Bill Gates returned to Harvard University on Thursday to address its graduating class and receive an honorary degree after dropping out of the college 33 years ago to found Microsoft. He spent much of his address on the issues of global poverty and disease, advancing ideas on how to encourage more people to get involved in trying to resolve those huge problems.
"I've been waiting more than 30 years to say this: 'Dad, I always told you I'd come back and get my degree,'" the Microsoft chairman said to hearty audience laughter as he began his speech.
All commencement speakers are given an honorary Harvard degree, and Gates was awarded a Doctor of Laws degree. He's already received a handful of honorary doctorates from other universities around the world, the most recent being awarded by China's Tsinghua University in April.
When Gates arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1973, he was uncertain of his course of study but sure of his abiding passion for software. He quit Harvard in his junior year to focus full-time on the software startup, Microsoft, which he cofounded with his childhood pal Paul Allen.
Gates described how he encouraged Harvard buddy Steve Ballmer, now Microsoft CEO, to quit business school and join the software company when it was only about 50 employees strong. "I'm a bad influence," Gates said. "That's why I was invited to speak to your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today."
He also reminisced about his accommodation at Harvard, saying his particular lodgings were a great place to live. "There were more women up there, and most of the guys were science-math types," Gates said, with a smile. "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."
However, Gates was all seriousness and a fair amount of fervor during most of his 25-minute address, expressing his one big regret about his time at college. "I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world," adding it took him "decades to find out" about the unbelievable poverty and disease in developing countries.
He's currently transitioning out of a day-to-day role at Microsoft to spend more time on his global philanthropy work in the areas of health and education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He began that move in June 2006, and it's expected to be complete by July 2008.
"Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries -- but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity," Gates said. He spoke of trying to find ways to develop "a more creative capitalism" that could help market forces work better for the disadvantaged. "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," he added.
He described his frustration at being on a global health panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, several years ago and being bored rigid. "It was so boring even I couldn't bear it," Gates quipped. The contrast between that panel and a Microsoft launch event he'd just attended were stark -- people were really excited about version 13 of a new piece of software. "I love getting people excited about software," he said. "But why can't we generate even more excitement for saving lives?"
The issue isn't that people don't care about the world's ills, Gates argued, it's that they don't know what to do to resolve them.
"Even with the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news, it is still a complex enterprise to get people to truly see the problem," he said. Using computers, the Internet, and breakthroughs in biotechnology, Gates believes that people can begin to cut through the complex problems of poverty and disease and start to improve lives.
Gates challenged both Harvard University and its graduating students.
For Harvard, he encouraged the academics to think about applying more of their resources to dealing with the world's issues and to ensure that their students left the college educated about global poverty, hunger, and the prevalence of curable diseases that continue to kill millions of children.
For students, he exhorted each of them to embrace one of the world's complex issues and become a specialist on it, whether that issue becomes the focus of their career or more of a part-time passion. "Don't let complexity stop you. Be activists," Gates said. "Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives."