A duo undone

WASHINGTON • From muddy streets in South Africa's townships to cocktail parties at Davos - Bill and Melinda Gates came as a pair.

Together, they built a charitable empire through Bill's technology company Microsoft and the massive non-profit organisation they co-founded and co-chair, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And when it came time to announce the end of their 27-year marriage, they did that as a pair, too, in a joint statement posted to their respective Twitter accounts at exactly the same moment on Monday.

In a 2019 Netflix documentary, Mr Gates, now 65, summed up their marriage this way: "In the case of Melinda, it is truly an equal partner.

"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."

Born on Oct 28, 1955, William H. Gates grew up in Seattle and fell in love with machines and computer programming as a geeky-looking 13-year-old.

He left Harvard University after two years to start "Micro-soft", a software company, with a childhood friend.

On the other side of the country, Melinda Gates was born Melinda French on Aug 15, 1964, in Dallas, Texas.

The first computer she ever used was an Apple II, and she developed an interest in computer games and programming at school.

The couple met in 1987, shortly after Melinda started working at Microsoft as a product manager, her first job after graduating from Duke University. The pair ended up sitting next to each other at a business dinner and hit it off.

Melinda, now 56, described her future husband in the Netflix documentary as "funny and very high-energy".

But Bill did not ask her out until a few months later, when they bumped into each other in the Microsoft parking lot. He asked her on a date - in two weeks.

Melinda teased him for not being "spontaneous enough" and told him to call her closer to the date. A few hours later, he called her at home and asked her out for that night.

They married in 1994 and have three children.

Before he popped the question, Melinda says she caught Bill weighing the decision by writing out the pros and cons of marriage on a white board.

The couple would go on to revolutionise the technology world: Bill through Microsoft software, Melinda through helping carve out space for women in the male-dominated industry.

In 2000, they launched the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is now among the world's richest foundations, having provided more than US$54 billion (S$72 billion) in grants over two decades in areas including malaria and infectious disease control, agricultural research, basic healthcare and sanitation in various parts of the world.

The couple's divorce could create new questions about their wealth, most of which has yet to be donated to their foundation. Bill transitioned away from Microsoft in 2006 to focus more on philanthropy.

"We continue to share a belief in (our) mission and will continue our work together at the foundation," their statement said. "But we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives."

In 2010, he and Melinda, along with Mr Warren Buffett, created the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to give the majority of their wealth to charity.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2021, with the headline 'A duo undone'. Subscribe