Bill Gates has left the board of directors of Microsoft, the company he co-founded, to “dedicate more time to his philanthropic priorities including global health, development, education, and his increasing engagement in tackling climate change,” the Redmond company said Friday afternoon.
It marks the end of an era for an iconic technologist and entrepreneur and the industry-defining company he planted four decades ago in the suburbs outside the city where he was born. Microsoft’s growth and success gave rise to a technology industry in the region that is today the envy of the world.
While Gates, 64, had been ratcheting down his involvement with Microsoft for more than a decade, the announcement Friday caught many by surprise, coming amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the declaration of a national emergency. He will continue as an adviser to Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, and said he is not stepping away from the company.
In a post on Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, Gates said he has also left the board of Berkshire Hathaway, the industrial conglomerate of his longtime friend Warren Buffett, with whom he launched The Giving Pledge — a commitment by global billionaires to give away the majority of their wealth — a decade ago.
“The leadership at the Berkshire companies and Microsoft has never been stronger, so the time is right to take this step,” Gates wrote.
Microsoft’s vice president of communications, Frank X. Shaw, had no additional information on what drove the timing of Gates’ departure. A person familiar with Gates’ thinking said the decision has nothing to do with Gates’ health.
Gates shifted his day-to-day priorities from the company to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008.
The Seattle-based private philanthropy, the world’s largest, is responding to the pandemic, pledging $115 million, including $5 million for local public health agencies and $50 million for research into possible treatments, in recent weeks. It is also working on projects including a home test kit. Gates provided $20 million to the Seattle Flu Study, which has been at the forefront of tracking the spread of the new coronavirus.
Gates has long warned that the world was ill-prepared for the sort of pandemic it’s experiencing now.
Mark Anderson, CEO of Strategic News Service, a 25-year-old technology and economics publication that counts Gates among its readers, applauded his decision, particularly in a time of crisis.
“One of the brightest aspects of global crises is the appearance on that stage of those who can do the most good, from whichever quarter,” Anderson said via email. He added, “At a time when our federal government seems confused and slow to bat, Bill could provide the leadership in intelligence and action that we all need and want, in Washington State and the nation.”
The Gates Foundation focuses on global health, U.S. education and poverty in Washington state. In a letter earlier this year marking its 20th anniversary, Bill and Melinda Gates added climate change and gender equality to the foundation’s priorities. The foundation itself recently underwent a leadership transition, when Sue Desmond-Hellmann stepped down as CEO, replaced by Mark Suzman.
Gates stepped down as Microsoft board chairman in 2014 as Nadella was installed as CEO, replacing Steve Ballmer, who took that mantle from Gates in 2000. But Gates remains highly recognizable and closely associated with a company that defined the rise of the personal computer era in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gates was once the avatar of the hypercompetitive corporate technology mogul. Microsoft waged an antitrust battle with the U.S. government — the U.S. Justice Department sought to break it up in 1997, charging it with illegally bundling its web browser into the Windows operating system — that presaged today’s concerns over concentrated technology power.
Microsoft remains among the world’s most valuable businesses. Its shares, which rebounded more than 14% during regular trading Friday, fell nearly 3.7% in the after-hours market after news of Gates’ departure from the board.
Gates will continue as a technology adviser to Nadella. He is also a major owner of Microsoft with a 1.3% stake in the company he co-founded with the late Paul Allen in 1975. Leaving the board “in no way means stepping away from the company,” Gates said. “Microsoft will always be an important part of my life’s work and I will continue to be engaged with Satya and the technical leadership to help shape the vision and achieve the company’s ambitious goals.”
Gates is currently the world’s second-wealthiest person on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with an estimated net worth of $102 billion, behind Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and just ahead of Buffett.
Microsoft said Gates’ departure will reduce its board of directors to 12 members. Berkshire Hathaway intends to replace Gates with Kenneth Chenault, former head of American Express.
Daniel Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, said in a research note that Gates stepping down from Microsoft’s board is a vote of confidence for Nadella and the direction of the company.
The New York Times contributed to this report.