As published as SheInvests #9 for LinkedIn.
Since 2008, I have written about women, money, and changing the world. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Melinda French Gates is someone I have followed, written about, and in fact, met! In 2018, while serving as Board Chair of Women Moving Millions(WMM), an organization I co-founded, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted our member day in advance of WMM’s annual summit. It was at this event, prior to her onstage interview, that I had the opportunity to meet her and personally thank her for being such a visible and relentless champion for the advancement of women and girls. Needless to say, I was stunned, like many others it would seem, to learn last week of her divorce from her husband of 27 years.
It needs to be said upfront that I have absolutely nothing to say about their divorce. That is their private business. But I am curious about what the post-divorce Melinda French Gates will do in her public life. Specifically, what she will do with her money. With the inevitable divvying up of assets that accompanies any divorce, she will become one of the richest women in the world due to the estimated $146B of the Gates’ wealth that is to be divided up. So questions I have include, how will she continue to use her wealth, her voice, and her platform for good? She has long been called the most powerful woman in philanthropy, but might she soon be called the most powerful woman in investing as well? Furthermore, who are the other mega billionaire women who already are, or might become, the most powerful women in investing? This is, after all, the SheInvests Newsletter.
I don’t generally spend time speculating about people’s private lives, but I do spend time reading about people’s public lives. Specifically, I have been tracking the public lives of not only Melinda French Gates, but also Laurene Powell Jobs, and more recently, MacKenzie Scott as well. And this fantastic article written by Kara Swisher in the fall of 2020, provocatively titled “Move aside Mr. Trump: These women have more money and better ideas”, got me thinking about these three women together. The article was prompted by a Twitter attack directed at Ms. Powell Jobs, but the article was actually about what these women are doing with their wealth. And it ended with this: “So, my advice to Trump on facing powerful women like these? Tweet all you like, but you might want to get out of the way.” Get out of the way indeed.
When it comes to women and wealth, you could say that I have always been fascinated by rich and powerful woman. I did, after all, grow up watching Dallas and Dynasty. I also grew up watching the TV show Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter. Women, money, super powers. You get the idea. Although I studied finance in college, it was not until I landed at Goldman Sachs in 1988 that I was actually surrounded by real life rich and powerful people. And, big surprise, they were almost all men; men who became rich and powerful by mastering the world of finance. I was determined to become one of them, and I did. I made partner in 1996, the youngest woman and first female trader to do so, but even so, something always felt, well, off.
It was not until 2009, when I attended the celebration event for the Women Moving Millions Campaign, that I was once again surrounded by so many rich and powerful people. And this time, they were all women. Over 100 women, each having committed a million dollars or more to women and girls causes and organizations. Although it felt strange, uncomfortable in a “how in the heck did a girl from small town Canada end up here?” kind of uncomfortable, it also felt good, powerful, historic. And so began my leadership role with WMM and my journey into the worlds of so many ultra-high-net-worth women.
Every time a new member joined WMM, they had to fill out a form about themselves and their giving. And I loved reading their profiles, because I loved getting to know them. Of course, each woman came with her own story of how she got the money she had to give, but what was important was what she was doing with it, and their stories were amazing and continuously inspired me to do more. That is the power that comes with community. Over the years, I started paying attention to and collecting the lists of millionaire and billionaire women, hoping that someday, some of them, many of them, all of them, would join WMM as well. Despite meeting both Ms. French Gates and Ms. Powell Jobs, they were not members during my tenure, but together with Ms. Scott, they have most certainly given not only millions, but billions of dollars to organizations that primarily serve women and girls. And I thank them all.
So who are these three women? What do we know through what they have told us of how they are using their vast financial resources for good? Furthermore, where do they sit on the scale of visibility around what they do? Are they choosing to be a public figure, and if so, what are they saying about what is important to them? And finally, are they explicitly identifying as champions for women and girls and champions for gender equity? SheInvests would love to know.
Let’s start with Ms. French Gates. A graduate of Duke University, French Gates worked for Microsoft for nearly a decade, eventually leaving in 1996. In 2000, she co-founded The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with her husband, now the world’s largest private charitable organization with about $37 billion in assets. She currently serves as the Foundation’s co-chair, and in 2019, she released her first book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. For years, she has been an outspoken and public advocate of gender equity, and to date has amassed a Twitter following of 2.5 million. She writes regularly on platforms like this one, LinkedIn, and has been interviewed more times than I can count. She has also pushed the conversation about the wellbeing of women and girls in to spaces primarily inhabited by rich and powerful male leaders, which I would put on a list of her major accomplishments. In Gloria Steinem’s famous words, “when humans are ranked instead of linked everyone loses”, so let’s just agree that it is fair to say that few women have done more to advance gender equity in the philanthropic context than Melinda French Gates. Yes it is about the money, but she also fully leaned into her leadership, which includes using her voice and her influence to champion for what she believes to be true. It all matters.
What is also public record is that in 2015, she founded Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company that uses both philanthropic and investment capital to advance social progress in the U.S. According to their website, Pivotal Ventures takes two approaches to investing: 1) Seeding innovation by investing in early stage companies and funds, and 2) Advancing the field by building capacity and collaboration amongst leaders, stakeholders, and ecosystems. Also of note is the fact that Pivotal’s website states that this is a company founded by Melinda French Gates, not Melinda Gates. As far as I can tell, it was never just Melinda Gates. Finally, according to the publicly available information that I could find, Pivotal has so far invested in four companies, four funds, and made contributions to a handful of nonprofits. This is almost certainly not the full scope of their investment activities, but it is all that I could squeeze out of the Internet, as I am not, after all, an investigative journalist. More personally, Pivotal has come up many times in funding conversations with both start-ups and female founded funds that I have talked to in terms of potential funders, and I am pretty sure we are co-invested in at least one company.When I jumped over to check their profile on LinkedIn, it shows 94 employees, which also indicates a lot more activity.
Also, very notably, in October 2019, Ms. French Gates created a $1B pledge to expand women and girls’ power and influence in the United States, most of which will be allocated through Pivotal. As part of this pledge, she has already launched the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, a $40M donation that will go towards three yet-to-be-announced nonprofit organizations that are advancing equity. Interesting, this initiative is also supported by MacKenzie Scott and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies (#sisteringup). Ms. French Gates has also founded the GET Cities Initiative, which is focusing on accelerating the representation and leadership of women in tech through the development of “inclusive tech hubs” across the U.S., starting with Chicago and D.C. If I were the praying type, and I am, my hope is that Salt Lake City might one day be added to the list. If it happens, I am all in! Pivotal is leading both of these initiatives, and will be responsible for deploying all associated grants and investments.
Melinda French Gates has long been a powerful advocate for equity, and with this pledge, she has made it abundantly clear that she means to continue to use her considerable wealth not just to marginally improve the existing landscape for women and girls, but to change that landscape completely. Now that’s a goal I can get behind! However, it is interesting to note that, at least to date, the capital she has put towards this remarkable vision has seemingly been largely deployed through philanthropic grants. It remains to be seen how much of the balance of her pledge will end up as investments versus grants, but my hope is that it will be a lot, and that it will be made public. What I know for sure is that potential investors always ask “who else has committed?” and thus to know that Pivotal is on the cap table is huge. So huge.
Now, on to Laurene Powell Jobs. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton, and Stanford, Powell Jobs previously worked at both Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, as well as founded the health food company Terravera in the early 90s. In 1997, she founded College Track, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving low-income students the opportunity to attend post-secondary education.
In 2004, Powell Jobs founded the Emerson Collective, named after writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, a for-profit corporation focused on education, immigration reform, the environment, media and journalism, and health. I love the last few lines of her letter on their corporate website:
“Our basic belief, as Emerson taught, is that we are doubly obligated: we must rely on ourselves and we must rely on each other. By helping individuals to achieve their dreams, we unleash the full force of the world’s most powerful resource: human potential.”
Powell Jobs explicitly states that she deploys both charitable and non-charitable capital, similar to Pivotal. Emerson’s website lists many incredible organizations, both for and non-profit, as well as numerous initiatives, many of which I have supported. Albeit at a significantly lower level. My guess is that there is a heck of a lot more going on behind the scenes at Emerson, judging by the fact that the About Us page features at least 150 staff members by my quick count. There are also a handful of other investments by Powell Jobs/Emerson that are publicly known, including a minority stake in the parent company for the MBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals, as well as a stake in several media outlets, including a majority stake of the Atlantic Magazine, which I happen to adore. Emerson is quickly becoming a force in media investing in particular, which seems to be what agitated Trump and lead to his nasty tweet.
Since I always see things through a gender-lens, it is noteworthy for me that unlike Ms. French Gates, who has been extremely vocal and articulate about the need to focus on gender equity, Ms. Powell Jobs has not been. That said, Emerson does fund in the areas of equity and justice, which of course is likely inclusive of gender related inequalities, but this focus is not explicit. Many articles talk about her tireless efforts to champion social justice organizations and leaders, and again, I thank her!
Powell Jobs’ estimated net worth is around $20B, according to Google, and she is also on Twitter with a following of about 76.5 thousand. She regular tweets and retweets with a focus on climate change, social justice, her sports teams, and more.
Finally, MacKenzie Scott, novelist, and the most recent entry in the category of women mega-donors. It is estimated that her current net worth is over $60B, having risen from $38B at the time of her divorce due to Amazon’s rising stock as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, making her the third wealthiest woman in the world. Scott made headlines in 2020 for quickly dispersing billions of dollars, almost $6 billion, to over 500 non-profit organizations, and she apparently did so without the endless process and red tape that is so often associated with major gift giving. That absolutely deserves a woo hoo times about one hundred!! Furthermore, in December 2020 alone, she gave surprise gifts totaling $410 million to historically black colleges and universities. Surprise gifts! Read this article about the impact, it might make you cry. It certainly made me cry.
In self published Medium posts in July and December of 2020, Scott goes into some detail about the issue areas she has funded and how much in each. Furthermore, she lists the organizations that received grants. Hundreds of them. A quick scan makes it incredibly clear that she is aligning the grants to the core belief that “there’s no question in my mind that anyone’s personal wealth is the product of a collective effort, and of social structures which present opportunities to some people, and obstacles to countless others.” Are you kidding me right now Ms. Scott? Heck the heck yes! She goes on to say that “economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty.” Funding with an explicit gender lens? Check.
It has been estimated that about $1B of her most recent gifts, or about 17% of the grant dollars, were earmarked specifically for women and girls, but as I have learned, while numbers like this are important, they really don’t tell the full story. Of all her listed categories, racial equity and economic mobility are the biggest recipients, but so is gender equity explicitly, which says to me that she is using an intersectional racial/gender lens. From her own words, it is clear that she sees how race, class, and gender create “overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” As for staff to help her do all of this? None that I could find but they answer has to be yes. I am not even sure she is doing it through a family foundation. It’s not surprising that it is being said that “Scott has the potential to join a small handful of funders who’ve reshaped the philanthropic landscape in the past half-century.” Again, linked and not ranked, but awesome. Simply amazing. On to what do we know about her interest in investing some of those billions with the same set of values?
I was unable to find any information about Scott’s non-charitable financial activities. I can only hope that if and when she does turn her attention to the good she might do with her investment capital, she brings the same brand of revolutionary thinking that she’s brought to her philanthropy. Oh the difference she could make, and make quickly! Project Sage, a project within the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and led by a global leader in gender-smart investing, Suzanne Biegel, has already done much the leg work in identifying strategies and funds. All that is needed is the capital. And if you care about investing for racial inclusion, they have done that work too, which I highlighted in SheInvests Newsletter #2.
As for her public profile, Ms. Scott has amassed a following of over 147.5K on Twitter, despite following no one and sending a grand total of three tweets. Clearly people are interested in her activities, myself included, and it is interesting to see how she is controlling her own narrative. Instead of participating in a lot of interviews, she’s writing about herself through Medium when she has something to share, amassing 12,000 followers on that platform along the way. My guess is that number is going to explode over time. She also publicly joined the Giving Pledge, declaring that, “In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” Again, heck yes! I am sure everyone reading this will join me in saying we anxiously await more from you Ms. Scott. In your own words.
French Gates, Powell Jobs, and Scott are only three American women billionaires. As of 2020, there were 614 billionaires in the United States, and 13.5% of them are women. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these women are also white, with precious few billionaire women of color. It is worth noting that in 2021, Whitney Wolfe Herd made headlines when she became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire at the age of 31. I look forward to writing about Ms. Wolfe Herd, particularly because she is absolutely embracing investing as something that she not only does, but wants to support other women in doing. In fact, I attended a very special gathering, pre-pandemic, where she brought together investors, fund managers, successful entrepreneurs, and emerging ones for a weekend of getting to know each other, and it was incredible. It was there that I met Natalie Egan (she/her) the founder of Translator Inc., and subsequently invested $100,000 in her company. Translator Inc. produces diversity, equity and inclusion software, and Natalie is a remarkable leader, and an openly transgender CEO who proudly shares her story While I have long shared my due diligence on start-ups with friends leading some to co-invest, this event was that at a whole other level and it inspired me beyond words. It is on my “to do” list with my new venture ShePlace to have a similar type of event, bringing together women who want to start early stage investing, with investment experts and entrepreneurs. Stay tuned, and sign-up for our newsletter to be kept in the information flow. You might say ShePlace is my version of what French Gates is doing with Pivotal and what Powell Jobs is doing at Emerson Collective. And we are just getting started. (#sisteringup)
In time, I would love to dig in and profile so many more of these ultra high net worth women. If I had the chance, I would love to ask them these questions – Tell me about yourself? What is your earliest money memory? What do you think the role of money is in the world? What is your biggest hope for what your money can do? What is your biggest fear around money? Are you an active investor? If so, tell me about it. If no, tell me about why not. Do you self-identify as a champion for and funder of the advancement of women and girls? Why or why not? And so many more. The more we talk about women and money together, the better. And these are not questions only for the ultra wealthy. They are questions we can ask ourselves, our family members, our friends. Hmm… the Jacki Zehner SheInvests Podcast? Maybe.
In the decade I spent building and leading Women Moving Millions, I was on a crusade to encourage high net worth women to not only give with a gender-lens, but to use their voice and their influence as well. When Ms. French Gates said, and said, and said, and said, that “the data is unequivocal: no matter where in the world you are born, your life will be harder if you are a girl”, she legitimized, endorsed, and supported all of us who were saying it as well. (if you are looking for that data, click here for my top reports) So again, I thank her, and thank her, and thank her. And while I can hope that all philanthropists, and yes especially women philanthropists, employ a gender lens (there is a whole section of my 650 best reports that explains the why and how of this), what I see as my role is to make visible, to share, to educate, to inspire and not to judge. If we want women to be more visible and transparent in what they are doing with their resources, it is up to us to create a safe and welcoming place for them to do so. In other words, I got your back!
Today, I am bringing all my knowledge and my passion to crusading about gender-lens investing, and I am looking for all the women and men out there who are on this journey too. I consciously made this shift because I believe wholeheartedly that we will greatly accelerate progress towards a more gender-balanced, just, and equitable world fo all when this happens at scale. Philanthropic capital is important and necessary, but it will never be enough. Investment capital, lots of it, generously and intentionally deployed, just might be, especially when combined with passionate, informed, and relentless leadership. We also need education and community. More on my “to do” list.
I have quoted this statistic many times in the past. According to the latest Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum, at the current rate of progress we are still 135.6 years away from true gender equity. And if you are thinking that things are pretty good here in the United States of America, think again. The US ranks 53rd out of 153 countries. I went searching for a similar statistic as it relates to a global, or even national, racial gap report, and you will likely not be surprised when I say that I could not find one. What I did find was a new report by McKinsey and Company to add to my 650+ report listthat calls for new approaches to reduce race based inequities. Amazing and very much needed. As a woman, a white woman, what is true and authentic for me is to continue to primarily focus on gender and to champion for resources for all women+ and girls, I will also do more, so much more, to recognize and fund with a racial-equity lens and an intersectional lens. I have much to learn, that is on me, and I also appreciate all the understanding and help I am getting on this journey as well.
So to Ms. French Gates, Ms. Powell Jobs, Ms. Scott, Ms. Wolfe Herd, and all the other women billionaires, millionaires, and really everyone with investment capital to put to work, please consider this an invitation, an ask, a plea, to step into your power as investors as well as donors, and make it visible! You have the opportunity to do what no group of women in the history of the world has ever done – use your collective billions to not only fund non-profits that are working on reducing inequities and inequalities of all kinds, but to invest in people who do not have social structures working for them, and in fact are often working against them. People with hopes and dreams and great business ideas that, if successful, will address the persistent wealth gap that is at the root of economic fragility. And, if you are in the position of not having to make the maximization of financial return your number one priority in your investments, then don’t. There are now so many investment products that are being designed for impact, and not just financial return. As an example, take a look at C-Note, a company founded by Catherine Berman that helps institutions invest in under-served companies at scale. Point is, we can all make up your own rules. As investors we may be told by professionals that it should be all about making the most money on your money, but that does not make it true for you. It is not true for me. I want to be able to look in the mirror and know that my financial resources are aligned with my personal values. What we know for sure is that investment capital has the potential to create an economic wave of job and wealth creation, as well as result in new products and services that actually meet the needs of those most underrepresented and underserved. Investment Capital remains an underused tool for social change and it does not have to be.
I created SheInvests as a call to action. As a woman with money who wants to use her money, and specifically her investment capital, to make a difference, I recognized that if I struggle to do this, then likely others do as well. If I want for ideas, for opportunities, for community, for accountability, then it’s likely that others are in the same boat. I have a long way to go before I am the investor I want to be in the world, but I am on that journey and I am inviting you to be on it with me. As a former partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs, I know a lot about finance, and I know that the tools and institutions of finance is not working for most people. But I also believe that it can. Money is a tool, a resource, that can be put to use around our values and around what we want to be true in the world. And while few have billions to invest, and in fact some people reading this might not have any investment capital due to accumulated debt, I still hope that this newsletter might serve some purpose for everyone. I plan on writing about ideas, about companies, about funds, about people, and about opportunities that check the boxes of aspirational, inspirational, and down right practical, and I welcome your suggestions.
In closing, I collect quotes. I have a word doc with hundreds of them, and one of my favorites is this one.
If there ever comes a time when the women of the world come together purely and simply for the benefit of mankind, it will be a force such as the world has never known.
Okay. It’s good, but what makes it interesting is that it was a man who said it. Matthew Arnold, who lived in the 1800s and “was an English poet, sage writer, and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools”, wrote this for some reason I can’t find. Clearly he was way ahead of his time. Since he is long gone, I hope he won’t mind if I do a little sistering up with his beautiful quote.
If there ever comes a time when the women of the world come together and use their money with great intention for the benefit of humankind, it will be a force such as the world has never known. We are those women and that time is now.
Jacki Hoffman Zehner
The drawings and cartoons in this article have been created by Liza Donnelly for SheInvests and ShePlace. The one above first appeared in my previous SheInvests newsletter. In that article I write about sistering up. In short, it means when women come together to make each other stronger.