What Does the Bill and Melinda Gates Split Mean for Their Startup ‘Pet Projects?’ – Ahad Sanwari

On Monday, Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the richest people in the world and some of the most well-known philanthropists of the modern era, announced that they were getting a divorce.

The 65 year-old billionaire Microsoft co-founder first met Melinda French at a trade fair in New York in 1987. The two got married seven years later and have three children together. The announcement of their divorce came via a statement on Twitter, acknowledging the work that went into their relationship and what they were able to achieve together.

But their identity as a couple is mainly centered around the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the private charitable organization that they set up together. Established in 2000, the organization revolutionized the world of big philanthropy, having donated billions of dollars over the years on a large scale. With efforts spanning all corners of the world and several industries, from education and public health, to social welfare and information technology, the Foundation has become synonymous with charitable giving over the past 21 years. 

Not to mention supporting startup foundations and organizations with little capital and larger-than-life missions. The Bill Gates led clean-tech venture capital fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, invested $1 billion into 45 start-ups and raised another billion for the same.

So, it’s only natural to wonder what the fate of the two figures at the very helm of it would have on the state of the organization and whether that would have any impact on the organizations and start-up ventures they support. That question becomes especially prudent given that both Bill and Melinda were extremely visible during the COVID-19 pandemic and their organization has been extremely active in terms of mobilizing vaccine production and supply for it to poorer countries.

From a practical standpoint, there isn’t likely going to be much change. In their statement regarding their divorce, it was specifically mentioned that the two would continue their work with the Foundation and its several charities. “We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation,” it said. That says that the two will most likely remain co-chairs and continue the work they’ve been doing. 

Apart from Bill’s interests in Microsoft and his shares there, Melinda herself has also branched out into philanthropic activity of her own with the establishment of the Pivotal Ventures, a firm meant to invest in issues related to women empowerment in a variety of fields. Bill also follows his own interests with separate charitable work through Gates Ventures. Bill and Warren Buffett also founded The Giving Pledge in 2010, which saw them and other billionaires pledge to donate significant portions of their wealth to philanthropy and charity.

The impact they have does seem to be more tied to a sentimental look at their influence as a couple. They were representatives of a pioneering spirit in terms of philanthropy and entering the business world, enhanced by their history with Microsoft. Organizations they and their foundations support may not be affected directly in terms of any aid or support they are receiving, but it could be more of a blow to their morale seeing the unit that propelled them forward crumble just a bit. This article by the New York Times also emphasizes the environment that was created at the Gates Foundation when their divorce was made public.

What it could potentially mean is a divergence of where their individual funding and encouragement might go. Bill has been friendlier towards those organizations that bring an innovation in the tech and health sphere, a big supporter of the sciences and the Silicon Valley types of the world. Melinda has been more of a social philanthropist, encouraging underrepresented and underserved communities to uplift themselves and being a strong champion of causes that benefit women and women entrepreneurs. Their interests do merge, of course. And while they were able to slowly pursue those through their individual ventures, a split in capital for the larger Gates Foundation could imply a split in support.

That’s not to say that the organizations that are already being benefited will see their funds dry up, or that their combined approach towards bettering public health and safety, especially during the pandemic, won’t continue. 

While Bill and Melinda Gates are extremely prolific and active philanthropists as a unit, they’ve grown to become just so as individual entities as well. As long as their goals remain defined, the world of business and startups should breathe easy.

Photo credit: AP/Elaine Thompson (2019).

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