At Stanford’s 123rd Commencement, Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, urged graduates to change the world through optimism and empathy. Truly connect with the poor and sick, they advised, and channel those experiences into making the world a better place.
Congratulations, class of 2014! Melinda and I are excited to be here. It would be a thrill for anyone to be invited to speak at a Stanford commencement, but it’s especially gratifying for us. Stanford is rapidly becoming the favorite university for members of our family, and it’s long been a favorite university for Microsoft and our Foundation. Our formula has been to get the smartest, most creative people working on the most important problems. It turns out that a disproportionate number of those people are at Stanford.
Right now, we have more than 30 Foundation research projects underway here. When we want to learn more about the immune system to help cure the worst diseases, we work with Stanford. When we want to understand the changing landscape of higher education in the United States, so that more low-income students get college degrees, we work with Stanford. This is where genius lives. There’s a flexibility of mind here, an openness to change, an eagerness for what’s new. This is where people come to discover the future, and have fun doing it.
Now, some people call you all nerds and we hear that you claim that label with pride.
Bill Gates: Well, so do we. My normal glasses really aren’t all that different. There are so many remarkable things going on here at this campus, but if Melinda and I had to put into one word what we love most about Stanford, it’s the optimism. There’s an infectious feeling here that innovation can solve almost every problem. That’s the belief that drove me in 1975 to leave a college in the suburbs of Boston and go on an endless leave of absence.
I believed that the magic of computers and software would empower people everywhere and make the world much, much better. It’s been 40 years since then, and 20 years since Melinda and I were married. We are both more optimistic now than ever. But on our journey, our optimism evolved. We would like to tell you what we learned and talk to you today about how your optimism and ours can do more for more people.
When Paul Allen and I started Microsoft, we wanted to bring the power of computers and software to the people, and that was the kind of rhetoric we used. One of the pioneering books in the field had a raised fist on the cover, and it was called “Computer Lib.” At that time, only big businesses could buy computers. We wanted to offer the same power to regular people and democratize computing.
By the 1990s, we saw how profoundly personal computers could empower people, but that success created a new dilemma. If rich kids got computers and poor kids didn’t, then technology would make inequality worse. That ran counter to our core belief. Technology should benefit everyone. So we worked to close the digital divide.
I made it a priority at Microsoft, and Melinda and I made it an early priority at our Foundation. Donating personal computers to public libraries to make sure that everyone had access. The digital divide was a focus of mine in 1997, when I took my first trip to South Africa. I went there on business so I spent most of my time in meetings in downtown Johannesburg. I stayed in the home of one of the richest families in South Africa. It had only been three years since the election of Nelson Mandela marked the end of apartheid.
When I sat down for dinner with my hosts, they used a bell to call the butler. After dinner, the women and men separated and the men smoked cigars. I thought, good thing I read Jane Austen, or I wouldn’t have known what was going on.
But the next day I went to Soweto, the poor township southwest of Johannesburg, that had been the center of the anti-apartheid movement. It was a short distance from the city into the township, but the entry was sudden, jarring and harsh. I passed into a world completely unlike the one I came from. My visit to Soweto became an early lesson in how naive I was. Microsoft was donating computers and software to a community center there. The kind of thing we did in the United States. But it became clear to me, very quickly, that this was not the United States. I had seen statistics on poverty, but I had never really seen poverty.
The people there lived in corrugated tin shacks with no electricity, no water, no toilets. Most people didn’t wear shoes. They walked barefoot along the streets, except there were no streets, just ruts in the mud. The community center had no consistent source of power. So they rigged up an extension cord that ran 200 feet from the center to the diesel generator outside. Looking at this setup, I knew the minute the reporters left, the generator would get moved to a more urgent task. And the people who used the community center would go back to worrying about challenges that couldn’t be solved by a personal computer.
When I gave my prepared remarks to the press, I said Soweto is a milestone. There are major decisions ahead about whether technology will leave the developing world behind. This is to close the gap. But as I read those words, I knew they weren’t super relevant. What I didn’t say was, by the way, we’re not focused on the fact that half a million people on this continent are dying every year from malaria. But we are sure as hell going to bring you computers. Before I went to Soweto, I thought I understood the world’s problems but I was blind to many of the most important ones. I was so taken aback by what I saw that I had to ask myself, did I still believe that innovation could solve the world’s toughest problems? I promised myself that before I came back to Africa, I would find out more about what keeps people poor.