Billion-Dollar Divorce
YOU South Africa|20 May 2021
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, are to split. Here’s a look at their love story and what’s at stake in their separation
Kim Abrahams

WHEN they got married, a simple wedding gift from her parents would become one of her most treasured possessions.

It was a sculpture of two little birds sitting side by side staring at the horizon, and she put it in the front garden of their home so she could see it whenever she came and went.

“Those birds are still in front of our house,” she wrote in 2018 in her and her husband’s annual newsletter. “I think of it all the time because fundamentally Bill and I are looking in the same direction.”

How poignant those words are now – and how bittersweet that sculpture must be. After 27 years of marriage, three kids, billions of dollars and decades of philanthropy, Bill and Melinda Gates are no longer looking in the same direction. And it’s no exaggeration to say their split has left the world gobsmacked.

In a world where high-flying couples get divorced all the time, the Gateses seemed stable and “normal”, a slightly geeky couple who cared more about the greater good of the planet and its people than a life of glitz and glamour.

“It’s not fair that we have so much wealth when billions of others have so little,” Melinda once said.

Since their 1994 wedding they’ve donated at least $40 billion ($580bn) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds IT education in the US and healthcare and poverty initiatives around the world, including large-scale projects to fight HIV and malaria.

When Covid-19 began to ravage the globe, the Gates Foundation was one of the earliest and largest funders of research into a vaccine.

They seemed solid to the end – two people who looked like the couple next door, with generous hearts and deep pockets. And now, although Bill (65) and Melinda (56) have pledged to continue working together on the foundation, the love story of one of richest couples on Earth is over.

Melinda is the one who filed for divorce, stating in court documents that the marriage was “irretrievably broken”.

In the days after the divorce announcement, it emerged that she’d in fact started consulting divorce lawyers in October 2019 but the couple decided to wait until their youngest child, Phoebe, had turned 18 before they formally announced the split.

The Gateses then went on Twitter with a statement no one saw coming. “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we’ve made the decision to end our marriage.

“We’ve built a foundation all over the world to enable people to lead healthy, productive lives and we continue to share a belief in that mission. [But we] no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives”.

The tweet received more than 140 000 likes and was retweeted 15 000 times as people grappled to get to grips with it.

Just what the hell had happened?

THEIR love story began in 1987 when Melinda French joined Bill’s Microsoft company as a product manager.

“I was definitely attracted to his brilliant mind, but beyond that, his curiosity,” Melinda told Fortune magazine. “And he has a huge sense of fun. I love that wry side of him.”

Bill was attracted to her mind and independence but things were casual in the beginning. “She had other boyfriends and I had Microsoft,” he said. “We were like, ‘Hey, we aren’t really serious about each other, are we? We aren’t going to demand each other’s time.’ ”

But after a year things changed. “Sort of to our surprise – certainly to my surprise – we said, ‘Hey, I love you,’ ” Bill said. “And she said she loved me and it was like, ‘Wow, now what’s going to happen?’ ”

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