New Delhi: ”He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dreams must have been so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”
That quote from The Great Gatsby, Melinda Gates’ favourite book, is inscribed on the circular dome of the library at their 66,000 sq ft home in Medina, Washington. It may well sum up Bill Gates’ life. Allegations of workplace misconduct, cheating on his wife and links to a convicted paedophile threaten to overshadow Bill Gates’ reputation as a global philanthropist and his track record of building one of the biggest software companies of all time.
The man who started his own company at the age of 20 and now 45 years later is worth $145 billion with his wife was once considered a genius coder. Some of the sheen wore off when he clashed with the US Department of Justice in 1998 and was accused of monopolistic trade practices for controlling over 97 per cent of the market for personal operating systems on computers. He fought the ruling and won back his reputation.
This time though the odds, mostly of his own creation, are stacked against him. Ill-advised meetings with the late Jeffrey Epstein who was convicted for trafficking of underage girls for the pleasure of his rich friends; at least one affair six years into his marriage which Gates has admitted to; and several inappropriate propositions to women co-workers have not only tainted his reputation but also suggested that the image of the nerdy, socially awkward geek is not entirely accurate.
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A fall from grace
So what happened to the world’s first self-made celebrated software billionaire whose company paved the way for the IT era? When did he go from being the technology evangelist who saw the future (when software stores would be as common as record stores, he once said) to the abrasive monopolist to the global philanthropist to the ordinary mortal who just couldn’t stay true to his marriage vows?
Some of the answers to his current failure may well have to do with the arrogance that comes with brilliance. In the insightful Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates (2019), he says as much when asked if he is arrogant: “In a certain sense people who make billions of dollars in their 20s, manage thousands of people and decide which products they’re going to do and not do and don’t want to waste five minutes of their time, yes that can appear to be quite arrogant.”
Here was a man, after all, who started coding when he was 13, solved complex problems like analysing traffic data, organising school schedules and storing information for a hydroelectric giant before he was 20. He has been on the cover of practically every major magazine in the world, become a hugely respected corporate titan, and then in an amazing segue created an international philanthropic foundation hoping to answer complex problems of climate change and inaccessible healthcare.
That was in 2000, at the age of 45, when with a net worth of 63 billion dollars he and his wife Melinda established what Gates says was “the biggest foundation at that point”, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, by putting in USD 20 billion. It was a move that transformed him from a captain of industry into a global humanist, a man who could do deals with presidents and prime ministers, who could change scientific priorities around the world by changing funding, and yet could still control how efficiently your operating system worked.
That stellar reputation took a drastic hit when it was announced on 4 May that Bill and Melinda Gates, described by one magazine as the ‘Mazda of marriages’, were divorcing after 27 years. Since then, the bad news has gone from a trickle to a flood. On 17 May, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported Gates’ questionable conduct at the workplace — a romantic relationship with an employee as well as a relationship with Epstein. Gates had pursued other women who were his employees even after marriage, tweeted a Times writer who reported on Gates’ questionable behaviour. On 18 May, The Washington Post reported that Gates acknowledged an affair with a Microsoft employee.
Also read: Bill Gates had an ‘affair’ with a Microsoft employee 20 years ago and it ended amicably
Boy genius to nightmare boss, ruthless businessman
William Henry Gates III, better known as Bill Gates, was born in 1955 in Seattle, Washington, US, and has two sisters, Kristi and Libby. His is not a rags to riches story. His father was William H. Gates Sr., a lawyer and a civic leader in the Seattle community. His mother Mary Gates was a respected businesswoman and helped Gates get the computer firm IBM as a client, while his father encouraged him to pursue philanthropy. Gates credits his parents with “unconditional” love and support. “I knew they would be in my corner even if I failed [at Microsoft]”, Gates writes on his website.
He was outstandingly intelligent. Gates recalls in a WIRED interview how he performed best-in-state at a maths exam and was challenged by his friend Paul Allen to figure out how to operate a complicated computer at the high school the two attended. Gates was 13 at the time, Allen was 15 and went on to become co-founder of Microsoft. At that very young age, Gates and Allen took over teaching other students to program and operate the computers because the teachers hadn’t figured it out as yet, Gates said in the same WIRED interview.
Even as a 13-year-old schoolboy, Gates had an eye for the girls. The teachers who didn’t know how to use the computers let Gates and other student “computer experts” use the computers to schedule classes. Gates used the opportunity to “manipulate” the scheduling software so that “I could decide which girls were in my class”, Gates told a British TV show.[“manipulate” word used by the interviewer, not Gates]
A few years later, in 1974, Gates was studying at Harvard, and Allen was working in the nearby Boston area. Gates recalls how Allen saw an opportunity in computers. One day Allen rushed Gates to a newsstand to show him a magazine cover of a new, powerful computer. “That moment marked the end of my college career and the beginning of our new company, Microsoft. It happened because of Paul [Allen],’ Gates wrote on his website.
Microsoft was founded in 1975 to write software for computers. The company even wrote computer software for Apple during which a legendary enmity developed between Gates and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. Over the years Jobs described Gates as “unimaginative and has never invented anything”. Gates said Jobs was “weirdly flawed as a human being”.
In his 20s and 30s, Gates describes his work ethic as “maniacal”, “fanatic”, working till 11-12 in the night then coming home to read. Gates has admitted he was a “nightmare boss” with his trademark response to most ideas being “it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. Gates was also a ruthless businessman. His co-founder and friend Allen wrote in a memoir before passing away in 2018 that Gates was a “sarcastic bully” who had tried to take over Allen’s share of the company while Allen was getting over cancer.
But the maniacal work ethic paid off, as Microsoft held its IPO in 1986 and at the age of 30, Microsoft CEO Gates’ stake became worth USD 350 million. In 1987, at 31, Gates became a billionaire, the youngest American to do so until 2010 when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire at 23. The year 1995 was another wealth milestone for Gates as he became the world’s richest man. Gates is currently number 4 on the Forbes billionaire list and is worth 127.9 billion dollars.
Also read: Bill Gates warns of a ‘deadlier pandemic’ if Covid vaccines go only to the highest bidder
Melinda, marriage and extra-marital issues
Gates and Melinda French met in 1987, married in 1994 and now have three adult children. Melinda, nine years Gates’ junior, had joined Microsoft as a product manager. According to Melinda, her first interaction with Gates was at a Microsoft dinner in New York when the two sat next to each other. Gates had asked her out on a date months later. In an interview, Gates said he was not directly Melinda’s boss and that the couple “started off pretty casually and then surprised each other by falling in love”. Melinda left Microsoft after marrying Gates.
The way Gates and Melinda met is similar to how Gates tried to meet other women at work. In 2006, after sitting in on a female Microsoft employee’s presentation Gates emailed the woman to ask her out on a date. He also “propositioned” a Gates Foundation employee while the woman was travelling with him in New York. “He never pressured the women for sex…he simply asked them for dates”, tweeted the New York Times reporter about Gates, citing sources.
In another instance a year or two later, Mr. Gates propositioned a female employee of the Gates Foundation while the two were traveling in New York together. He never pressured the women for sex, our sources told us; he simply asked them for dates
— Emily Flitter (@FlitterOnFraud) May 16, 2021
Gates served as Microsoft CEO until 2000, then as chief software architect until 2006 and then Microsoft board chairman until 2014. In March 2020, Gates announced he was leaving the Microsoft board where he was a member, to focus more on philanthropy. But latest reports indicate Gates left the board after Microsoft started investigating a “sexual relationship” Gates had with a company employee. Gates has admitted to having an affair but says it happened almost 20 years ago, that it ended amicably and did not play a role in leaving the board.
This is only one of the several skeletons to come out of the closet since the Gates divorce announcement. While Melinda knew Gates had a “wandering eye”, according to The New York Times editor’s tweets of their report, the final straws had been Gates’ relationship with Epstein, and how Gates responded to a sexual harassment case against his money manager through a “secret settlement”.
The last few years have not been kind to Gates in other ways: he has been called a ‘vaccine racist’ for saying the Covid vaccine technology should not be shared with developing countries. There has been a conspiracy theory that suggests Gates is using the Covid pandemic to implant chips in people to track them. There has also been some reappraisal about some of the initiatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, well-meaning but also expensive and ultimately unsuccessful. Three, in particular, have stood out: the campaign to eradicate polio, a disease still in evidence in some parts of the world; his dream of generating nuclear power with the reactors made in China; and his toilet technology, which has yet to show scale.
Also read: Bill Gates to Azim Premji: How billionaires explain their donations