If your passions are global health and education and you get an opportunity to hear big players in global health and education (and philanthropy), you go! Especially when it’s within walking distance of your home. And even better? Free.
Bill and Melinda Gates were the 2014 Stanford University graduation speakers, so you better believe Dan and I were there! For multiple reasons, I’m glad to have attended a Stanford graduation before Dan goes through his own ceremony. I know I’m going to be tears when Dan goes graduates, so this gave me an impartial observer opportunity to know what to expect. Things like, go early to get a good seat. Stanford provides snacks and water on your way in to the stadium where the ceremony is held. And don’t expect a solemn ceremony.
Stanford graduation (and perhaps more true for the undergrads than the graduate students) is to a standard graduation ceremony what the Stanford marching band is to a normal college marching band. The Ohio State University band fans, don’t watch. It’ll roll your stomach.
Dan and I were shocked as the undergraduates paraded in dressed as penguins, Dr. Seuss’s Thing 1 and Thing 2, clowns, and even whoopie cushions. We didn’t stay to see the graduates walk across the stage, so I can’t say for certain that they received their diploma while carrying a giant inflatable whale, but I would venture that happened.
But we weren’t there for the graduates. We were there for Bill and Melinda. The irony of having a non-college graduate speak at a prestigious university graduation ceremony was not lost on me. However, their commitment to education and global health through their foundation shows a value in learning, whether through formal or informal means. (And to be fair, Melinda has a degree in computer science and an MBA.)
Based on their annual letters and blog, I wasn’t surprised by the message and left inspired. They spoke not of the importance of providing aid, but of providing tools. They each spoke of their individual experiences that led them to value and commit to philanthropy. Bill talked about his vision that technology should benefit everyone and so he had made it his priority to close the digital divide. He highlighted that if only wealthy children have access to computers, it increases inequality. His first true experience with poverty was during a visit to Soweto, South Africa where he left questioning whether innovation really helped. Wondering, what keeps the world’s poorest poor?
Melinda spoke of experience in India with the most marginalized populations, including female sex workers and individuals with HIV. She reminded us that the stigma of AIDS is vicious, especially for women. And that to do the most, you must first see the worst because sometimes it is the people you can’t help that inspire you the most. But we cannot look away, and we cannot lose hope. Facing that suffering is how change is born.
They both reminded the eager audience that optimism is often dismissed as false hope, but there is also false hopelessness. There is a power in optimism to fuel innovation that leads to new approaches to end suffering and change the world. But they cautioned that innovation that is focused only on the market will increase inequities. Innovation must be combined with optimism and empathy to solve problems, otherwise we are simply working on puzzles.
I also appreciate their recognition that absolute and total luck are a big factor in success: the luck of where you are born, when you are born, and who your parents are all play a big factor. They are also realists and didn’t ask the Stanford grads to go forth and change the world immediately. Instead, Bill and Melinda encouraged them to find jobs, pay back their debts, build successful careers, maybe even meet a spouse, and then, when they can commit heart, talent, experience, and leadership, to change the world.