Melinda Gates

Duke University Commencement Address – May 12, 2013

Melinda Gates
May 12, 2013— Durham, North Carolina
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President Brodhead, Trustees, and members of the Duke University Community – it is so fantastic to be back here at my alma mater. I'm really grateful for the honorary degree, and I'm especially grateful to be able to address the graduating class.

So let me start by saying to those of you graduating today in 2013 – congratulations. And let me remind you to thank your mothers – today is Mother's Day – and to say that I’m still bitter about the Louisville game.

I was a student here in 1986 when Coach K first took the team to the finals. We lost to Louisville then, too, so you and I – we share that particular agony.

However, you've had the good fortune to be here on campus when Duke has won its fourth national championship.

I never got to see us cut down the nets, but I did get to travel to Chapel Hill, UNC game against Michael Jordan, and we won that particular game. But the fact that Michael Jordan recently turned 50 years old reminds me how long it’s been since I was a student at this university.

No matter how much time passes, though, I still connected to Duke, particularly to the landmarks here, the Duke Gardens. I often went there to study and when I was stressed out for those finals. Yesterday, I went there in the afternoon after the rain to get centered before this speech.

But besides the landmarks, for me there’s a deep feeling of connection to the people here, to the people and the friends that I made over those four years on this campus. , and to the lifelong friends I made here—in short, to the people. I doubt there is a word that pulls together that shared combination of all the things that we label – all of us label – under that term “Duke.” But the best word that I can think of is “connected.” Connected. That's a word I’d like to discuss with you today on your graduation day.

I left home in August of 1982 from Dallas, Texas; I traveled to Durham. And my parents marked that rite of passage with a terrific gift: it was a typewriter, an Olympus B12 portable typewriter. The best thing about it was it weighed only 12 pounds, carrying case and all.

It was during my time at Duke that computers took over and replaced the typewriter as the as being the thing of choice to write your papers. And we, computer science department students, we resented you humanities majors because you were hogging our machines to write your papers.

And what that meant was I spent a lot of hours in the basement of some very creepy buildings on this campus, particularly the Biological Sciences Building. We would be in the basement of that building coding away, seeing who could go the fastest, write the most efficient code – I think you call it today probably a hackathon – and whoever lost that contest would have to go down the hall and touch the mutant frogs being grown by the biology department.

So the personal computer – and later when I was working at Microsoft, the internet – it really started a communications revolution. And I have three young children and as I watch how they use computers and phones today, I think the biggest difference between me on campus and you now a generation later is the way you communicate.

One popular way of describing this aspect of your lives is to say that you’re “connected.” Some pundits have already started to refer to you all as Generation C. One recent report, I think, kind of overdid the c-thing by saying you are “connected, communicating, content-centric, community-oriented, always clicking.” It went on to say that, for these reasons alone, you will “transform the world as we know it.”

Of course, all this hype about how connected you are has contributed to a counter-narrative—that, in fact, your generation is increasingly disconnected from the things that matter. The arguments go something like this: Instead of spending time you’re your friends, you spend time collecting friend requests. Instead of enjoying that meal, you take a picture of it and immediately send it to your friends on Facebook.

I want to encourage you to reject the cynics who say technology is flattening your experience of the world. Please don’t let anyone make you think you are somehow shallow because you like to update your status on a regular basis.

The people who say technology has disconnected are wrong. But so are the people who say technology has automatically connected you. Technology is just a tool. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It’s not a tool. It’s not a means to an end. It is the end— it's the purpose of a meaningful life—and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity, and humanity.

In his famous speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”

With 50 years of hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King was a little premature in calling the world a neighborhood. Back then, Americans lumped whole continents into something they called the Third World, as if what defined people on the other side of the planet was that they were not like us.

But as a result of this ongoing communications revolution, your world really can be a neighborhood. So the ethical commitment that Dr. King spoke of – it's yours to live up to.

What does it mean to make of this world a brotherhood and a sisterhood? That probably sounds like a lot to ask of you as individuals, or even as a whole graduating class. I’m pretty sure that later this afternoon when somebody asks you that really annoying question, “What are you going to do after graduation?” I doubt any of you are going to say, “I have an ethical commitment to make of this world a brotherhood.”

But you can change the way you think about other people. You can choose to see their humanity first—the one big thing that you can find that makes them the same as you, instead of all the little things that make them different than you.

It is not just a matter of caring about people. I assume you already do that. It’s much harder to see all people, including those people and especially those people whose lives are very different from yours, to really see them as three-dimensional human beings who need and want and desire the same things that you do. But if you can really believe that 7 billion people on the planet are equal to you in spirit, then you will take action to make the world more equal for everyone.

Paul Farmer, the Duke graduate I admire most – I think most of you know him, he's a doctor and global health innovator – he spends his time between Boston, Haiti, and Rwanda, he's now trying fix or completely change the Rwandan health system.

I first met Paul in 2003. I went to travel to his clinic in Cange, Haiti. And what struck me about that visit was first of all, it took us about…it took us so long to get the 100 yards from the vehicle to his clinic. And the reason for that was that Paul introduced me to every single person along the way – every single person.

And he introduced them by first and last name, told me something about their family, he asked them about their lives.

And when we arrived at the clinic, on the outside there was this beautiful little trellis with morning glory growing on it and when I asked Paul about it he said, "Oh, I built that myself. I built it because I wanted the people here to see the beauty in the world that I see, and I also wanted them to have a little bit of shade in the sun while they wait to go in the clinic."

The very next day, I traveled to another clinic in Haiti. It was in Port-au-Prince. It was set up for the same reasons as Paul’s—to give great health care to the people of Haiti. The doctors there went for all the right reasons. But I noticed something very different in that clinic. The doctors thought of themselves as health care providers and they thought of the Haitians as recipients and consequently, even though good quality health care was going on there, there was a lot of resentment in that clinic between both patients and doctors.

Experiencing those two clinics, one day right after the other, taught me something—taught me that Paul had made the moral choice to do the deep connection, to do that hard work, to understand that love is part of healing. All those little, small acts that Paul did and his staff—those are born out of a big idea, and that is the dignity of all people.

Of course, not everybody here is going to be Paul Farmer. Not all of you are going to dedicate your whole life to eradicating poverty. But just because you don’t qualify for sainthood doesn’t mean you can’t form deep human connections—or that your connections can’t make a difference in the world.

To me, that’s where technology comes in. If you make the moral choice to connect deeply with others, then your computer, your phone, the internet – it makes it so much easier to do today.

In Africa, there are 700 million cell phone subscribers. When I go to Kenya…I was in Nairobi, I was in a large slum there, Kibera – some people consider it the largest slum in Africa. I was there last year. You know what I saw? Unbelievable ingenuity. I saw a kiosk that had hundreds of phones where a young entrepreneur had set up a business of recharging people's cell phones. When they got their cell phone back, you know what they were doing? Texting. Evidently their favorite way of communicating is your favorite way of communicating, too.

What that allows you to do, though, is to connect directly with literally millions of people.

On the Internet, you can read each other is reading, you can share the same music, you can watch the same TV shows. You can immerse yourselves in one another's lives, learn one another's languages, learn one another’s recipes and even cook the same food and take a picture and send it to your friend across the world if you want.

Now I'm not saying you're gonna wake up tomorrow and automatically start skyping with somebody in Nairobi. And probably it’s wise to ignore those emails you get from somebody in Nigeria saying they can help you make a large fortune.

But over the course of your lives, I promise you, you will have so many opportunities to use technology to make the world bigger: to meet different kinds of people, and to keep in touch with more people that you meet.

These connections are important in and of themselves, but I have to admit, I don’t want you to connect for connection’s sake alone. I want you to connect because I believe it will inspire you to do something, to take action, to make a difference in the world. Humanity in the abstract will never inspire you the way meeting another human being will. Poverty is not going to motivate you to do something. But meeting people – that will motivate you to do something.

When my husband and I started our foundation, I really didn’t know much about global health. We got ourselves immersed in the data. We met a lot of academics. We were reading all these morbidity and mortality ratios. But in 2001 I wanted to take my first foundation trip to really see the people behind the statistics. I went to India and Thailand.

When I was in the foot of the Himalayas I was in a village. I toured the village most of the day, spent a lot of time with the villagers and the people, and at the end of the day a woman invited me into her home, and I have to admit I didn't quite know what to expect.

And as we walked through her small home she pulled two lawn chairs off of a nail from her kitchen wall. They're those aluminum kind of folding lawn chairs, you know, with that itchy mesh fabric you might have sat on for a few hours in Krzyzewskiville. She whipped them out and put them on her back porch, and what she wanted to do was gaze up at the Himalayas. And it reminded me that our family used to use those same lawn chairs in Dallas. We'd sit out on the back patio at night, gazing at the stars.

And this woman wanted to talk to me about what my family life was like, what inspired me. She wanted to tell me the dreams and the hopes she had for her children and her family. And as I left her village and was travelling home, I realized that the biggest difference between her and me was not what we dreamt about, but how hard it was going to be for her to make her dreams come true.

Some people assume that Bill and I are too rich to make a connection with somebody who’s poor, even if we have the right intent. But I want to tell you that words like rich and poor—they don’t define who we are. They don't define who we are as human beings. The universe is like computer code in that way. It's binary. There is life, and then there is everything else. There are zeroes and ones. I’m a one. You’re a one. My friend in the Himalayas—she's a one.

Martin Luther King, Jr.—he was not a computer programmer—so he called this concept a brotherhood. His hope was that college students would bring a brotherhood into being. Dr. King thought at that time that the world had shrunk as much as it was going to shrink—in his words, we’d “dwarfed distance and placed time in chains.” So the fact that people still didn’t treat each other like brothers and sisters, to him, was an ethical failure.

I take a slightly different point of view. I believe we are finally creating the scientific and technological tools to turn the world into a neighborhood. And that gives you an amazing ethical opportunity.

You can light up a network of seven billion people with long-lasting and highly motivating human connections.

You have spent the last few years at one of the most amazing universities on the planet. You've gained the knowledge and the skills to go out and do in the world whatever it is that you choose to do.

So what will you do?

I hope you will use to the tools of technology to do what you already had it in your heart to do – to connect. To make of this world a brotherhood – and a sisterhood. And I can’t wait to see what you do.


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