Photograph by Paola Kudacki for TIME
TIME Equality

Melinda French Gates Is Going It Alone

Melinda French Gates at the Pivotal Ventures office in Kirkland, Wash., on June 10
Paola Kudacki for TIME Melinda French Gates at the Pivotal Ventures office in Kirkland, Wash., on June 10

The philanthropist talks leaving her foundation, giving away $1 billion, and life after divorce.

The early days of the pandemic were a complicated time for a lot of couples.

But it’s fair to say that in the sprawling, Pacific lodge-style home of Melinda and Bill Gates, the complexity was particularly acute. The foundation the couple co-led had been running a flu study in their hometown of Seattle, which had detected early cases of COVID-19 in the region. There were video calls with infectious-disease specialists they funded, world leaders, epidemiologists, journalists, and public-health officials. Two of their three children were home from school full time. Plus, the couple was secretly separated, trading off who lived at the family house and who was elsewhere while they tried to figure out if they could stay married.

“It was a super intense time for us as a foundation,” says Melinda French Gates, sitting in her industrial-chic office in Kirkland, Wash., three days after exiting the world-changing organization that bore her name for almost 25 years. “The other thing I would say, though, is, unusually, it gave us the privacy to do what needed to be done in private. You know, I separated first before I made the full decision about a divorce. And to be able to do that in private while I’m still trying to take care of the kids, while still making certain decisions about how you’re going to disentangle your life—thank God.”

Melinda French Gates Time Magazine cover

Most divorces are not undertaken lightly. They can blow a hole in a couple’s finances and health, the happiness of their children, and each partner’s self-esteem. French Gates didn’t have to worry so much about that first issue. But unlike others, she did have to think about the effect her divorce, finalized two weeks before her 57th birthday in August 2021, might have on the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were damaged by the collapse of the Bill and Melinda Gates marriage, it could affect the welfare of millions of people around the globe. How do you factor that in when you’re figuring out if your marriage is over?

“I would say it’s a personal thing,” French Gates says, after a significant pause, of her decisionmaking process at the time. Her office, while lush, is not showy. All warm wood and eggshell, its most prominent feature is a large poster spelling out the word JOY. But there are hints of her influence—among the family photos are notes from Bono and Barack Obama. “I thought a lot about my three children,” she says. “But I certainly thought about the effect on the foundation. Those are the three biggest buckets: me, the kids, and the foundation. And I wanted to make sure that when we came through it to the other side—when I came through it on my side—all of those pieces were intact.”

After a stint away from the spotlight, French Gates seems to have reached the other side. In May, almost exactly three years after news of the divorce broke, she announced her departure from the foundation that began above a pizza parlor with her and two other employees before it was officially launched in 2000. As she leaves, she wants to make a few things clear. She is doing well. She is not out of the philanthropy business; she just announced her second billion-dollar funding plan (her first was in 2019). And she’s focused on one issue: helping women thrive.

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French Gates no longer wants to be the soft humanist layer surrounding Bill Gates’ hard-data-driven core or a modern Eleanor Roosevelt, well-meaning but powerful only because of her spouse. She has never wanted to ride anybody’s coattails. On the cusp of turning 60, she’s both looser and more direct than in our interviews in prior years, maybe because she now has as unobstructed a view of her goals as she does of the yachts in the lake outside her office window. And she has her own wealth plus $12.5 billion from her ex’s personal stash to achieve them. “I feel like, Wow, I’m 60. I better surround myself with people and still travel [so that] I’m still absolutely learning, because the world is moving, the world is changing,” she says. “I’m totally unencumbered to work in any way I want.”

In a way, French Gates’ emergence as a woman making her own weather is a throwback to her Texan roots. Melinda Ann French, as she was known for her first 29 years, was a standout student at her all-girls Catholic school in Dallas. The nuns there were Ursuline, an order dedicated to educating young women, whose Latin motto translates to “I will serve.” French Gates traveled to jails and hospitals and tutored at low-income schools as part of her education, and still feels that introduction to service shaped her. 

She frequently tells the story of how a foresighted teacher, Mrs. Bauer, persuaded the head nun to buy a smattering of Apple II Plus computers in the early ’80s and introduced them to 10 or so of her more math-minded students, including Melinda. She was immediately fascinated, she says, by the logic puzzles that coding presented.

French Gates went to Duke University for a bachelor’s in computer science and an M.B.A. while interning over summers at IBM. When she went for her rubber-stamp interview before accepting a job there, she mentioned she still had an interview at a newbie company, Microsoft. The hiring manager told her to take that job, because there would be more opportunity for advancement. 

All along the way, French Gates’ path was lined by people who wanted a little more for women: a better education, access to more advanced knowledge, a less obstructed career path. And she was easy to root for. The second of four children, as a teenager she helped at her parents’ side hustle, a 14-home rental operation, mowing lawns and “Easying-Off the ovens.” She also campaigned to get the grading system changed at her high school. Young Melinda felt students who took AP classes were penalized. She had clocked that, unlike at the more pricey all-girls school nearby, only the valedictorian at her school was accepted into a prestigious college. “I’m like, Oh my God, if I’m not valedictorian, I don’t have a shot at getting in,” she recalls. She got the scoring system changed. And she was valedictorian.

Perhaps it was that combo of pragmatism, ambition, and appreciation for data that drew Microsoft’s founder to her the evening they took the last two seats at a company dinner in New York City in 1987. At first, says French Gates, she wasn’t sure Bill was her type. He tried to schedule a drinks date two weeks in advance. After she declined what sounded like an appointment, he called and changed it to later that evening. They married in 1994. 

It’s a sad symptom of how little respect is given to parenting that French Gates, who ceased paid work and focused on raising the couple’s children after 1996, has been accused of not deserving her wealth. Indeed, both Bill and Melinda have acknowledged that it’s unfair for them to have so much money. They decided to give it away even before they were married and asked Gates’ dad Bill Sr. to help. After the William H. Gates Foundation merged into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, French Gates began to take an increasingly large role, primarily championing the data that showed that investing in women—assisting them to stay healthy, get educated, and plan pregnancies—helped raise whole communities out of poverty.

President Obama presents Melinda and Bill Gates the Medal of Freedom

Somewhere along the way, the Gateses became one of America’s favorite couples. They were TIME’s Persons of the Year in 2005, alongside literal rock-star philanthropist Bono. In 2006, Warren Buffett entrusted the couple with more than $30 billion to disburse. In 2016, they were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom; in 2017, the French Legion of Honor.

“She’s a very substantial person, and she brings that to her work,” says former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who first met French Gates at a U.N. function in 2019. “This isn’t a side project. It’s not a moment in time. Every time I have seen her over the years, she has had a laser focus on what she can do to improve areas of work that support women.”

If you had to pinpoint a moment when Melinda Gates, wife, mother, and philanthropist, began to turn into Melinda French Gates, powerhouse advocate for women, it was probably July 11, 2012, when she co-hosted, alongside the U.K. government, the one-day London Summit on Family Planning. More than 20 countries pledged $4.6 billion to help increase access to birth control for women in developing nations. Three years later, French Gates started Pivotal Ventures, an investment and charitable firm focused on the issues she cared about. Four years after that, she published a memoir, The Moment of Lift. And now she’s going it alone. “Once Pivotal Ventures was up and running for three years, I knew I could do this on my own,” she says.

The first billion in giving since leaving the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers some clues as to the direction she now wants to go. Her focus is still getting women in power—in politics, in business, in tech, and, now, in media, but she’s widening her lens to work more globally, and being bolder. She’s spreading $200 million among 16 organizations that work to advance the rights of women and other underrepresented groups, including the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Melinda French Gates London Summit Family Planning

She’s also offered $20 million each to 12 individuals she believes are disrupters and charged them to pass it along to others. These include friends such as filmmaker Ava DuVernay, people she has worked with like Ardern, and people she has only met over Zoom, like Sabrina Habib, who runs low-cost childcare centers in East Africa. The recipients get to request up to $5 million for their own institutions and invest the rest in other people or organizations they admire. Two of these recipients are men, Richard Reeves and Gary Barker, who are trying to help prepare boys for a world where women are equal partners.

Ardern, who doesn’t yet know how she will allocate the money she has been assigned, except that it’s likely to be invested in the geographic region from which she hails, says the offer from French Gates came in mid-April, totally out of the blue. She was putting away clothes one evening when she glanced at her phone. “I got a personal message from Melinda saying, ‘Here’s my areas of interest. I believe you’re someone who will have seen meaningful places where we could have an impact. Will you help me?’ And ‘I’m trusting you to hand this over,’” says Ardern. “Who does that?”

A further quarter-billion dollars is going to a kind of contest, for which people will pitch ideas, using Lever for Change, a model she used before with another woman giving away her divorce settlement, MacKenzie Scott (formerly Bezos). While French Gates no longer partners with Scott, she acknowledges there are now some similarities in their methods, which lean into trust in people rather than pure adherence to data. But she prefers to stay more involved than Scott. “MacKenzie will literally do the grantmaking to the organizations and then she’s extraordinarily hands off,” says French Gates. “I try and coalesce a group of organizations around moving something forward.”

That leaves $310 million to give away. “I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with the rest,” she says. “That’s exciting. One of the things I feel like I’m on is a learning journey.” She repeats those words, exciting and learning, often. 

One of the things French Gates has learned is that she’s more pro-choice than she thought. Previously, she had spoken in favor of—and funded—contraceptive access for women in countries where availability was low. Now, in part influenced by her daughters, she’s funding abortion-rights organizations, which the foundation never did. This has put her at odds with some in the Catholic Church, a faith she espouses. “Melinda French Gates could do much to help women and their preborn children on the national—and even international—level,” Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told a Catholic news outlet. “Yet she has decided instead to pour money into the abortion industry.”

But to French Gates, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a symptom of a bigger issue. “To have a law on the books since I was 9 years old, and to have it rolled back, and all the downstream consequences—like these women’s-health deserts now when we already have one of the highest maternal-mortality rates of high-income countries—I can’t not speak up about that,” she says. “To see that my granddaughter will have fewer rights than I do? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Read More: Why I’m Focusing on Getting More Women In Public Office

Another topic that has really got her goat over the years is that the U.S. is the only Western nation with no federal policy on family medical leave. One of the recipients of her largesse is New America, which does advocacy work in that area. “I want to push on that policy in a huge way,” she says. Rich as she is, she knows she can’t fund family leave for an entire nation; eventually the government will have to step in. She’s just going to try to clear away the obstacles, including the elected ones.

Which is why, noting that 60% of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and 80% of Americans agree that the U.S. should have a policy about family leave, French Gates is turning her attention to politics. She’s funding centrist candidates from both sides of the aisle, especially women, and especially in local and state government, and putting money into turn-out-the-vote efforts in swing states. And she’s gone further. The Gateses long had a policy of not endorsing any politicians, on the theory that they must be able to work with any government that gets elected, but she’s clear on whom she’ll be voting for this year: President Biden. “There’s no chance I could vote for Donald Trump. Not a single chance,” she says. “Not after what he has done to women’s reproductive rights, and not after the heinous things he has said about women.”

After 27 years of marriage, the Gateses announced their divorce, midpandemic, in May 2021. It later emerged that Bill had had an affair with a Microsoft employee in 2000, leading to an internal investigation in 2019. He left the board in 2020. (“Bill Gates stepped down from the Microsoft board in 2020 to dedicate more time to philanthropic priorities including global health and development, education, and his increasing engagement in tackling climate change,” a foundation spokesperson told TIME.) He also spent time with Jeffrey Epstein, even after the latter’s first conviction. (Gates has said he regrets those meetings.) While both of those were factors, French Gates has said there was no one thing that led to the dissolution of the marriage. Since September 2022, Bill has been seen frequently with Paula Hurd, the widow of former Oracle co-CEO Mark Hurd.

There is zero need to feel sorry for French Gates. By all accounts she’s living her best life. “Getting a divorce is a horrible thing. It’s just painful. It’s awful when you realize you need one,” she says, then asked to correct herself from “horrible thing” to “hard thing” a minute later. But now that it’s over? “It has been wonderful,” she says with a tiny chuckle. “I’ll just leave it there.” She doesn’t leave it there. She’s skiing. She’s traveling to see her granddaughter and daughters (Jennifer, 28, and Phoebe, 21) in New York City and son (Rory, 25) in Washington, D.C. She’s going to Paris to watch her son-in-law Nayel Nassar compete as an equestrian in the Olympics, and on safari in Africa, one of her favorite things.

She’s allowing a few close friends to throw her a dance party for her 60th. She has two spiritual groups she loves (local mindfulness guru Tara Brach’s podcast is a favorite topic of discussion) and a long-term walking group with a cluster of her besties. And she is smitten with her new house, having never been a fan of the massive one her husband had built. “I live in a neighborhood. Now I can walk to little stores. I can walk to the drugstore, I can walk to a restaurant,” she says. “I absolutely love it.” Alas, it was considered imprudent for her to go to any open houses—a favorite weekend hobby in her 20s. Instead, she did a lot of searching on Redfin. 

French Gates might even be dating. She says “of course” she’s willing to meet a new somebody, especially “somebody who’s open to learning and who’s vibrant, and who’s smart, and somebody who challenges me and that I challenge.” It seems a remarkably specific list, but when asked if there is somebody in the picture, she demurs. “Not that I’m ready to talk about.”

The foundation French Gates has just left is richer than some countries. It had an endowment of $75.2 billion in December 2023. It has given away $76 billion or so since 2000, including close to $8 billion in the past year. Its work reaches 48 states and 135 countries, and while its focus is global health, it also touches education, agriculture, water, climate, financial systems, gender equality, and family planning, among other things. Pivotal Ventures, on the other hand, is not a nonprofit and has no endowment, just whatever French Gates has. That’s reported to be $11.3 billion, on top of the $12.5 billion she was given for philanthropic purposes when she left the foundation—a stipulation of her divorce agreement. It’s not nothing, but scale is crucial in funding if you want to take big swings. Can she tolerate the downsizing?

French Gates at her desk in the Pivotal Ventures office

“I don’t see it honestly as a downsizing,” she says. “I was just ready to be able to have full decisionmaking control about where all the funds go.” She also felt the foundation was in a good place, and the work she was doing there on gender equity would continue. “I know it will continue because of the board, because of Mark [Suzman, the CEO], and Bill believes now fi…”—she seems to be about to say finally, but stops—“in women’s health, so it will continue.”

When she told her foundation colleagues she was leaving, she says, none of them tried to talk her out of it. Even Bill was resigned to it. “I think he said he would be willing to make substantial changes if it would help me stay,” she says, but “they knew once I’ve made a decision, I’ve made a decision.”

“I’m grateful to Melinda for all her contributions to the Gates Foundation, where she was instrumental in shaping our strategies and initiatives,” Gates told TIME in a written statement. “I’m certain she will have a huge impact through her future philanthropic work. I’m impressed with many of the grants she’s already announced for women’s health and economic empowerment, and hope we have the opportunity to collaborate again in the future.”

The struggle to bring equity to women was already under way before French Gates was born. It would be a mistake to call it a revolution, because it has been very slow and things have not fully turned around. But for many women in low-income countries, whose position was and is precarious, the foundation’s programs made an enormous difference, especially to their health. No country has ceased being grindingly poor without improving the lot of women; it is now a tenet of international development that gender equality is macrocritical. French Gates is one of the engines that have driven this work.

Read More: Decisions Are Still Being Made For Women, Instead of By Them. We’re Suffering As a Result

People who have worked with the funding giant, who did not wish to be named because it might jeopardize their relationship, say she will be missed, both in the programming and the organization’s culture. The Gateses’ differing approaches made them a good team. Because French Gates was a co-chair, anybody coming to a meeting would know that in addition to bringing technological options, and data to support their approach, they’d be asked about how they were providing dignity, equity, and access to tools and funding for all the people they were working with. And after the meeting, French Gates would be the one emailing them a thank-you note. 

On the other hand, said one younger aid worker, it was inspiring to see French Gates embodying the autonomy she had been trying to provide for women by choosing to forge her own path, focus on issues she deemed most vital, and distribute money in a way she regarded as equitable. 

French Gates’ mother Elaine often told her daughter that if she didn’t set her own agenda, somebody else would. Several decades later, French Gates may be coming to terms with what that looks like. She no longer talks, for example, about empowering women. “I’ve stopped using that empowerment language, because we aren’t giving women their power—they have their power,” she says. “What I’m trying to do is make sure that women can step into their full power, that women see their power. It’s not something we give them. We have it. We’re born with it.” 

When Bill and Melinda married, she wrote in her memoir, his parents gave them a sculpture of two birds “looking out intently toward an unknown place with their gaze eerily together.” She loved it, she wrote, because it represented a married couple looking to the future together. She put it right by the front door of the home. When they were dividing up the assets, he got the sculpture. “I didn’t ask for it,” French Gates says. “I didn’t want it.” She’s looking at a whole new horizon.

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein

Correction, June 18: The original version of this story misstated how much money Melinda French Gates was giving to certain organizations. She is giving $200 million in total to 16 organizations, not $20 million to each.

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