘filled with uncertainty’


Former foundation insiders noted another force pushing Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates toward their separate initiatives: Struggles at the foundation over staffing levels.


“It was a constant tension point of the foundation. It was Warren who limited it, but Bill’s appetite is always, ‘We should do this, we should do this.’ Teams end up with this massive to-do list,” the former executive said.


Mr. Buffett acknowledged in an interview with The Times last year that he opposed institutional bloat. “That’s the one piece of advice I don’t shut up on, ever, because it’s the natural tendency of every organization,” he said.


Employees at the foundation often have to wear multiple hats to keep up with the demands. For instance, one staff member, Anita Zaidi, serves in the highly technical role of director of vaccine development and surveillance but also serves as president for gender equality.

基金会的员工经常得身兼数职才能满足需求。例如,一位名叫安妮塔·扎伊迪(Anita Zaidi)的员工担任了疫苗开发和检测负责人的职位,同时还是促进性别平等的主席。

Even without the divorce, the foundation was in the midst of change. Mr. Buffett, the third trustee, turns 91 this summer. Mr. Gates’s father, Bill Gates Sr., who was co-chair and a guiding hand at the foundation, died this past September. Some observers have wondered if the couple’s three children could get involved soon. The elder two are already in college and medical school. Others have raised the possibility that this is the moment to loosen the family’s grip and install a board drawn from professionals outside the inner circle.

即使没有这场离婚,基金会也已处于变动之中。第三受托人巴菲特今夏就将年满91岁。盖茨的父亲、担任基金会联合主席和指导人的老比尔·盖茨(Bill Gates Sr.)于去年9月去世。一些观察人士猜测这对夫妇的三个孩子是否很快就会参与基金会的工作。大的两个已经上大学和医学院了。其他人则提出这样一种可能,那就是现在应该放松盖茨家族的控制,将核心圈子之外的专业人士引入董事会。

“It’s a family foundation. Bill and Melinda’s names are on the door, which means anytime something changes there’s just this whole ripple effect,” said the former foundation executive. “You put this in the middle of it, it just feels like it creates even more uncertainty in an organization that’s always filled with uncertainty.”


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