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Bill and Melinda Gates wearing 'nerd' glasses

Commencement speakers Bill and Melinda Gates briefly donned 'nerd glasses' and Melinda told the Class of 2014: 'Some people call you nerds - and you claim the label with pride.' Added Bill: 'Well, so do we.' (Photo: L. A. Cicero)

Bill and Melinda Gates tell Stanford grads: Channel empathy with optimism

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.

Video by Kurt Hickman

Highlights of Bill and Melinda Gates' Commencement address

At Stanford's 123rd Commencement, Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, challenged Stanford graduates to change the world by channeling empathy with optimism.

Technological innovation is important, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates told a sea of Stanford graduates on a breezy Sunday morning in Stanford Stadium. But technology for technology's sake alone creates a dilemma.

"If rich kids got computers and poor kids didn't, then technology would make inequality worse," he said. "Technology should benefit everybody."

The Gateses delivered Stanford's first joint Commencement address. They spoke of the "digital divide" between rich and poor, and their heart-wrenching experiences with the poor and sick in places like South Africa and India.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the world's most influential philanthropic organizations involved in reducing poverty, boosting global health and improving the U.S. educational system.

"My visit to Soweto [South Africa] became an early lesson in how naïve I was. I had seen statistics on poverty, but I had never really seen poverty," Bill Gates said. In Soweto, he witnessed people living in tin shacks with no electricity, no running water and no toilets.

He realized that innovation alone could not solve the world's toughest problems. Empathy and compassion for the poor, sick and needy was just as important. So the couple began funding programs that make a difference – such as one that improved the survival rate of a deadly form of tuberculosis from 50 percent to 80 percent.

Over the last 10 years, Melinda Gates added, the foundation has helped sex workers build support groups, speak out for safe sex and fight the scourge of AIDS. "The stigma of AIDS is vicious – especially for women – and the punishment is abandonment," she said.

Her husband told the students not to turn away from the poor and sick.

"Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can't help them. You will never change their world," he said.

The 2014 Commencement ceremony began with Stanford's nontraditional procession called the Wacky Walk. To kick off the festivities, students entered the stadium wearing costumes, holding banners and balloons and waving signs, both goofy and sentimental.

Stanford granted 1,687 bachelor's degrees, 2,313 master's degrees and 1,006 doctoral degrees. The graduates include 135 undergraduate students from 51 countries outside the United States and 1,113 graduate students from 83 countries other than the United States.

"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," said Bill Gates.

Melinda Gates added, "Some people call you nerds – and you claim the label with pride."

"Well, so do we," the couple declared, as they momentarily donned stereotypical "nerd" glasses held together with tape.

About Stanford, Bill Gates said, "This is where genius lives. There is 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."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has 30 research projects underway at Stanford on a variety of topics, from studying how to cure the worst diseases to helping more low-income students go to college.

Bill Gates noted that empathy "tears down barriers and opens up new frontiers for optimism."

As for Stanford's newly minted graduates, he told them that they, too, will encounter serious human suffering one day.

"When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it," he said.

Parents, students filled with pride

"The faculty were amazing," said Jack Detzner from Silver Springs, Maryland. His son, Adam Stob Detzner, graduated with honors and a bachelor's degree in music. "This was truly a chance for him to grow," said his dad.

Frederica Ferrell's son, Paul Ferrell, graduated with a master's degree in public policy. "This was a great education for him," his mom said.

Paul Ferrell added, "The professors are incredible and world class. I just want to thank everyone who helped get me here today."

Samuel Bakouch earned a master's degree in management science and engineering. He was motivated by the Stanford environment, he said: "The people here, the spirit here – everybody's really open. It's exciting today."

Stanford President John L. Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy spoke to the crowd and conferred the degrees to the students.

"As you leave Stanford, I hope you carry a deep appreciation of the values and traditions that are everlasting as well as a willingness to be bold and to approach challenges with a fresh perspective," said Hennessy.

He noted that Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, spoke of the balancing of the old and the new in the Stanford educational approach and building a "school which may last as long as human civilization."

Hennessy added, "Today, 123 years later, we have established some traditions, but we have not forgotten President Jordan's exhortation."

Hennessy also paid tribute to Herbert Hoover, a Stanford alumnus and the 31st president of the United States. He led the cause of Belgian food relief in World War I and spearheaded a similar hunger effort in Germany after WWII.

"A compassionate man, he never sought recognition for his many acts of generosity," said Hennessy.

Media Contact

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu