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In tech’s billionaire boys’ club, Melinda Gates staked her claim by standing up for women

The couple has billions of dollars to divide in their divorce, but it's clear what Melinda will use her half for.

In tech’s billionaire boys’ club, Melinda Gates staked her claim by standing up for women

Melinda Gates has spent decades uplifting and standing up for women.

Photo: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Scott, split, no one knew quite how Scott, who would soon become the richest woman in the world, would spend her personal fortune. Neither she nor her ex-husband had yet become the philanthropists they are today, and Scott had been a relatively private person for most of their 25-year marriage.

As Melinda Gates and Bill Gates announced their divorce Monday, there was no need to wonder the same about how Melinda would spend her money. If history serves, she'll spend it uplifting women.

In the male-dominated early computing era and the billionaire boys' club that sprung out of it, Melinda has been a singular figure. Unlike other spouses of Big Tech billionaires — with some exceptions, like Laurene Powell Jobs — she has not shied away from the spotlight. Instead, through her writing, her philanthropy and her investments, she's become a globally-recognized figure in her own right, using her wealth and her platform to train that spotlight on the needs of women and girls around the world. As she charts her own course apart from Bill, there's no reason to believe she'll stop now.

"Here's what keeps me up at night: I imagine waking up one morning to find that the country has moved on. That the media has stopped reporting on systemic inequalities. That diversity remains something companies talk about instead of prioritizing. That all of this energy and attention has amounted to a temporary swell instead of a sea change," she wrote for Time, after the #MeToo movement when she announced a $1 billion pledge to invest in women. "There is too much at stake to allow that to happen. Too many people — women and men — have worked too hard to get us this far. And there are too many possible solutions we haven't tried yet."

It was Melinda, Bill once said, who was responsible for the couple's philanthropic endeavors. "I don't think it would be fun to do on my own, and I don't think I'd do as much of it," he told Fortune in 2008.

While the couple was jointly involved in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and are best known for their work funding global health and vaccine development, Melinda also struck out on her own in 2015 and started Pivotal Ventures, an investment company and incubator dedicated to increasing women's power and influence.

Part of that work has involved funding innovation outside of Silicon Valley. "How do we make Silicon Valley more inclusive? Maybe the answer is to start somewhere else," Melinda Gates wrote when she announced that her company would invest $50 million in creating a new generation of tech hubs in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C.

But she's working to change Silicon Valley, too. Pivotal Ventures was one of the first backers of All Raise, a nonprofit that's trying to increase the number of female founders and female funders in the tech industry. Pivotal also partnered with design company IDEO to launch The Holding Co., an incubator and investment arm to "redesign how we care for each other in the 21st century."

Pivotal Ventures also regularly backs startups and nonprofits, often led by female founders or people of color. Last week, a nonprofit founded by Uber alumni announced it had raised $250,000 from Melinda Gates's organization for its "Uber Eats for food banks" to connect food banks with people in need. Kathryn Finney's Genius Guild also recently raised money from Pivotal Ventures to support Black founders who are building solutions to end racism.

Whatever the apparent challenges in the Gates marriage, Melinda also at times turned to her relationship with Bill to illustrate the pressures working mothers are under and the unpaid labor they're forced to take on. In her book, "The Moment of Lift," she wrote about how she and Bill divided their own labor while raising their kids.

"If as men and women we don't look at the amount of labor women do, the 90 extra minutes in our homes in the U.S., we don't even start to realize what women are tasked with," Melinda told Wired in an interview when the book was published. "But I think when we start to make that change, you start to look at these other pieces in society, in community, in your workplace. And so then men and women start to make changes."

For now, the couple said they will remain committed to their joint foundation, and Pivotal Ventures told Protocol that Melinda would also continue her work as founder of the organization. It's still unclear how the Gateses will divide their estimated $130 billion fortune in the divorce, but how Melinda will put the money to use won't be much of a question.

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