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Sensemaker audio

Bill Gates’s halo slips

Bill Gates’s halo slips

Bill Gates is one of the world’s greatest philanthropists. But since we learned he’s getting divorced there’s been nothing but bad news.


Transcript

Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today…is the world’s top philanthropist as squeaky clean as we used to think?

***

Earlier this month, the world learned that an iconic couple is getting divorced. 

“The billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates have announced they are to divorce.”

BBC News, Gates divorce

Bill and Melinda Gates have been together for 27 years. It was a workplace romance: they met at Bill’s company, Microsoft in the 1980s. They’ve got three kids, a mansion in Seattle and a one hundred and thirty billion dollar fortune. But they aren’t just any wealthy power couple – because they run the biggest philanthropic organisation on earth. 

So what happens to their billions matters to people – a lot of people…

Since it was founded in 2006, their charity – the Gates Foundation – has worked in 135 countries. And it’s given out $54 billion dollars worth of grants to support really ambitious causes – from global health to gender equality. 

With the help of the Gates Foundation, the world is close to eradicating polio for good: 

“We are now reaching almost enough children that we feel there’s a good chance of the last polio case being in Pakistan some time in 2016.

Bill Gates on polio eradication

And they’ve dedicated billions of dollars to the fight to end malaria:

“Malaria is a great story. The deaths used to be over double what they are today.

Bill Gates on malaria progress

The charity has stepped in on Covid-19 too. The Gates Foundation has given $4 billion dollars to GAVI – the vaccine alliance that’s aiming to inoculate the whole world, rich and poor.

“To achieve this goal of global elimination we need three things: the capacity to produce billions of vaccines, the funding to pay for them and the systems to deliver them everywhere.

Bill Gates, on the Covid-19 vaccine campaign

All of this philanthropy is life-saving, world-changing stuff. 

But Bill Gates’s commitment to helping the world doesn’t end there: he’s written his own manifesto about saving the earth from climate disaster, and talked about how he wants governments to make billionaires like him pay higher taxes. 

What he’s done and said over the last few years makes Bill Gates seem like a decent guy. 

Overall, the Bill Gates persona is pretty different to the myths around other men who’ve made their billions in tech: like Elon Musk, the “king of memes”, or “buff” Jeff Bezos. 

Bill Gates seems more “sweet, nerdy uncle” than tech bro. 

Or he did…until recently…

Over the past few weeks, in the wake of news of his divorce, there’s been a steady stream of stories alleging that he’s behaved badly… affairs, workplace come-ons and unsavoury friendships…

All these allegations are chipping away at his “lovable geek” persona. 

So what happened to “Mr Nice Guy”?

***

There’s a TV interview with Bill Gates, filmed in 1991. At this point he was 35, maybe 36, and he’d been running Microsoft for 16 years or so. He seems a lot younger than that. He’s kind of lanky-looking, with wispy hair and huge glasses. He looks like an overgrown kid.  

But listen to what he says about his work habits and he’s no soft touch:

“I usually stay at work til 11 and 12 and the go home and read for a while.”

Bill Gates, 1991 interview

In those early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates had a reputation for being arrogant, short-tempered and difficult to work for. 

Under his leadership, the company had a tough culture. Employees worked long hours, spent their weekends in the office – and they could expect to be yelled and maybe sworn at by their boss if he thought their work wasn’t up to scratch. 

That culture lingered, because even though it made for a demanding workplace, Bill Gates’s workaholism and tyrannical management style had paid off. By the time of that 1991 interview he was already a billionaire and the second richest man in America. 

But maybe we should have remembered the culture that he created in the early days of Microsoft when we started to think later on that he was a bit – well – boring..? 

***

When it comes to the conventions of workplace behaviour, Bill Gates does seem to have taken a relaxed view. 

Over the past few days, it’s been reported that he had an affair with someone who worked for Microsoft 20 years ago:

“Microsoft founder Bill Gates facing misconduct accusations for a relationship he had with a Microsoft engineer, starting in 2000. That’s according to the Wall Street Journal.”

CNN, reporting on the misconduct accusations

The woman involved reported the affair to the Microsoft board in 2019, and they hired a law firm to investigate. Bill Gates stepped down soon after, although his spokespeople say that his resignation had nothing to do with the affair. 

And then there’ve been more serious allegations about how Bill Gates would pursue women at work:

“In another report the New York Times reported that Gates developed a reputation for questionable conduct in workplace settings, adding that on at least a few occasions Mr Gates pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft and the Gates foundation.”

CNN reporting on the misconduct accusations

People familiar with those come ons described unwanted advances and uncomfortable exchanges with their boss. 

Bill Gates denied any mistreatment of his employees.

But what really seems to have tarnished Bill Gates’s character is his association with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. 

Remember, he was the financier who was convicted and jailed for soliciting sex from a child. And his friend Ghislaine Maxwell is in prison right now waiting to stand trial on charges that she helped him abuse children.

Bill Gates started to get closer to Jeffrey Epstein in 2011. That was several years after he’d been convicted and gone to jail. 

And reports from the Wall Street Journal suggest that it was that relationship which was the final straw for Melinda Gates…

“According to documents obtained by the Journal, Melinda and her advisers held a number of calls with dovorce lawyers in October 2019, the same month the NYT first reported that Bill met with Epstein on numerous occasions.”

NBC news, reporting on the Gates divorce

Associating with a sex offender when you run an organisation that champions equality for women and girls? Well it looks really bad.

And it has potentially awful implications for Bill Gates’s reputation.

As the evidence builds up against him, is the slightly boring, nerdy uncle going to turn out to be just another mega-rich man who managed to hide a long history of bad behaviour?
The thing about getting divorced is… if there are any secrets, they tend to come out. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.


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