Monday, January 07, 2008

Melinda Gates goes public

Years before Melinda French met and married Bill Gates, she had a love affair - with an Apple computer. ¶ She was growing up in Dallas in a hard-working middle-class family. Ray French, Melinda's dad, stretched their budget to pay for all four children to go to college. An engineer, he started a family business on the side, operating rental properties. "That meant scrubbing floors and cleaning ovens and mowing the lawns," Melinda recalls. The whole family pitched in every weekend. When Ray brought home an Apple III computer one day when she was 16, she was captivated. "We would help him run the business and keep the books," she says. "We saw money coming in and money going out."

Of all the tricks that life can play, it's hard to imagine any stranger than what befell Melinda French. Today she is living in a gargantuan high-tech mansion on the shores of Lake Washington, married to the richest man in America - and giving billions of dollars away. When she married Bill Gates 14 years ago, she bought into a complex bargain. On the one hand, she became half of what has turned out to be the world's premier philanthropic partnership. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has assets of $37.6 billion, making it the world's largest. In that total is $3.4 billion that Warren Buffett has already given, and still to come are nine million Berkshire Hathaway B shares, currently worth $41 billion, that he has pledged to contribute in coming years. Assuming that Berkshire (BRKA, Fortune 500) shares continue to rise and that the Gateses continue to bestow their own wealth on their foundation, Melinda and Bill will very likely give away more than $100 billion in their lifetimes. Already the foundation has disbursed $14.4 billion - more than the Rockefeller Foundation has distributed since its creation in 1913 (even adjusted for inflation).

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