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Showing the Gates: What is the future of the Gates Foundation

The surprise divorce of Bill Gates and wife Melinda has exposed a marriage fraught with infidelity and derision.

Published: 30th May 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th May 2021 05:29 PM   |  A+A-

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and entrepreneur Melinda

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and entrepreneur Melinda (Photo| YouTube Screengrab)

There is the public Bill Gates with the nerdy glasses, tousled hair, goofy smile and a wedding ring on his finger, guzzling Coke while spending billions to rid the world of disease and poverty.

In private, the emerging profile of the world’s most influential and powerful technology shaper of the 20th century is a man possessed by hubris and owner of 'a roving eye' as The New York Times reported his predilection who demoralised colleagues, dissed his wife, conspired against his business partner and seduced colleagues.

The foundation of marriage has crumbled under Bill and Melinda Gates, though there is no chance of the Foundation crumbling for now; until early last week the 65-year-old Gates had not taken off his wedding ring when seen leaving the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan's West Village neighbourhood. 

So what happened to one of the coziest hand-holding-in-public romantic marriages of the tech era? The Gateses were experts at social image management, backed by a formidable corporate PR machine. Money buys protection. Billions are armour.

The chink in Bill Gates’s armour is womanising. In 2019, Microsoft's board of directors that included Gates investigated an incident in which the billionaire "sought to initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee in the year 2000," according to Microsoft spokesman Frank X Shaw.

A law firm was brought in to investigate the matter. The following year, Gates quit Microsoft’s board. His spokeswoman Bridgitt Arnold told media, "There was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably", and that "Gates' decision to transition off the board was in no way related to it".

What is the truth?

AN UNSAVORY CONNECTION

The Gateses have not provided the public with reasons for breaking up. The tipping point for the biggest divorce after Amazon owner Jeff Bezos split from his now ex-wife, the American novelist MacKenzie Scott, is said to be Gates' friendship with shady celebrity financier Jeffrey Epstein, whom the Microsoft guru met in 2011.

Epstein was jailed for sex-trafficking of girls and pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor. Epstein, who died in mysterious circumstances in a federal jail later, led a jet-set life of sexual profligacy and exploitation of underage girls; his friends included Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew.

The Gateses met Epstein at a late-night party at his Manhattan townhouse. "His lifestyle is very different and kind of intriguing, although it would not work for me," Gates had written in an email to colleagues, soon afterwards.

But he flew in Epstein’s private jet lasciviously nicknamed Lolita Express. Melinda French (Melinda's maiden name) was reportedly uneasy with her husband's proximity with a proclaimed sex offender. Gates ignored her advice and two men continued to meet.

The papers reported that Gates had even spoken to Epstein about being in an unhappy marriage. Soon the Microsoft founder distanced himself from the shady financier after the latter untruthfully claimed to be his investment advisor.

Though there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, a disgusted Melinda hired divorce lawyers in October 2019 after the relationship between Gates and Epstein became embarrassingly public. Though she has not spoken in public about Epstein, Melinda reportedly "decided that it was best for her to leave her marriage as she moved into the next phase of her life".

THE OTHER WOMAN

The press has been speculating about other reasons. One theory concerns Gates's continued relationship with ex-girlfriend and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ann Winblad; they had broken up in 1987. Details of this somewhat unconventional relationship emerged in 1997 in an article written by Walter Isaacson in Time magazine.

The tech mogul and Winblad met in 1984 for the first time at a computer conference. They started going on "virtual dates" - going to the same movie at the same time but in different cities and discussing it on their cellphones as if it was a physical conversation.

Winblad persuaded him to stop eating meat, but not for long. Isaacson called them kindred minds and spirits. Gates told him, "When I was off on my own thinking about marrying Melinda, I called Ann and asked for her approval." She gave it.

Even after the Gateses were married, Gates and Winblad had been taking a yearly weekend vacation together for over a decade at her beach cottage in North Carolina. They would ride dune buggies, hang-glide and walk on the beach.

"We can play putt-putt while discussing biotechnology," Gates told Isaacson. "We share our thoughts about the world and ourselves. And we marvel about how, as two young overachievers, we began a great adventure on the fringes of a little-known industry and it landed us at the centre of an amazing universe," Winblad reportedly told the journalist.

THE LADIES MAN

Gates’s universe has always starred beautiful woman. According to his biographer James Wallace, the billionaire’s youth was raunchy and wild. Wallace claimed that Gates would hire strippers for naked parties in his Seattle home.

Bill was "no choir boy", he told Daily Mail. The young Gates would visit some all-nude nightclubs in town and hire the dancers to swim naked with his friends in his indoor pool.

"The rich and influential carry a false sense of supremacy because they are surrounded by people who idolise them. This makes them think they can do anything without facing consequences. They are also prolific risk-takers," observes Mumbai-based life coach Sheetal Shaparia.

A regrettable victim of the Gates scandal is former air Delta hostess Zhe 'Shelly' Wang, a 36-year-old interpreter who worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I thought that the rumours would go away by themselves. I did not expect them to become more and more crazily spread," she wrote on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. In virus-obsessed America, conspiracy theorists soon saw the Chinese hand in Microsoft.

Much before 2019, Gates’s indiscretions at work had reached Melinda’s ears. It is being reported that in 2006, Gates emailed a female employee after a presentation for a dinner date. The general consensus is that he is not a smooth operator and has cheesy pick-up lines.

The New York Times quoted his email to the woman: "If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened." Subsequently, the billionaire reportedly propositioned a Foundation employee on an official trip.

The woman, whose name has been withheld, told a reporter that Gates told her, "I want to see you. Will you have dinner with me?" Both women rejected Gates’s advances. The saving grace was that once rebuffed, the boss never persisted.

Shaparia believes, "Being rich attracts ample attention. These men (and women) don’t have to do much to get what they want." The media has reported employee complaints about an “unhealthy work culture” at the company.

"The Microsoft of 2021 is very different from the Microsoft of 2000. Overall, the power dynamic in the workplace is not something that can be abused in any form, and the most important thing is for us to make sure that everybody is comfortable in being able to raise any issues they see, and for us to be able to fully investigate it," CEO Satya Nadella said in an official statement.

A COMPLEX MARRIAGE

Ironically, it was Gates who wrote the foreword to Nadella’s autobiography Hit Refresh, in 2017. His words were, "As the title of this book implies, [Satya] didn’t completely break with the past—when you hit refresh on your browser, some of what’s on the page stays the same."

In a way it had remained the same. The very next year, Gates had settled a sexual harassment claim against his longtime money manager of 30 years, Michael Larson. The Gates' personal fortune of over USD 124 billion, which Larson handled through his secretive investment firm Cascade, equals the value of many global corporations put together.

Larson has invested his boss' money in expensive real estate, public stocks, hotels and rare objet d’art like a notebook that belonged to Leonardo da Vinci. Cascade had interests in a bicycle shop too, and its owner, a woman, wrote to Gates accusing Larson of sexually harassing her.

She had threatened to sue if the matter was not settled. In 2018, she signed a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money, overseen by Gates. Despite Melinda’s reservation on the manner, Larson has not been fired.

The couple was not letting the world know about their marriage going off the rails. 2019 seems to have been a seminal year in the lives of the Gates family. Melinda published The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

It notes that a successful marriage is a foundation for overall success. It centres on a fair division of labour between a couple - who will drive the kids to school, wash the dishes, make dinner, do the laundry and pack lunches.

Melinda would be annoyed that after dinner was over at home, she would be the one left to clean up. In a February post, Gates describes how the couple uses EQ to navigate their challenges. By showing empathy is one. "I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say," writes Melinda.

Gates adds his bit with, "Some people see Melinda as the heart of our foundation, the emotional core. But just as she knows I’m more emotional than people realise. I know she's more analytical than people realise."

He confesses to counting on her to keep him grounded after he gets a wild idea. Melinda also writes that she enjoys true equality in their marriage. According to Gates, "We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work." This partnership has often led Melinda to defend her husband.

Rumour mongers had accused Gates of wanting “to eliminate 15 percent of the population” through vaccination and causing electronic microchips. A doctored video on the subject racked up millions of views on YouTube. Gates issued a denial, "Our Foundation has given more money to buy vaccines to save lives than any group."

When a rumour surfaced that Gates had put a microchip tracker in the vaccine, Melinda came to his rescue. "I know my husband is not vaccinating people and putting a microchip in their arm, because that technology doesn’t even exist and he’s never uttered the words out of his mouth," she said.

Divorce or not, the reputation of Microsoft was at stake. Whether she was defending Gates or the company is open to interpretation.

MELINDA KNEW

Gates’s womanising was well known, although not well reported. As the skeletons come tumbling out, news reports now reveal that Gates and Microsoft spoon-fed stories to papers such as The New York Times, and none of them wanted the flow of information to stop.

The curious part of the marriage was that Melinda had been aware of her husband’s sexual wandering and waited till 2019 to initiate divorce proceedings. Even after he married her in 1994, Gates has been accused of propositioning women at work.

"Though Gates began dating Melinda in 1988, he continued to play the field for a while, especially when he was out of town on business, when he would frequently hit on female journalists who covered Microsoft and the company industry. At one point, they broke up for nearly a year. When they got back together again in 1992, the relationship grew closer and stronger," Wallace writes.

The courtship between the two had an unspectacular start. Melinda, who had joined Microsoft as a product manager in 1987, was unimpressed when her future husband proposed their first date. "When Bill first asked me out, he said, 'I was thinking maybe we could go out two weeks from tonight'," Melinda posted on Facebook in 2015.

"I told him he wasn’t spontaneous enough for me." She continued, "He called me an hour later to suggest we get together that night." "He asked, 'Is that spontaneous enough for you?' I was definitely attracted to his brilliant mind, but beyond that, his curiosity. And he has a huge sense of fun. I love that wry side of him," Melinda told Fortune.

In 2019, the same year she called her divorce lawyers, she posted on Instagram that Gates had since "gotten a little more spontaneous over the years". Going by the books and social media, the general public saw no rupture in the relationship - such was the power of their image management.

Though it had been reported that Gates was often dismissive of his wife during official meetings - when asked in an episode of the 2019 Netflix series Inside Bill's Brain whether Melinda ever called him out on "his shit", he responds, "A lot of it, sure. I hope she doesn’t know all of it,...No, I'm just kidding." Melinda has a strong voice in the documentary.  

She recalls walking in on Gates making a pros and cons list on marrying her. "I took the idea of marriage very seriously," Gates says in the documentary. This was around the time the Epstein connection was causing grief in the Gates household and Melinda felt humiliated by her husband’s association with a sex trafficker.  

Gates can be seen saying, "You know, 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." Melinda adds, "Bill wanted to be married, but he didn’t know whether he could actually commit to it and have Microsoft."

She comments about her husband being open about the way he thinks. "When he was having trouble making the decision about getting married, he was incredibly clear that it was not about me. It was about, 'Can I get the balance right between work and family life?'" Well, the balance was not in her favour. 

THE ALLURE OF POWER

Why do powerful men like Gates or Bill Clinton cheat on their women? A study in the journal Psychological Science found that the higher a man or a woman rose in an official hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider or commit adultery.

"A sense of entitlement creeps in. When you are in authority, there is hardly anyone to give you a reality check," says Niharika Singh, an international development professional based in Thailand.

Along with the high power brings, it also brings loneliness. American gender expert Terri Orbuch, author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship, writes that  a new relationship providing the adrenaline rush acts as a motivator for infidelity.

"The 'cheater's high' is an emotionally heightened state wherein people get incredible amount of rush and they keep wanting more and more of it. You could blame it on the hormones. It becomes addictive," believes Mumbai-based life and business coach Sanjeet Ray.  He is certain that even the richest and most powerful man in the world does not have it all.

"This feeling of being above all gives them a sort of licence for misconduct. They cross the line. They feel they can get away given their resources," says Arouba Kabir, mental health counsellor and wellness coach, and founder, Enso Wellness.

Powerful men are invariably surrounded by fawning sycophants who turn a blind eye to their immorality. The bloated egos of powerful men encourage a Caligula Complex—a god who can get away with anything.  

"Both men and women are inherently polygamous by nature and therefore it is natural for them to have affairs. Melinda joined Microsoft as an employee; it is she who stands to gain a lot by the divorce," says author Padmini Dutta Sharma, who spends time between Hyderabad and  Seattle, and has worked closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So will this move change the most powerful charitable foundation of the world?

ON FIRM FOUNDATION

The world of philanthropy that needs the Gates billions is the one most worried right now. There is more personal Gates money exceeding the Foundation's corpus. The couple has signed the 'Giving Pledge' to spend all the Foundation money within 20 years of their deaths - the children get only USD 10 million each on gaining adulthood.

The Giving Pledge campaign is about billionaires giving a public promise to donate most of their wealth either during their lifetimes or when they die. Melinda became a billionaire overnight after Gates transferred USD 2.4 billion worth of Microsoft stock on the day of the divorce announcement. "I'm deeply uncomfortable with the amount of wealth I have, and I think the majority of it should go back to society," she had remarked in January.

Philanthropy today is more than a rich man’s post-retirement hobby - it is a force in itself that defines the giver’s identity and boosts his global power and influence. But how much of the combined Gates wealth will the couple put into the Foundation is unclear.

The USD 49.8-billion Gates Foundation’s board of trustees comprises Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, who pledged in 2006 to give most of his wealth to the Foundation. Gates could use his influence to add new members. The Foundation has more than 1,600 employees.

It gave away USD 5.1 billion in international grants in 2019. Since the Gateses don’t own their Foundation, the endowment will not be affected. For many years, the priority areas of focus and concerns are clearly demarcated.

They have overlapping interests which would continue to progress unhindered. Gates's passion is global health and climate change. Melinda prioritises gender equity and girls’ health.

"Just the fact that this divorce causes so much global anxiety is an indication that it's problematic that a single foundation would have that much power," Megan Tompkins-Stange, author of Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, told WSJ’s Market Watch.

Experts maintain that Melinda will continue to have her say in Foundation matters. Employees hail her “thoughtful and deliberate” approach to philanthropy. 

VACCINEGATE

A walk on the beach started the world’s most powerful philanthropic foundation. At a TED Conference in Vancouver in 2014, Melinda recounted how the idea for the Foundation germinated in their minds. In 1993, a few months before the Gateses were married, they visited Africa for the first time. They had gone for a safari but what they saw was abject poverty.

"We started asking ourselves questions: does it have to be like this?" Melinda recounted asking Gates while strolling by the sea in Zanzibar. "It was really on that beach walk that we started to talk about what might we do and how might we go about it," Melinda said. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private donor to the World Health Organization (WHO), second only to the US with its annual donation in 2018.

The Foundation began work in India in 2003 with Avahan, the HIV prevention programme that operated under former McKinsey partner Ashok Alexander. His work prevented an estimated 6,00,000 new infections. There have been scandals too, such as including tribal girls in medical trials without parental consent. 

The couple may have split now, but the Gates legend, of philanthropy and the billions that come with it will tie them together for years to come. The couple took their wedding vows on New Year’s Day in 1994 by the "par-three 12th hole" of Manele Bay Hotel in Maui, Hawaii. They had been dating for seven years.

The wedding cost Gates USD 1 million and the privacy-obsessed super-geek booked all the hotel rooms as well as the helicopters on the island to "prevent unwanted visitors from flying over", reported Forbes. In a 2018 annual letter to Microsoft employees, Melinda described the wedding gift from her in-laws - a sculpture of two birds, sitting side by side and staring at the horizon that occupies pride of place in front of their Seattle mansion.

"I think of it all the time, because fundamentally we're looking in the same direction," she wrote. It is not known whether the birds are still there but certainly the world’s most powerful philanthropic couple is no longer looking in the same direction or horizon. 

THE VACCINE CONTRETEMPS

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is facing flak in the media for not sharing Covid-19 vaccine technology with India. Bill Gates' reluctance to share intellectual property rights for vaccines with India could be driven by the profit motive.

For example, the foundation has a USD 52-million stake in the international clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company CureVac, which has yielded millions in profits. Gates remarked in an interview, "Moving a vaccine, say, from a  [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India, it’s novel, it’s only because of our grants and expertise that can happen at all."

The technology transfer between the Serum Institute of India (SII) and AstraZeneca shows that such a patent-free transfer is easily possible. The counter argument is that the Indian government has kept the intellectual rights of Covaxin for which it is seeking global approval.

Gates is a philanthropist but he is also a businessman who has invested heavily in vaccine development. At Davos in 2010, the Gateses committed USD 10 billion over the next decade to help research, develop and deliver vaccines to the poorest countries.

In August 2020, the foundation invested USD 150 million in Covid-19 vaccine production by SII in partnership with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. (The Vaccine Alliance is a financing mechanism, which Gavi uses to secure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for 92  low- and middle-income countries of which India is one).

Gates believes that funding cost-effective vaccine candidates is the way forward since they can be manufactured on a large scale, do not need strict temperature conditions like Pfizer and their low production cost makes them affordable to poor and middle income consumers.

Meanwhile, the world conspiracy factory has been churning out umpteen rumours about Gates being a Dr Psycho of DC Comics.

One piece of bruit claims that the foundation has used children as vaccine guinea pigs in India and Africa, causing thousands of deaths and deformities and vaccinated Kenyans to induce abortions. There is fake news that Gates is facing trial in India. A video, shared 6,500 times and viewed 200,000 times, accused him of having links with China’s Communist Party.

The Gateses have not provided the public with reasons for breaking up. The tipping point for the biggest divorce since Amazon owner Jeff Bezos split from his wife, is said to be Gates’s friendship with shady celebrity financier Jeffrey Epstein, whom he met in 2011.

Gates’s womanising was well known, although not well reported. As the skeletons come tumbling out, news reports now reveal that Gates and Microsoft spoon-fed stories to papers as The New York Times, and none of them wanted the flow of information to stop.

The Foundation began work in India in 2003 with Avahan, the HIV prevention programme. Avahan’s work prevented an estimated 6,00,000 new infections. There have been scandals too, such as including tribal girls in medical trials without parental consent.

(With inputs from Ayesha Singh and Manju Latha Kalanidhi)



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