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.
Over the years, Melinda and I did learn more about the pressing needs of the poor. On a later trip to South Africa, I paid a visit to a hospital for patients with MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, a disease with a cure rate of under 50%. I remember that hospital as a place of despair. It was a giant open ward, with a sea of patients shuffling around in pajamas, wearing masks. There was one floor just for children, including some babies lying in bed. They had a little school for kids who were well enough to learn, but many of the children couldn’t make it, and the hospital didn’t seem to know whether it was worth it to keep the school open.
I talked to a patient there in her early 30s. She had been a worker at a TB hospital when she came down with a cough. She went to a doctor and he told her said she had drug-resistant TB. She was later diagnosed with AIDS. She wasn’t going to live much longer, but there were plenty of MDR patients waiting to take her bed when she vacated it. This was hell with a waiting list. But seeing this hell didn’t reduce my optimism. It channeled it. I got into the car as I left and I told the doctor we were working with I know MDR-TB is hard to cure, but we must do something for these people. And, in fact, this year, we are entering phase three with the new TB drug regime for patients who respond, instead of a 50% cure rate after 18 months for $2,000, we get an 80% cure rate after six months for under $100. Optimism is often dismissed as false hope.
But there is also false hopelessness. That’s the attitude that says we can’t defeat poverty and disease. We absolutely can.
Melinda Gates: Bill called me that day after he visited the TB hospital and normally if one of us is on an international trip, we will go through our agenda for the day and who we met and where we have been. But this call was different. Bill said to me, Melinda, I have been somewhere that I have never been before. And then he choked up and he couldn’t go on. And he finally just said, I will tell you more when I get home. And I knew what he was going through because when you see people with so little hope, it breaks your heart. But if you want to do the most, you have to go see the worst, and I’ve had days like that too.
About ten years ago, I traveled with a group of friends to India. And on last day I was there, I had a meeting with a group of prostitutes and I expected to talk to them about the risk of AIDS that they were facing, but what they wanted to talk to me about was stigma. Many of these women had been abandoned by their husbands. That’s why they even went into prostitution. They wanted to be able to feed their children. They were so low in the eyes of society that they could be raped and robbed and beaten by anyone, even the police, and nobody cared. Talking to them about their lives was so moving to me, but what I remember most was how much they wanted to be touched. They wanted to touch me and to be touched by them. It was if physical contact somehow proved their worth.
And so before I left, we linked arms hand in hand and did a photo together. Later that same day, I spent some time in India in a home for the dying. I walked into a large hall and I saw rows and rows of cot and every cot was attended to except for one, that was far off in the corner. And so I decided to go over there. The patient who was in this room was a woman in her 30s. And I remember her eyes. She had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes. She was emaciated and on the verge of death. Her intestines were not holding anything and so the workers had they put a pan under her bed, and cut a hole in the bottom of the bed and everything in her was just pouring out into that pan.
And I could tell that she had AIDS. Both in the way she looked and the fact that she was off in this corner alone. The stigma of AIDS is vicious, especially for women. And the punishment is abandonment. When I arrived at her cot, I suddenly felt completely and totally helpless. I had absolutely nothing I could offer this woman. I knew I couldn’t save her. But I didn’t want her to be alone. So I knelt down with her and I put my hand out and she reached for my hand and grabbed it and she wouldn’t let it go. I didn’t speak her language and I couldn’t think of what I should say to her. And finally I just said to her, it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay. It’s not your fault.
And after I had been with her for some time, she started pointing to the roof top. She clearly wanted to go up and I realized the sun was going down and what she wanted to do was go up on the roof top and see the sunset. So the workers in this home for the dying were very busy and I said to them, you know, can we take her up on the roof top? No. No. We have to pass out medicines. So I waited that for that to happen and I asked another worker and they said, No no no, we are too busy. We can’t get her up there. And so finally I just scooped this woman up in my arms. She was nothing more than skin over bones and I took her up on the roof top, and I found one of those plastic chairs that blows over in a light breeze. I put her there, sat her down, put a blanket over her legs and she sat there facing to the west, watching the sunset. The workers knew — I made sure they knew that she was up there so that they would bring her down later that evening after the sun went down and then I had to leave. But she never left me.
I felt completely and totally inadequate in the face of this woman’s death. But sometimes, it’s the people that you can’t help that inspire you the most. I knew that those sex workers I had met in the morning could be the woman that I carried upstairs later that evening. Unless also we found a way to defy the stigma that hung over their lives. Over the past ten years, our Foundation has helped sex workers build support groups so they could empower one another to speak up and demand safe sex and that their clients use condoms. Their brave efforts have helped to keep HIV prevalence low among sex workers and a lot of studies show that’s the big reason why the AIDS epidemic has not exploded in India. When these sex workers gathered together to help stop AIDS transmission, something unexpected and wonderful happened. The community they formed became a platform for everything. Police and others who raped and robbed them couldn’t get away with it anymore. The women set up systems to encourage savings for one another and with those savings, they were able to leave sex work.
This was all done by people that society considered the lowest of the low. Optimism, for me, is not a passive expectation that things are going to get better. For me, it’s a conviction and a belief that we can make things better. So no matter how much suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope to help and if we don’t look away.
Bill Gates: Melinda and I have described some devastating scenes, but we want to make the strongest case we can for the power of optimism. Even in dire situations, optimism fuels innovation and leads to new approaches that eliminate suffering.
But if you never really see the people that are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world. And that brings me to what I see as a paradox. The modern world is an incredible source of innovation and Stanford stands at the center of that, creating new companies, new schools of thought, prize-winning professors, inspired art and literature, miracle drugs, and amazing graduates.
Whether you are a scientist with a new discovery, or working in the trenches to understand the needs of the most marginalized, you are advancing amazing breakthroughs in what human beings can do for each other. At the same time, if you ask people across the United States is the future going to be better than the past, most say no. My kids will be worse off than I am. They think innovation won’t make the world better for them or their children. So who is right? The people who say innovation will create new possibilities and make the world better? Or the people who see a trend toward inequality and a decline in opportunity and don’t think innovation will change that?
The pessimists are wrong, in my view. But they are not crazy. If innovation is purely market driven, and we don’t focus on the big inequities, then we could have amazing advances and in inventions that leave the world even more divided. We won’t improve public schools, we won’t cure malaria, we won’t end poverty. We won’t develop the innovations poor farmers need to grow food in a changing climate.
If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy. If empathy channels our optimism, we will see the poverty and the disease and the poor schools. We will answer with our innovations and we will surprise the pessimists. Over the next generation, you, Stanford graduates, will lead a new wave of innovation. Which problems will you decide to solve? If your world is wide, you can create the future we all want. If your world is narrow, you may create the future the pessimists fear. I started learning in Soweto, that if we are going to make our optimism matter to everyone, and empower people everyone, we have to see the lives of those most in need. If we have optimism, without empathy, then it doesn’t matter how much we master the secrets of science. We are not really solving problems. We are just working on puzzles. I think most of you have a broader world view than I had at your age. You can do better at this than I did.
If you put your hearts and minds to it, you can surprise the pessimists. We are eager to see it.
Melinda Gates: So let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism. On a trip to south Asia, I met a desperately poor Indian woman. She had two children and she begged me to take them home with me. And when I begged her for her forgiveness she said, well then, please, just take one of them. On another trip to south Los Angeles, I met with a group of the students from a tough neighborhood. A young girl said to me, do you ever feel like we are the kids whose parents shirked their responsibilities and we are just the leftovers? These women broke my heart. And they still do. And the empathy intensifies if I admit to myself, that could be me.
When I talk with the mothers I meet during my travels, there’s no difference between what we want for our children. The only difference is our ability to provide it to our children. So what accounts for that difference? Bill and I talk about this with our own kids around the dinner table. Bill worked incredibly hard and he took risks and he made sacrifices for success. But there’s another essential ingredient of success, and that is luck. Absolute and total luck. When were you born? Who are your parents? Where did you grow up? None of us earn these things. These things were given to us. So when we strip away all of our luck and our privilege and we consider where we would be without them, it becomes someone much easier to see someone who is poor and say, that could be me. And that’s empathy. Empathy tears down barriers and it opens up whole new frontiers for optimism.
So here is our appeal to you all. As you leave Stanford, take all your genius and your optimism and your empathy, and go change the world in ways that will make millions of people optimistic. You don’t have to rush. You have careers to launch and debts to pay and spouses to meet and marry. That’s plenty enough for right now. But in the course of your lives, perhaps without any plan on your part, you will see suffering that’s going to break your heart.
And when it happens, don’t turn away from it. That’s the moment that change is born.
Congratulations and good luck to the class of 2014!