But in the decades since, he has transformed his image through the work he and Ms. Gates jointly pursued with the foundation, becoming best known for his generosity rather than his ruthlessness in business. The nearly $55 billion that the Gates Foundation has given away also gave the couple instant access to heads of state and leaders of industry.
Ms. Gates has had her own growing profile, both through her work for the foundation as well as her firm, Pivotal Ventures, which she has used since 2015 to invest in causes related to women’s economic empowerment. Some observers noted that Ms. Gates had added her maiden name, French, to her Twitter profile.
The couple deployed their connections last year in response to the pandemic, calling leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi to drum up support for their plans. The foundation has committed $1.75 billion so far to its Covid-19 response, and played a key role in shaping the global deal to bring vaccines to poor countries.
That prominence has also brought a fair share of scrutiny, throwing a spotlight on Mr. Gates’s robust defense of intellectual property rights — in this case, specific to vaccine patents — even in a time of extreme crisis, as well as the larger question of how unelected wealthy individuals can play such an outsize part on the global stage.
“In a civil society that is democratic, one couple’s personal choices shouldn’t lead university research centers, service providers and nonprofits to really question whether they’ll be able to continue,” said Maribel Morey, founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences.