“Progress was steady, but it was too slow for me,” French Gates wrote in her 2019 book, “The Moment of Lift.” “People were still speaking softly about gender at the foundation, sometimes in whispers, not quite wanting to come forward.”

That year, French Gates started working with a team of lawyers on the divorce, with one concern her husbands’s business dealings with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the Wall Street Journal reported. Pivotal began ramping up around that time because the first few years were focused on planning and research, not because of the divorce, the person close to the firm said.

She had founded Pivotal in 2015 as a separate organization of around 10 people, a handful of whom were plucked from the Gates Foundation, including Haven Ley, the gender expert who joked about working in the basement, and John Sage, Pivotal’s current chief executive officer.

French Gates “really started to come into her own as a philanthropist and as a leader in the early 2010s, and that was sort of a gradual evolution for her,” Dale said. “Pivotal represented her taking kind of a greater ownership and leadership role.”

It’s only relatively recently that Pivotal’s purpose has come into focus. Its initial years were spent talking about and researching what it might become, according to three people familiar with its early days. Until December 2018, Pivotal’s website was no more than a landing page that read “Executive Office of Melinda Gates” with links to French Gates’s social media pages. Things only started picking up around when her book was published in 2019.

Bill Gates has grown increasingly focused on Breakthrough and climate change, the subject of his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that came out this year. He said in February that he’s devoted $2 billion to climate, and plans to spend another $2 billion.

Gates has said his interest in the area began with a meeting with a couple of climate scientists, arranged by two former Microsoft employees, in 2006. For the next 15 years, he’s steadily dug deeper into the topic—launching companies, investment funds, scientific projects and lobbying efforts aimed at fighting climate change.

In 2015, the same year French Gates started Pivotal, Gates recruited some of his fellow billionaires to pitch some money into a new $1 billion fund, called Breakthrough Energy Ventures, that, when launched the following year, would invest in businesses and technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a longer-term focus than traditional venture firms. Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, all signed on to the fund’s first round.

“What Breakthrough did is bring a whole lot more capital, and the megaphone and the messengers that weren’t part of the conversation before,” said Alicia Seiger, who is managing director of Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

Breakthrough’s venture arm closed another $1 billion round in January of this year, recruiting a few new billionaire funders—including Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson and Ben Walton, the grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton—with the goal of investing in as many as 50 startups. It’s also building a 100 million-euro pilot fund created last year through a partnership with the European Commission.

Gates has kept the focus of Breakthrough’s non-investment work on innovation as well, largely funding its philanthropic, policy, advocacy and research work himself. Its Catalyst program, which tries to accelerate the deployment of clean technologies like green hydrogen, is launching a $1 billion initiative with the European Commission. Breakthrough Energy Sciences does original research, like a detailed model of the U.S. energy grid released this year.

Gates started his private office, Gates Ventures, in 2008. It focuses on a variety of his interests, such as investing in technology and funding education and health projects—including an Alzheimer’s research initiative—outside the purview of the Gates Foundation.

Pivotal stands to become much more active. French Gates said in a 2019 Time magazine column that she is committing $1 billion over the next 10 years toward women’s empowerment.

Since 2016, her firm has invested more than $65 million in organizations like National Partnership for Women & Families and Paid Leave for All. Last year, she committed $50 million for an initiative that aims to increase representation and leadership of women in tech in three cities over the next five years.

French Gates also is funding an effort alongside MacKenzie Scott—who has been accelerating her own charitable giving following her divorce from Bezos. The Equality Can’t Wait Challenge calls for organizations to apply with how they’d spend $10 million to speed up women’s empowerment. The winners will be announced this summer.

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.

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