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‘I’m charting uncharted waters,’ Melinda French Gates says of her working relationship with Bill Gates

October 11, 2022, 6:51 PM UTC
Melinda French Gates talks with Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram at the 2022 MPW summit.
Kristy Walker for Fortune

Divorce is almost never easy. And when you’re a billionaire philanthropist with the world watching, it can take the situation to an entirely new level.

As Melinda French Gates previously told Fortune, her divorce from Microsoft cofounder BIll Gates in May 2021 was “unbelievably painful in innumerable ways.” 

But the philanthropist, an optimist by nature, also took away some positives from the experience. “I think what it has taught me is something I have always longed to do, which is to be my most authentic self in every way,” French Gates said Tuesday during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in California. 

That’s a big shift, both for French Gates and workplaces at large. “Society is changing,” French Gates acknowledged. In decades past, men went off to work, and women stayed home to care for the children and run the household. There was a separation of work and personal life. But now, most married couples form dual-income households, and the boundaries of work and personal life are blurring. 

“You want to bring your whole self to work. You do want to talk a bit about your kids and what’s important to you and what’s important in society,” French Gates said. And through the work she’s put into coming to terms with her divorce, she says, she now feels “unleashed” to do that in her role as cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Ventures. 

That’s not to say working with your ex-husband to run a multibillion-dollar nonprofit is easy. “I do realize I’m charting uncharted waters,” French Gates told the summit audience. “But I will say that we are both deeply committed to that institution. My values are baked into that institution. And so what I know is that I have to show up as my best self every single day.”

It also helps, she said, that the foundation has an amazing board of directors and a strong governance structure. Speaking of that structure, Bill Gates recently noted that he expected the foundation to wind down in the next 25 years—by which time Gates would be 91 years old, and French Gates would be 83.  

French Gates clarified that timeline Tuesday. “Just to be clear, the governance documents of the foundation, which I’m a cosignatory on as cochair, say that it will last until 20 years after the death of the last of us. So that is the current state and plan,” she said. 

Under either timeline, the plan speaks to the Gates’ approach to more immediate philanthropy needs. “The intention is that the resources that have been amassed from Microsoft, that have ended up for whatever reason in both of our hands, that those resources will return to society,” French Gates said. The foundation’s endowment, built on donations from the founders as well as from Warren Buffett and others, currently stands at $53.3 billion.

“We can’t predict the problems 100 years from now. We couldn’t have predicted some of the things that happened in the last five years. So we want to solve today’s problems,” she said. “And what we know is that they’re enormous, and they’re even bigger, frankly, post-pandemic.”

But French Gates remains hopeful about our collective ability to solve these problems. “I think I’ve probably always been an optimist. I believe in human beings. We are the ones that change the world, and I believe in human ingenuity.”

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