Bill and Melinda Gates have decided to divorce. The most intriguing aspect of this tale, it seems, is that it has piqued our interest. After all, this seems to be the most uninteresting form of divorce: Two people who have been together for a long time become estranged over time and divorce amicably. There is no rumor or juicy information. Nonetheless, this story is significant enough, and enough people are interested in it, that it is front-page news.
What this demonstrates more than anything is the significant shift in the role of business leaders in American life over the last few decades. Bill Gates, for example, is now a celebrity (even after they retire). And some of them are so rich (the Gates' combined fortune is estimated to be worth $125 billion), that what happens in their marriages can have a significant effect on society. So how would we be unconcerned if they divorce?
However, the divorces that made headlines usually involved a scandal — such as Bendix CEO William Agee leaving his wife to marry Mary Cunningham, a rising executive at the business — or bitter courtroom battles over money. At best, amicable separations would have gotten a mention on the business side.
So, what went wrong? CEOs first rose to the status of superstars and celebrities. It's hard to remember now, in a period when CEOs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg (and, even after his retirement, Gates himself) suck up too much cultural oxygen and focus, but for the majority of the twentieth century, CEOs were seen as bland corporate bosses rather than larger-than-life heroes (or villains). There were a few flashy figures, such as John DeLorean, the car executive, but they stood out precisely because they were so rare. CEOs were well-paid bureaucrats rather than celebrities.
That changed in the 1980s, thanks in large part to Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, who made himself the face of the business by helping to resurrect it (with a lot of support from the US government). He appeared in a series of television commercials that became legendary, with each one ending with him speaking directly to the camera. Iacocca was a master of self-promotion, and he capitalized on a Reagan-era need for American heroes. His novel, aptly titled "Iacocca," became a best-seller and spawned the concept of the celebrity CEO.
Other trends have aided the CEO's ascension to celebrity status. People like Michael Milken became iconic antiheroes as a result of the Wall Street boom, while a new generation of media moguls, led by Rupert Murdoch, appeared for the first time since William Randolph Hearst's death.
Then came the personal-computer boom, followed by the internet boom, all of which were powered by relatively young companies usually run by their founders, reshaping CEOs' profile. They weren't the stiff bureaucrats they used to be. Gates and, of course, Steve Jobs were entrepreneurial risk-takers and oddballs.
This is a far cry from how things used to be. CEOs have often been well compensated, but they usually held just a small percentage of the shares of the companies they led. Over the last 50 years, however, CEO compensation has skyrocketed, the stock market has exploded in value, and founders of companies are steadily staying on as CEOs and holding significant equity stakes.
With the exception of Jobs, all of the world's most profitable businesses were founded in the last 50 years, and all of them had founders who owned a significant portion of the company's stock. (When Jobs returned to run the company in 1997, Apple gave him a large portion of the company stock.) This has made the founders of these businesses astronomically wealthy.
This is significant because it means that when a billionaire like Gates or a billionaire like Bezos divorces, it can have a huge effect on people all over the world simply by changing how their money is spent. For example, Mackenzie Scott, Bezos' former wife and now worth $60 billion, gave away more than $4 billion last year, including large contributions to historically Black colleges and universities. These gifts almost doubled the endowments of these schools in several instances. As a result, the Bezos divorce will have a profound impact on the lives of HBCU students for many years to come.
When it comes to philanthropy, the Gateses seem to be on the same page: they've both been heavily involved with the Gates Foundation and have stated that they have no intention to change that. However, it would be shocking if the divorce did not result in a change in how the Gateses' billions are invested. So it's no exaggeration to suggest that this divorce will have a major effect on public health and education.
To put it another way, we're approaching this divorce as significant not only because Bill Gates is a celebrity or because the stakes are so high, but because it is significant. And that is, to say the least, odd. Of course, we all know that philanthropy is ultimately dependent on individual decisions and, in many cases, the whims of wealthy individuals.
But there's still something strange — and worrying — about the fact that a couple's marital problems could have a material effect on the world's future. In this way, the Gateses' divorce isn't solely their concern. It belongs to everybody.
Derrick W. Tyson, MBA