Telling details from inside the private lives of Bill and Melinda Gates have revealed signs of a marriage under strain, with the pair reportedly clashing over the handling of the Gates Foundation and facing struggles through the coronavirus pandemic.
Melinda French Gates, 46, who stands to inherit the equivalent of the GDP of Nepal, Iceland and Zimbabwe combined in the divorce, revealed signs of trouble with her billionaire husband, 65, in her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift.
Candidly revealing her desire to take over more responsibility alongside her already globally renowned husband, Melinda admitted it was “hard to be heard”.
“I’ve been trying to find my voice as I’ve been speaking next to Bill, and that can make it hard to be heard,” she wrote.
Melinda said a request to co-author the annual Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation letter, usually written solely by her husband, brought particular strain on their 27-year marriage.
“I thought we were going to kill each other,” she wrote. “I felt, ‘Well, this just might end the marriage right here.’”
Despite once claiming she wished to work “behind the scenes”, Melinda said she sometimes clashed with her husband over how she was represented at the Gates Foundation.
“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.”
A source close to the family, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The New York Times keen eyes could have spotted that Melinda was “uncomfortable” in her most recent string of public appearances leading up to her divorce.
The long-time foundation executive said the writing was on the wall, but the public still appeared to be blindsided by the split of the world’s most public philanthropic couple.
“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,” they said.
“There’s already these divisions, how are they not going to be more reinforced?”
Gary Darmstadt, a medical doctor who worked with the Gates Foundation, said Melinda began spreading her wings in 2006, speaking emphatically about issues exterior to the Gates Foundation at an event addressing a $US31 billion gift from investment mogul Warren Buffett, the foundation’s third trustee.
“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 behaviour change, the importance of systems, the importance of an integrated approach,” Dr Darmstadt told the newspaper.
“She realised ‘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.”
By 2015, Melinda was running her own show, creating an entirely separate wing to the Gates Foundation named Pivotal Ventures. In this enterprise, she would push for more gender equality and social progress over the more traditionally health-focused Gates 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 told The New York 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.”
Former insiders at the Gates Foundation previously revealed cracks forming in the organisation with staffing constraints compounding the strain of the couple focusing on different initiatives.
Senior staff have reportedly been pulled in both directions when it comes to the couple’s goals for the Foundation. Anita Zaidi, for example, is the Foundation’s director of vaccine development and surveillance, but also serves as president for gender equality.
“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,” a former executive said.
“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. You put this in the middle of it, it just feels like it creates even more uncertainty in an organisation that’s always filled with uncertainty.”