While former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s commencement address at the University of Washington last Saturday generated some local coverage, it’s worth noting that Ballmer’s predecessor as Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates — along with his wife, Melinda Gates — gave a commencement speech that same weekend, some 800 miles to the south at Stanford University.
In a powerful and personal address last Sunday, the co-founders of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spoke on the themes of optimism and empathy. Relaying stories from their travels and their work, they talked of the importance of optimism, not as false hope or a passive belief that things will get better, but born of a willingness to see suffering and a conviction that people can make things better.
Bill Gates talked about a formative experience he had in 1997 when visiting Soweto while on a business trip to South Africa.
“My visit to Soweto became an early lesson in how naïve I was,” he said, according to the text of the speech posted by Stanford. “I had seen statistics on poverty, but I had never really seen poverty.”
Microsoft was donating computers and software to a community center there — one that had no consistent source of power, relying, at the time of his visit, on an extension cord that “ran about 200 feet from the center to a diesel generator outside. Looking at the setup, I knew the minute the reporters and I 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 PC,” he said.
“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,'” Gates told the Stanford graduates. “As I was reading those words, I knew they were irrelevant. 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’re 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 the most important ones.”
Innovation is important, and “optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering,” Gates said. “But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world. … If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy.”
Melinda Gates relayed a story of carrying a dying AIDS patient, stigmatized and ostracized, to the roof of a building so the patient could watch a sunset; and another story of a poor mother in South Asia with two children whom she implored Melinda Gates to take back to the U.S. with her.
“Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better – that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away,” she said. “Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism.”
Melinda Gates concluded with an appeal to the graduates: “As you leave Stanford, take your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of others optimistic as well. You don’t have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That’s enough for now. But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.”
The full text of the speech is here.