Bill and Melinda Gates divorce: What went wrong for the philanthropic power couple?

Katie Strick
·15-min read
 (AP)
(AP)

The news has sent shockwaves across the world: America’s most charitable power couple Bill and Melinda Gates have announced their divorce.

The Microsoft founder, 65, and his wife, 56, announced the news on Twitter last night, explaining that the marriage was “irretrievably broken” and that they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple.”

The billionaires have been married for 27 years and raised three children together while accumulating an extraordinary wealth of $130 billion, allowing them to establish the world’s largest charitable foundation and commit to giving at least half of their wealth to charity through the Giving Pledge.

Bill Gates is currently the fourth richest man in the world and the separation could be record-breaking. The largest settlement ever recorded was in 2019 when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott finalised a divorce of around $36 billion. And the divorce could also have powerful consequences in public life. The Gates’ foundation has contributed more than $50 billion to causes including eradicating malaria and improving IT education in the US and the last year has seen the couple commit $1.75 billion to vaccine programmes as part of the battle against Covid-19.

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Questions are naturally being asked about how their fortune will be divided up, but the global reaction is also one of sadness. Alongside the personal challenges for their three children Jennifer, 25, Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 18, the pair have long been hailed as one of the world’s most inspiring couples, dedicating decades to worthwhile causes and championing the importance of men and women being equals at home and in the workplace.

Bill always said he’d met his match when he first started dating Melinda and she easily beat him at maths puzzles, and despite the challenges of sharing childcare duties with one of the world’s most famous men, Melinda has always spoken lovingly of her husband’s emotional intelligence and “kind heart”. On their 26th anniversary just last year, she marvelled at “just how full a heart can get”.

So what do we know about their marriage behind closed doors and what went wrong to bring their 27-year relationship to an end? From their shared childhood interests to raising three children as one of the world’s richest couples, here’s how their love story played out.

A well-programmed power pairing

They were both born into privilege, but Bill and Melinda Gates have always maintained they share two values from childhood: to give back and to be optimistic about the future, according to their website. “From early childhood, we each saw how our parents helped out in our local communities, and we were taught that anything is possible,” they explain in their biography at gatesfoundation.org.

“Unfortunately, factors outside of anyone’s control make it hard for some people to reach their potential: things like when they were born, who their parents are, where they grew up, whether they are a boy or a girl.”

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Growing up in Seattle, Bill’s father was a prominent lawyer and his mother was on the board of the financial holding companies. His parents encouraged competition and wanted him to pursue a career in law, but he developed an interest in computer programming from an early age. He wrote his first software programme at 13 and was excused from maths classes to pursue his passion for computing.

A decade or so later in Dallas, Texas, Melinda - the daughter of an aerospace engineer and a housewife - also developed a keen interest in programming. She was top of her class and introduced to computer science by her father and a teacher who advocated teaching computer science at the all-girls school.

Both went on to pursue those passions at elite universities: Melinda at Duke University in North Carolina; and Bill at Harvard, where he dropped out after two years to start his own computer software company, Microsoft, in 1975. After graduation, Melinda was hired as a product manager in 1987, becoming the only woman to be chosen from Microsoft’s first intake of MBA graduates.

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Puzzling beginnings

Bill was already destined for stardom by the time he met his future wife. He became the world’s youngest billionaire in 1987 at the age of 31, serving as Microsoft’s CEO, while Melinda worked for the company in its product department.

Their meet-cute took place at a business dinner in New York in 1987. “I showed up late, and all the tables were filled except one, which still had two empty chairs side by side,” Melinda wrote in her 2019 memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World. “I sat in one of them. A few minutes later, Bill arrived and sat in the other.” According to Melinda, she and Bill “talked over dinner that evening” and she could “sense he was interested”.

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A few days later, they bumped into each other in Microsoft’s parking lot and he asked her out. “He struck up a conversation and asked me out for two weeks from Friday,” she wrote in the book. “I laughed and said: ‘That’s not spontaneous enough for me. Ask me out closer to the date,’ and gave him my number.” Bill reportedly phoned Melinda two hours later, proposing dinner that evening.

The couple have since spoken about how they bonded over a shared love of puzzles and maths games. “We found we had a lot in common. We both love puzzles, and we both love to compete,” Melinda wrote in the book. “I think he got intrigued when I beat him at a math game and won the first time we played Clue, the board game where you figure out who did the murder in what room with what weapon. He urged me to read The Great Gatsby, his favorite novel, and I already had, twice.

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“Maybe that’s when he knew he’d met his match,” she continued. “His romantic match, he would say. When we got engaged, someone asked Bill: ‘How does Melinda make you feel?’ and he answered: ‘Amazingly, she makes me feel like getting married’.”

Like many great romances, love was not immediate, but it blossomed as time went on. Melinda’s mother didn’t approve of her daughter dating the CEO of the company she worked for so they kept “a low profile at work” and have spoken about how they took their relationship lightly in the first few months. “She had other boyfriends, and I had Microsoft,” Bill said. “We were like, ‘Hey we are not really serious about each other, are we? We are not going to demand each other’s time’.”

Melinda agreed: “I was new to Microsoft, there were a lot of men there and... you are still looking around.”

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A very logistical love story

The couple’s true love story started as meticulously as it now appears to have unravelled. They dropped the L-bomb a year into the relationship, but there were practical questions mixed in: “She said she loved me and then it was like, ‘Wow, and now what is going to happen’,” Bill has since recalled.

“We cared a lot for each other and there were only two possibilities: either, we were going to break up or we were going to get married,” he continued, while Melinda has since explained the decision came down to work: “[He] wanted to be married, but he didn’t know whether he could actually commit to it and [still run] Microsoft,” she explained in the Netflix documentary.

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AP

Naturally, Bill decided to rely on the same problem-solving skills he and Melinda had bonded over in the first place. The Microsoft founder is famously reported to have drawn up a pros and cons list of a potential marriage on a whiteboard in his bedroom, which Melinda caught him filling it in. They got engaged shortly after - presumably the pros outweighed the cons - and the billionaire’s logistical approach didn’t stop once they were married. Even during their lavish wedding in Hawaii in 1994, Bill reportedly “did some astonishingly quick math to calculate” how they should cut the cake to ensure exactly equal slices for each guest.

The wedding was one of the most exclusive high-profile weddings of recent decades, with the couple reportedly booking all the rooms at the Manele Bay Hotel and hiring all the local helicopters to stop unwanted guests flying over or watching from above. They racked up a $1 million bill for the star-studded ceremony, which took place next to the hotel’s golf course and counted billionaire businessman Warren Buffett and Washington Post owner Katharine Graham among the guest list.

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AP

Founding a family

The couple’s logistical love story translated into practical parenting. Less than two years after the wedding, Melinda discovered she was pregnant with their first child and she has since admitted she considered not telling her husband as they were about to leave on a trip to China. “This China trip was a huge deal for us,” she wrote in her book. “Bill rarely took time off from Microsoft, and we were going with other couples as well.

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“I didn’t want to mess up the trip, so I considered not telling Bill I was pregnant until we came back. For a day and a half, I thought, I’ll just save the news. Then I realized: ‘No, I’ve got to tell him because what if something goes wrong? And, more basically, I’ve got to tell him because it’s his baby, too.’ When I sat Bill down for the baby talk one morning before work, he had two reactions. He was thrilled about the baby, and then he said: ‘You considered not telling me? Are you kidding?’”

Melinda later told her husband she wouldn’t return to work after giving birth to their eldest child, Jennifer, and says it is this decision that shocked her husband even more. “He was stunned,” she later recalled, saying his response was simply: “What do you mean, you’re not going back?”

She says her decision came down to money. “I said: ‘We’re lucky enough not to need my income,” she continued. “So this is about how we want to raise a family. You’re not going to downshift at work, and I don’t see how I can put in the hours I need to do a great job at work and raise a family at the same time.”’

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The couple went on to have two more children - Rory, now 21, and Phoebe, now 18 - and despite their public success, they have had private struggles. Melinda has spoken in the past of the challenges of being a stay-at-home mother while her husband works 16-hour days, calling the marriage “incredibly hard” at times.

Shortly after giving birth to Jennifer, Melinda says she felt “alone” in the marriage because her husband was spending so much of his time at work. “Bill was CEO of Microsoft at the time,” she wrote in her book. “He was beyond busy; everyone wanted him, and I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe he wanted to have kids in theory, but not in reality’.” Years later after their 25th wedding anniversary, she told The Sunday Times: “I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought, “Can I do this?”’

She says this led the couple to carve out more “equal” roles as time went on, working together to turn their marriage into a “partnership”. Both took on more equal shares of domestic and childcare duties and Bill offered to drive Jennifer to school several days a week, which involved more than two hours in the car each day.

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A professional partnership

Melinda never went back to working at Microsoft but the couple did return to working together as professional partners. In 2000, they set up their non-profit organisation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with the aim of improving healthcare, increasing education and tackling poverty across the world. Bill stepped down as the CEO of Microsoft at the same time, moving into a director role so he could put more of his energy into his and his wife’s philanthropic work.

The couple say the foundation was inspired after reading a newspaper article about millions of children in poor countries who die from diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, that can be easily treated in wealthier countries. “That blew our minds. As new parents it hit us especially hard,” they write on the foundation’s website. After reading the article, they sent the article to Bill’s father Bill Sr. with a note: “’Dad, maybe we can do something about this’. Those eight words changed the rest of our lives.”

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Since then, the couple pumped more than $36 billion into the charity and it is now said to be the largest private foundation in the world, with net assets of more than $43 billion. Its grants have included $1.75 billion to vaccine programmes and research during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The couple are also the co-creators of the Giving Pledge alongside billionaire businessman Warren Buffet, which is a promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity. At least 170 of the world’s richest people have signed up so far, from Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Melinda has also gone on to found Pivotal Ventures, an investment company focused on women and families, and has spoken in the past of how working with Bill on the foundation has made their relationship stronger and more equal. “He’s had to learn how to be an equal, and I’ve had to learn how to step up and be an equal,” she wrote in her memoir.

Her husband has agreed. “We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work,” he once said, explaining in a Netflix documentary how their skills are complementary. “She’s a lot like me in that she is optimistic and she is interested in science. She is better with people than I am. She’s a tiny bit less hard core about knowing, you know, immunology, than I am.”

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A post on the couple’s blog, Gates Notes, in 2018 gives a deeper insight into how the power pair work together day-to-day: “Some people see Melinda as the heart of our foundation, the emotional core,” Bill writes. “But just as she knows I’m more emotional than people realize, I know she’s more analytical than people realize... When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic. She helps me understand when I can push our teams harder (as I pretty much always did at Microsoft) and when I need to ease off.”

Melinda is equally complimentary about her husband’s strengths in the blog post. “Bill is very open-minded, which isn’t necessarily how people perceive him,” she writes. “I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say. When I tell a story about what I’ve seen, he feels it. He might ask me to gather some data for good measure, but he doesn’t doubt the reality of my experiences or the soundness of my judgement.”

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PA

That 2018 blog post also reveals how this sense of equality is reflected in a wedding gift they were given by Bill’s parents in 1994: a sculpture of two birds, sitting side by side, staring at the horizon. Twenty four years later, that sculpture was still sitting outside their home.

Love in lockdown

The majority of the couple’s public expressions for the last 14 months have centred around global vaccine efforts, but recent interviews and social media posts suggested their marriage was still a happy one. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner on this journey,” Bill posted on Instagram on Valentine’s Day in 2020, a month after his wife publicly wished him a happy 26th wedding anniversary.

“I’m still marveling at just how full a heart can get,” she wrote alongside an Instagram photo of her and her husband dancing hand-in-hand. “Happy anniversary to the man who keeps me dancing through life.”

AP
AP

Since then, social media posts picturing the couple together have tailed off, but they have continued to do joint interviews throughout the pandemic. They reportedly spent lockdown at their $125 million home in Seattle with their youngest daughter Phoebe, and Melinda - a longtime advocate of men and women being equal partners - told The Sunday Times in January she believed the secret to a happy marriage was balance.

“I’m a terrible cook, Bill’s a terrible cook, but we can both push the buttons on the microwave. We can both do the dishes. Bill is expected to do things around the house.” Did that balance start to shift after that interview took place?

News of their divorce was announced last night when the couple saying they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple”, with social media users speculating whether domestic duties or lockdown pressures could have been a cause.

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Their eldest daughter Jennifer has spoken of it being “a challenging stretch of time for our whole family” and needing space to “process” hers and her family’s emotions, and the couple have confirmed they will continue to work together at the foundation. The two birds still stand together facing the same horizon. But from now on, it appears they will be standing a little further apart.

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