Bill and Melinda Gates deliver 2014 Commencement, addressing innovation, optimism, empathy

The Gates pridefully donned nerd glasses during their Commencement speech to the Class of 2014. (Frances Guo/The Stanford Daily)

The Gates pridefully donned Nerd Nation glasses during their Commencement speech to the Class of 2014. (Frances Guo/The Stanford Daily)

Bill and Melinda Gates shared the podium during Stanford’s first joint Commencement speech — touching upon innovation, optimism and empathy — to the Class of 2014 at Stanford’s 123rd Commencement ceremony.

But before the Gates went into their speech, they first donned what the Stanford community has adopted as a symbol of pride: Nerd Nation glasses.

“Some people call you all nerds, and we hear that you claim that label with pride,” Melinda said.

“Stanford is known for its creative and entrepreneurial spirit, and from its founding we have encouraged our students to use their education to promote the public good,” said University president John Hennessy. “Today’s speakers exemplify both these characteristics. Optimistic, bold, collaborative, focused, Bill and Melinda Gates believe every life has value, and over the past 14 years, through their foundation, they have been tackling society’s most complex problems.”

The Gates recounted their individual experiences when seeing suffering in less privileged communities across the globe.

Bill first emphasized the risk of worsening the digital divide with technological innovation, stating that the power technology provides should benefit everyone and that it should be equally accessible to all people.

Bill also spoke of his first trip to South Africa in 1997 when he had visited Soweto, a city just south of Johannesburg.

“I had seen statistics on poverty but I had never seen poverty,” Bill admitted, describing the destitute situation of the poor in Soweto. He recalled questioning his belief that innovation was the solution to tough global problems.

Bill gave the example of the multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) situation when he returned to Soweto a number of years after his first visit to South Africa.

“Seeing this hell didn’t reduce my optimism,” he said. “It channeled it. I got into the car as I left and told the doctor we were working with, ‘I know MDR-TB is hard to cure, but we must do something for these people.’”

He cited improvements of the TB drug regime in the years since, resulting in an 80 percent cure rate after six months for under $100, compared to the previous 50 percent cure rate after 18 months of treatment that cost $2,000.

Melinda then spoke of her experiences when traveling in India 10 years ago, remembering the last day of her trip when she met with a group of prostitutes.

“I expected them to talk about the risk of AIDS that they were facing, but what they wanted to talk to me about was stigma,” Melinda said, describing that the sex workers were abandoned and not cared about by society.

Later that same day, Melinda encountered another example of the negative impact of societal stigma, when she visited a “home for the dying.” She had noticed one bed in the far off corner that wasn’t being attended to and went to comfort the 30-year-old patient that lay in it.

“And I could tell that [the patient] had AIDS, both in the way she looked and in the fact that she was off in this corner alone,” Melinda said.

Melinda then told the Commencement audience that even though she was unable to either cure the patient’s disease or alleviate the stigma that left the patient uncared for, she was able to fulfill the patient’s wish to see the sunset, taking her up to to the rooftop to face west by dusk.

Melinda described how for the past 10 years, the Gates Foundation has been helping sex workers build support groups. She commended how the women of these groups — although seen as the lowest in their communities — have initiated a change from the bottom up, noting that one factor that may have limited the AIDS epidemic in India was the self-empowerment of these women to ask clients to use condoms.

The Gates then addressed a paradox: that innovation could be seen as opening up new potential and making the world better, or that it could make inequality larger and decrease the next generation’s opportunities.

“If innovation is purely market-driven, and we don’t focus on the big inequities, then we could have amazing advances in inventions that leave the world even more divided,” Bill said. If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy.”

Bill commended the Class of 2014 graduates, stating that he believed that the audience before him had a better sense of the world than he did when he was graduating college.

“Over the next generation, you Stanford graduates will lead the new wave of innovation,” Bill said. “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.”

Melinda then spoke of how luck — where someone is born, when someone is born and what opportunities they are given — play such a large role in success.

“When we strip away our luck and privilege, and we consider where we’d be without them, it becomes much easier to see someone who’s poor and say, ‘That could be me.’ And that’s empathy,” Melinda said. “Empathy tears down barriers and opens up a whole new frontier for optimism.”

The Gates concluded their address to the Stanford graduates with uplifting final words of encouragement.

“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,” Melinda said. “In the course of your lives, perhaps without any plan on your part, you’ll see suffering that’s going to break your heart. When it happens, don’t turn away from it. That’s the moment when change is born.”

George Chen contributed to this report.

Contact Catherine Zaw at czaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Catherine Zaw

Catherine Zaw is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She is a junior from Miami, FL, double majoring in biology and linguistics. To contact her, please email czaw13@stanford.edu.
  • Rick martinez

    Congratulations to you, Stanford grads and Stanford…on many fronts. To a large extent, you’re complete: You’ve completed the process and experience of your education. And, you’ve graduated. Congratulations, also, on your choice of Commencement–your beginning–speakers. You saw and heard two of the most successful persons in the world…two persons who distinguish themselves and can be characterized as simply “good”…perhaps the highest accolade that can be bestowed on any person. They could have easily talked to you about future technology, innovation, investments, the job market, etc. Instead they chose to speak on three “soft” issues of contribution and success: Your genius (your ability to reduce the complicated to the simple); optimism (your ability to look upward and forward to your vision when times get tough); and empathy (your ability to care–especially when others don’t care enough to care about why they don’t care). Wow, what a beginning for you!
    By contrast–for which I am so sad and disappointed, my Alma Mater, UCLA, had Jane Fonda as its speaker.

  • Melinda McGee

    Jane Fonda was a courageous anti-war activitst, whose efforts helped to stop the terrible war the US was waging on the people of Vietnam. The US is still killing people in Iraq and Afghanistan and now talking about invading Iran to further line the pockets of the military-industrial complex. We need more heroines like Jane Fonda today. I hope that you listened to what she had to said. War causes more poverty, displacement, ill health, death and genocide than TB. You should be proud of your commencement speaker. SAY NO TO WAR!

  • Rick Martinez

    We’re both entitled to our opinions, Melinda. Do you actually believe the vision of Fonda on the tanks of the enemy In Vietnam helped stop the war, or deeply hurt America’s service men and women? And if you believe the former, let’s send “your heroine” to Iraq today to side with Al-Queda, the Taliban and the Sunni’s who are slaughtering and killing thousands of Iraqis and let’s see if she can help stop that war. Let’s see Fonda SAY NO TO WAR to those barbarians.
    Melinda, also, you’re wrong about your WAR/TB facts: Murder in the streets of Chicago and Detroit cause more death than war each year.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    @ Rick Martinez – While you’re entitled to your opinions Rick, you are NOT entitled to freely misrepresent the FACTS. For instance, in 2010 there were 14,748 homicides in the US (and considerably less within Detroit and Chicago). Meanwhile, deaths from our many wars over the past 65 years in Korea, Vietnam, Chile (see Sept 11, 1973), Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc etc in multiple war-zones around the globe have killed millions upon millions, and counting..
    Basically, there is NO comparison, and Melinda McGee is absolutely correct in pointing out that the only people who’ve benefitted from the genocidal policies of this country’s war-mongering leaders are corporate war profiteers.
    At the time Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam, (in an effort to counter the corporate media’s vilification of those people) being against the war was not popular.. so in a sense, at the time, her stand was courageous, and indeed, was intended to demonstrate the humanity of those hundreds of thousands of human beings our country was bombing, maiming and killing indiscriminately.

  • Rick Martinez

    Thank you, Maddog, for “your numbers.” The most readily available “facts” I could get my hands on for you according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics is each year there are roughly 7,600— and as high as 9,890—“blacks” who are murdered alone. Between
    1976 and 2013, there were 379,384 black murder victims. Contrast this with the fact that black fatalities during the Korean War (3,075), Vietnam War (7,243) and wars since 1980 (about 8,200) total about 18,500. Young black males have a greater chance of reaching maturity on the battlefields than on the streets of
    Philadelphia, Oakland, Newark, and predominately in Chicago and Detroit. Note, I am only citing numbers for black citizens, and again my reference is from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    Americans should know and understand we fought wars to free people from cruel dictators and regimes, and often death. We fought “just and obligatory wars,” when rogue governments beat-up and killed their own people, and when the elderly, women and children could not defend themselves. America and Americans
    could not and would not stand by and do nothing. Yes, we wish democracy upon them, but democracy was not our aim: Life, living, being, and doing via “freedom” has always been the spirit of America.

    Jane Fonda as “heroine” and all that bunk about genocidal policies, war-mongering, and corporate war profiteers is nothing more than naysayer disloyalty. It is not enough merely to have an intellectual understanding of another people’s difficulty; we need to go a little farther to feel it as our own burden and concern. A suffering people shames us all…in Iraq today like in Vietnam yesterday.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    @Rick Martinez – Your statistics about murder rates in black communities are irrelevant to Melinda McGee’s original response to your lamentations about Jane Fonda being the commencement speaker at the Ruins of Uncle Ucla, in El Lay.
    There is NO “safety” in a war zone, whether it be the urban war zones of institutionalized racism in this country’s ghettoes, or in the jungles, or deserts, of some exploited foreign country.. — thus your comment about the relative safety of black soldiers in war is specious and ignorant.
    You are also apparently ignorant of the history of Vietnam.
    The USA supported France’s colonial rule over the subjugated Vietnamese. Then when France withdrew, the USA supported the rule of a brutal *dictator*, Ngo Dinh Diem.
    — How can you twist that fact into your falacious statement that, “..we fought to free people from cruel dictators..”, unless you mean that we “freed” them by killing somewhere between one and three MILLION of them !!!???
    Unfortunately for the well-being and freedom of millions of other human beings around the globe, the USA has also supported dozens of vicious dictators in other countries as well, including in Iraq(Saddam), Iran(the Shah), Nicaragua(Somoza), Chile(Pinochet), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines and I could on and on, since the list is seemingly interminable. The magnitude of the deaths and suffering perpetrated by those puppet regimes propped up by US corporate and taxpayer dollars, and ultimately by military might and hegemony, was/is unbelievably horrific and unconscionable. (Note – the culturally destabilizing nature of these dictatorial regimes is most often not eliminated when the dictators themselves are overthrown, since the US system of imperial control continues in other socio-economic and tyrannical forms – the history of Iraq before and after the death of Saddam Hussein is a classic example.)
    As for the genocide basic to this country’s birth, you need to look more deeply into your history, into massacres of thousands of “first peoples”, or native peoples, who were here for thousands of years before the Euros came, before taking their gestures of friendship, their food, and then forcibly taking their land..
    Or look into the slavery practiced by the Washingtons, the Jeffersons, the Madisons, the Pinckneys, the Randolphs, the Rutledges, the Masons and other “founding fathers”…:
    American History
    Those four black girls blown up
    in that Alabama church
    remind me of five hundred
    middle passage blacks,
    in a net, under water
    in Charleston harbor
    so redcoats wouldn’t find them.
    Can’t find what you can’t see
    can you ?
    – by Michael S. Harper
    (poet laureate and professor at Brown University)

  • Rick Martinez

    Thank you, again, maddog, for at least having some dialogue. We must not reduce or denigrate our conversation to your ignorance, personal attacks, uncivil raw passions, or even in what corporate setting you might work with such an anti-American attitude, what
    you might tell your children about their country, or how you may perceive our American soldiers sitting next to you at a restaurant.

    You cited the “authority” of an “author” because he is poet laureate. Well, you know that Barack Obama and Paul Krugman are both Nobel Laureates and I hope you’ve heard and seen and are aware of what they’ve done. Authors are not authorities.

    Harper’s poem, however, especially the words–”Can’t find what you can’t see”–mirror the words and theme of Bill and Melinda Gates: “Take your genius, your optimism and your empathy, and go change the world in ways that will make millions of people optimistic.”

    Not conspiratorial, not fearful, not lacking in trust, not seeking counterfeit ideals, and certainly not persons who will go to our
    adversaries and sit on their tanks in the face of our country’s
    soldiers and our country’s people…but faithfully optimistic.

    To the Gates’ commencement talk perhaps I would add for the Stanford graduating class: Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes YOU come alive, and go do it–because what the world needs is “people who have come alive.”
    Yet, I’m not sure if I would suggest that to YOU, maddog, for I’m afraid of what that might mean to you.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    Rick, i did NOT say you are ignorant, i said your *comment* was specious (deceptive) and ignorant (ignores key facts) of the truth. There’s a difference. Your comments are all forked with deception… you say in your last paragraph, you’re “afraid” ?.. but in your preceding paragraph you pray to the ideal of not being “not fearful”.. Which is it..? ..it’s hard to tell since you change the subject when your fallacious statements are refuted, such as your claim that “we fought wars to free people from cruel dictators”. Actually they were vicious, murderous dictators. And your statement is SO false and “ignorant of history” it suggests discussing the truth with you is futile. (Along with the dictatorships I mentioned in the previous post, look up the vicious dictatorships of Trujillos, Tachos, Carias, Martinez, and Ubico, for instance, south of the border, maybe you’re related to some of them ?).
    i note you like to use deceptive verbal mechanisms much like the Orwellian mechanisms of “perception management” and “manufacturing consent” employed by corporate and government media at least since the Wilson days of trumped up treasons. And then finally, when all of the above fails, censorship is your coup de grace.
    (Have you read Orwell?)