In her first public appearance since her divorce announcement, Melinda French Gates traveled to the White House, leaders from her charity and investment firm in tow. She pressed Biden officials on two issues central to her priorities: paid family leave and child care.
The same day this month, Bill Gates appeared in a virtual address to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Wearing his familiar sweater, collared shirt and glasses, the Microsoft co-founder spoke for nearly 11 minutes about the impact of climate change on the world’s food supply.
The topics laid bare the diverging interests of the billionaire ex-couple behind one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations. Their split after 27 years of marriage, announced in May, now throws into question the destination of their vast fortune and the focus of their charitable endeavors. It also highlights their individual private-investment arms, which they have been quietly building over the past five years.
Both have said they’ll remain involved in the $50 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they’ve promised to spend the majority of their wealth through their Giving Pledge. But in the years leading up to their breakup, each spouse has dived into projects outside the scope of the foundation’s work, a trend that’s expected to accelerate post-divorce.
“One couple is now two individual households,” said Elizabeth Dale, associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. The couple’s philanthropic efforts have been enormously influential, she said, and that likely will “continue, both through the current foundation and maybe in other ways as well.”
For French Gates, 56, the divorce could mean that more resources will be focused on Pivotal Ventures, her 90-person incubation and investment firm largely focused on gender equality. She’s already received stock worth more than $3 billion from the Gates’s Cascade Investment, just a tiny fraction of their combined $145 billion fortune at the time of the divorce, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Bill Gates, 65, has centered 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 startups employing hundreds more.
Spokespeople for Breakthrough and Gates’s private office, Gates Ventures, declined to comment. A spokesman for Pivotal said that French Gates’s “commitment to advancing women’s power and influence around the world, whether as co-chair of the foundation or founder of Pivotal Ventures, remains unchanged.”
Both Breakthrough and Pivotal operate through LLCs, which means they can operate as for-profit entities. It’s an increasingly popular form of giving, used by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan with their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and by Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, with her Emerson Collective.
An LLC doesn’t always provide the same tax deductions that traditional foundations do, but it comes with fewer rules. Money can go to political lobbying or campaign donations, which aren’t tax-deductible. And, unlike foundations, an LLC’s activities, funding and staff don’t need to be disclosed in annual tax filings that are made public.
Depending whom you ask, they are either an innovative tool in the toolbox of the world’s best philanthropists, or a major step backward in terms of transparency.
“They don’t face the same checks and balances as foundations,” said Linsey McGoey, a professor of sociology 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 spokesperson. It uses grants as well as venture capital to focus on empowering women, including getting more females into technology jobs and elected to public office, supporting women and girls of color and advocating paid family leave.
In Washington this month, French Gates met with officials including President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, along with directors from Pivotal and the Gates Foundation. From Pivotal’s side, they discussed paid leave and care giving as it related to Biden’s American Families Plan, according to a person close to the firm, who asked not to be named speaking about a private meeting.
In April, Pivotal hired lobbying firm Finsbury Glover Hering in Washington to focus on caregiving and paid leave issues, said the person, a sign it may be stepping up its efforts in Washington.
The White House is a far cry from the basement of the Gates Foundation, where one of Pivotal’s managing directors recalls working years ago. In the early 2010s, the foundation was taking on projects tied to women’s equality — funding initiatives affecting contraception and family planning, for example — but French Gates wanted to speed up their focus on gender equality and make it a central issue to everything they did.
“Progress was steady, but it was too slow for me,” French Gates wrote in her 2019 book, “The Moment of Lift.” “People were still speaking softly about gender at the foundation, sometimes in whispers, not quite wanting to come forward.”
In 2015, she founded Pivotal as a separate organization of around 10 people, a handful of whom were plucked from the Gates Foundation, including Haven Ley, the gender expert who joked about working in the basement, and John Sage, Pivotal’s current CEO.
French Gates “really started to come into her own as a philanthropist and as a leader in the early 2010s, and that was sort of a gradual evolution for her,” Dale said. “Pivotal represented her taking kind of a greater ownership and leadership role.”
It’s only relatively recently that Pivotal’s purpose has come into focus. Its initial years were spent talking about and researching what it might become, according to three people familiar with its early days. Until December 2018, Pivotal’s website was no more than a landing page that read “Executive Office of Melinda Gates” with links to French Gates’s social media pages. Things only started picking up around when her book was published in 2019.
Bill Gates has grown increasingly focused on Breakthrough and climate change, the subject of his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that came out this year. He said in February that he’s devoted $2 billion to climate, and plans to spend another $2 billion.
Gates has said his interest in the area began with a meeting with a couple of climate scientists, arranged by two former Microsoft employees, in 2006. For the next 15 years, he’s steadily dug deeper into the topic — launching companies, investment funds, scientific projects and lobbying efforts aimed at fighting climate change.
In 2015, the same year French Gates started Pivotal, Gates recruited some of his fellow billionaires to pitch some money into a new $1 billion fund, called Breakthrough Energy Ventures, that, when launched the following year, would invest in businesses and technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a longer-term focus than traditional venture firms. Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, all signed on to the fund’s first round.
“What Breakthrough did is bring a whole lot more capital, and the megaphone and the messengers that weren’t part of the conversation before,” said Alicia Seiger, who is managing director of Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.
Breakthrough’s venture arm closed another $1 billion round in January of this year, recruiting a few new billionaire funders — including Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson and Ben Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton — with the goal of investing in as many as 50 startups. It’s also building a 100 million-euro pilot fund created last year through a partnership with the European Commission.
Gates has kept the focus of Breakthrough’s non-investment work on innovation as well, largely funding its philanthropic, policy, advocacy and research work himself. Its Catalyst program, which tries to accelerate the deployment of clean technologies like green hydrogen, is launching a $1 billion initiative with the European Commission. Breakthrough Energy Sciences does original research, like a detailed model of the U.S. energy grid released this year.
Gates started his private office, Gates Ventures, in 2008. It focuses on a variety of his interests, such as investing in technology and funding education and health projects — including an Alzheimer’s research initiative — outside the purview of the Gates Foundation.
Pivotal stands to become much more active. French Gates said in a 2019 Time magazine column that she is committing $1 billion over the next 10 years toward women’s empowerment.
Since 2016, her firm has invested more than $65 million in organizations like National Partnership for Women & Families and Paid Leave for All. Last year, she committed $50 million for an initiative that aims to increase representation and leadership of women in tech in three cities over the next five years.
French Gates also is funding an effort alongside MacKenzie Scott — who has been accelerating her own charitable giving following her divorce from Bezos. The Equality Can’t Wait Challenge calls for organizations to apply with how they’d spend $10 million to speed up women’s empowerment. The winners will be announced this summer.