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Bill and Melinda Gates divorce proceed.

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Bill and Melinda Gates divorce proceed.

In her first public appearance since her divorce announcement, Melinda French Gates traveled to the White House, leaders from her charity and investment firm in tow. She pressed Biden officials on two issues central to her priorities: paid family leave and child care.

The same day this month, Bill Gates appeared in a virtual address to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Wearing his familiar sweater, collared shirt and glasses, the Microsoft Corp. co-founder spoke for nearly 11 minutes about the impact of climate change on the world’s food supply.

The topics laid bare the diverging interests of the billionaire ex-couple behind one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations. Their split after 27 years of marriage, announced in May, now throws into question the destination of their vast fortune and the focus of their charitable endeavours. It also highlights their individual private-investment arms, which they have been quietly building over the past five years.

Both have said they’ll remain involved in the $50bn Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they’ve promised to spend the majority of their wealth through their Giving Pledge. But in the years leading up to their breakup, each spouse has dived into projects outside the scope of the foundation’s work, a trend that’s expected to accelerate post-divorce.

“One couple is now two individual households,” said Elizabeth Dale, associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. The couple’s philanthropic efforts have been enormously influential, she said, and that likely will “continue, both through the current foundation and maybe in other ways as well”.

For French Gates, 56, the divorce could mean that more resources will be focused on Pivotal Ventures, her 90-person incubation and investment firm largely focused on gender equality. She’s already received stock worth more than $3bn from the Gates’s Cascade Investment, just a tiny fraction of their combined $145bn fortune at the time of the divorce, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index.

Bill Gates, 65, has centered much of his work on Breakthrough Energy, an organization launched in 2015 that now employs about 100 people specializing in various aspects of climate change, while funding nonprofits and startups employing hundreds more.

Spokespeople for Breakthrough and Gates’s private office, Gates Ventures, declined to comment. A spokesman for Pivotal said that French Gates’s “commitment to advancing women’s power and influence around the world, whether as co-chair of the foundation or founder of Pivotal Ventures, remains unchanged”.

Fewer Rules

Both Breakthrough and Pivotal operate through LLCs, which means they can operate as for-profit entities. It’s an increasingly popular form of giving, used by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan with their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and by Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, with her Emerson Collective.

An LLC doesn’t always provide the same tax deductions that traditional foundations do, but it comes with fewer rules. Money can go to political lobbying or campaign donations, which aren’t tax-deductible. And, unlike foundations, an LLC’s activities, funding and staff don’t need to be disclosed in annual tax filings that are made public.

Depending whom you ask, they are either an innovative tool in the toolbox of the world’s best philanthropists, or a major step backward in terms of transparency.

They don’t face the same checks and balances as foundations,” said Linsey McGoey, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, who wrote a book called “No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy”.

Pivotal, launched in 2015, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 150 organizations to-date, according to a spokesperson. It uses grants as well as venture capital to focus on empowering women, including getting more females into technology jobs and elected to public office, supporting women and girls of color and advocating paid family leave.

In Washington this month, French Gates met with officials including President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, along with directors from Pivotal and the Gates Foundation. From Pivotal’s side, they discussed paid leave and caregiving as it related to Biden’s American Families Plan, according to a person close to the firm, who asked not to be named speaking about a private meeting.

In April, Pivotal hired lobbying firm Finsbury Glover Hering in Washington to focus on caregiving and paid leave issues, said the person, a sign it may be stepping up its efforts in Washington.

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