Well worth 10 minutes out of your day…
Bill Gates’ Graduation Speech at Harvard]
June 7, 2007
President Bok, former President Rudenstine, incoming President Faust,
members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members
of the faculty, parents, and especially, the graduates:
I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told
you I’d come back and get my degree.”
I want to thank Harvard for this timely honor. I’ll be changing my job
next year . and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my
I applaud the graduates today for taking a much more direct route to
your degrees. For my part, I’m just happy that the Crimson has called me
“Harvard’s most successful dropout.” I guess that makes me valedictorian
of my own special class . I did the best of everyone who failed.
But I also want to be recognized as the guy who got Steve Ballmer to
drop out of business school. I’m a bad influence. That’s why I was
invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your
orientation, fewer of you might be here today.
Harvard was just a phenomenal experience for me. Academic life was
fascinating. I used to sit in on lots of classes I hadn’t even signed up
for. And dorm life was terrific. I lived up at Radcliffe, in Currier
House. There were always lots of people in my dorm room late at night
discussing things, because everyone knew I didn’t worry about getting up
in the morning. That’s how I came to be the leader of the anti-social
group. We clung to each other as a way of validating our rejection of
all those social people.
Radcliffe was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and
most of the guys were science-math types. That combination offered me
the best odds, if you know what I mean. This is where I learned the sad
lesson that improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success.
One of my biggest memories of Harvard came in January 1975, when I made
a call from Currier House to a company in Albuquerque that had begun
making the world’s first personal computers. I offered to sell them
I worried that they would realize I was just a student in a dorm and
hang up on me. Instead they said: “We’re not quite ready, come see us in
a month,” which was a good thing, because we hadn’t written the software
yet. From that moment, I worked day and night on this little extra
credit project that marked the end of my college education and the
beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft.
What I remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so
much energy and intelligence. It could be exhilarating, intimidating,
sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging. It was an amazing
privilege – and though I left early, I was transformed by my years at
Harvard, the friendships I made, and the ideas I worked on.
But taking a serious look back . I do have one big regret.
I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the
world — the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and
opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.
I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and
politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the
But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how
those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through
democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad
economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human
I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated
out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew
nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and
disease in developing countries.
It took me decades to find out.
You graduates came to Harvard at a different time. You know more about
the world’s inequities than the classes that came before. In your years
here, I hope you’ve had a chance to think about how – in this age of
accelerating technology – we can finally take on these inequities, and
we can solve them.
Imagine, just for the sake of discussion, that you had a few hours a
week and a few dollars a month to donate to a cause – and you wanted to
spend that time and money where it would have the greatest impact in
saving and improving lives. Where would you spend it?
For Melinda and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the
most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.
During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article
about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor
countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this
country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One
disease I had never even heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million
kids each year – none of them in the United States.
We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were
dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to
discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For
under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just
weren’t being delivered.
If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn
that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to
ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the
priority of our giving.”
So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We
asked: “How could the world let these children die?”
The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the
lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the
children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in
the market and no voice in the system.
But you and I have both.
We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a
more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces
so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living,
serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We also can
press governments around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that
better reflect the values of the people who pay the taxes.
If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that
generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have
found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world.
This task is open-ended. It can never be finished. But a conscious
effort to answer this challenge will change the world.
I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim
there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the
beginning, and will be with us till the end – because people just .
don’t . care.”
I completely disagree.
I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with.
All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human
tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing — not because
we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known
how to help, we would have acted.
The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much
To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution,
and see the impact. But complexity blocks all three steps.
Even with the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news, it is still a
complex enterprise to get people to truly see the problems. When an
airplane crashes, officials immediately call a press conference. They
promise to investigate, determine the cause, and prevent similar crashes
in the future.
But if the officials were brutally honest, they would say: “Of all the
people in the world who died today from preventable causes, one half of
one percent of them were on this plane. We’re determined to do
everything possible to solve the problem that took the lives of the one
half of one percent.”
The bigger problem is not the plane crash, but the millions of
We don’t read much about these deaths. The media covers what’s new – and
millions of people dying is nothing new. So it stays in the background,
where it’s easier to ignore. But even when we do see it or read about
it, it’s difficult to keep our eyes on the problem. It’s hard to look at
suffering if the situation is so complex that we don’t know how to help.
And so we look away.
If we can really see a problem, which is the first step, we come to the
second step: cutting through the complexity to find a solution.
Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our
caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or
individual asks “How can I help?,” then we can get action – and we can
make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity
makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares – and that
makes it hard for their caring to matter.
Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four
predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage
approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the
meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you
already have – whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or
something simpler, like a bednet.
The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to
end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal
technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single
dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine
research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the
meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand – and the best
prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky
Pursuing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the
pattern. The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working – and
never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century –
which is to surrender to complexity and quit.
The final step – after seeing the problem and finding an approach – is
to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures
so that others learn from your efforts.
You have to have the statistics, of course. You have to be able to show
that a program is vaccinating millions more children. You have to be
able to show a decline in the number of children dying from these
diseases. This is essential not just to improve the program, but also to
help draw more investment from business and government.
But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more
than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work – so
people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.
I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health
panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions!
Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life – then multiply
that by millions. . Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on
– ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.
What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come
from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of
software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love
getting people excited about software – but why can’t we generate even
more excitement for saving lives?
You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the
impact. And how you do that – is a complex question.
Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the
new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us
forever. They are new – they can help us make the most of our caring –
and that’s why the future can be different from the past.
The defining and ongoing innovations of this age – biotechnology, the
computer, the Internet – give us a chance we’ve never had before to end
extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.
Sixty years ago, George Marshall came to this commencement and announced
a plan to assist the nations of post-war Europe. He said: “I think one
difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that
the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make
it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear
appraisement of the situation. It is virtually impossible at this
distance to grasp at all the real significance of the situation.”
Thirty years after Marshall made his address, as my class graduated
without me, technology was emerging that would make the world smaller,
more open, more visible, less distant.
The emergence of low-cost personal computers gave rise to a powerful
network that has transformed opportunities for learning and
The magical thing about this network is not just that it collapses
distance and makes everyone your neighbor. It also dramatically
increases the number of brilliant minds we can have working together on
the same problem – and that scales up the rate of innovation to a
At the same time, for every person in the world who has access to this
technology, five people don’t. That means many creative minds are left
out of this discussion — smart people with practical intelligence and
relevant experience who don’t have the technology to hone their talents
or contribute their ideas to the world.
We need as many people as possible to have access to this technology,
because these advances are triggering a revolution in what human beings
can do for one another. They are making it possible not just for
national governments, but for universities, corporations, smaller
organizations, and even individuals to see problems, see approaches, and
measure the impact of their efforts to address the hunger, poverty, and
desperation George Marshall spoke of 60 years ago.
Members of the Harvard Family: Here in the Yard is one of the great
collections of intellectual talent in the world.
There is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the
benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of
people here and around the world. But can we do more? Can Harvard
dedicate its intellect to improving the lives of people who will never
even hear its name?
Let me make a request of the deans and the professors – the intellectual
leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review
curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:
Should our best minds be dedicated to solving our biggest problems?
Should Harvard encourage its faculty to take on the world’s worst
inequities? Should Harvard students learn about the depth of global
poverty . the prevalence of world hunger . the scarcity of clean water
.the girls kept out of school . the children who die from diseases we
Should the world’s most privileged people learn about the lives of the
world’s least privileged?
These are not rhetorical questions – you will answer with your policies.
My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here – never
stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding,
she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about
marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with
cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her
message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom
much is given, much is expected.”
When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given –
in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what
the world has a right to expect from us.
In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the
graduates here to take on an issue – a complex problem, a deep inequity,
and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career,
that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an
impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the
Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the
barriers, and find ways to cut through them.
Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities.
It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.
You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave
Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You
have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that
awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment
you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very
You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.
Knowing what you know, how could you not?
And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and
reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope
you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments
alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest
inequities . on how well you treated people a world away who have
nothing in common with you but their humanity.