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Do you have the courage to read this?

Last updated on: June 19, 2014 13:28 IST

Image: A Stanford graduate listens in as Bill Gates and Melinda Gates speak at the commencement on June 15, 2014
Photographs: Courtesy

At the 123rd Stanford commencement held on June 15, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates shared stories from their personal careers and emphasised on the importance of optimism and empathy in modern world.

Some of the stories from India and South Africa will make you cringe, but will also inspire you.

We bring you the best excerpts.

Got the stomach for it? Read on...

When Paul Allen and I started Microsoft, we wanted to bring the power of computers and software to the people -- and that was the kind of rhetoric we used.

One of the pioneering books in the field had a raised fist on the cover, and it was called Computer Lib.

At that time, only big businesses could buy computers. We wanted to offer the same power to regular people -- and democratise computing.

By the 1990s, we saw how profoundly personal computers could empower people. But that success created a new dilemma: If rich kids got computers and poor kids didn't, then technology would make inequality worse.

That ran counter to our core belief: Technology should benefit everybody. So we worked to close the digital divide.

I made it a priority at Microsoft, and Melinda and I made it an early priority at our foundation -- donating personal computers to public libraries to make sure everyone had access.

The digital divide was a focus of mine in 1997 when I took my first trip to South Africa.

I went there on business, so I spent most of my time in meetings in downtown Johannesburg.

I stayed in the home of one of the richest families in South Africa. It had only been three years since the election of Nelson Mandela marked the end of apartheid.

When I sat down for dinner with my hosts, they used a bell to call the butler.

After dinner, the men and women separated, and the men smoked cigars. I thought, "Good thing I read Jane Austen, or I wouldn't have known what was going on."

The next day I went to Soweto -- the poor township south-west of Johannesburg that had been a centre of the anti-apartheid movement.

It was a short distance from the city into the township, but the entry was sudden, jarring, and harsh. I passed into a world completely unlike the one I came from.

My visit to Soweto became an early lesson in how naive I was.

Microsoft was donating computers and software to a community center there -- the kind of thing we did in the United States.

But it became clear to me very quickly that this was not the United States.

I had seen statistics on poverty, but I had never really seen poverty.

The people there lived in corrugated tin shacks with no electricity, no water, no toilets. Most people didn't wear shoes; they walked barefoot along the streets.

Except there were no streets -- just ruts in the mud.

The community center had no consistent source of power, so they had rigged up an extension cord that ran about 200 feet from the center to a diesel generator outside.

Looking at the setup, I knew the minute the reporters and I left, the generator would get moved to a more urgent task, and the people who used the community center would go back to worrying about challenges that couldn't be solved by a PC.

When I gave my prepared remarks to the press, I said: "Soweto is a milestone. There are major decisions ahead about whether technology will leave the developing world behind. This is to close the gap."

As I was reading those words, I knew they were irrelevant.

What I didn't say was: "By the way, we're not focused on the fact that half a million people on this continent are dying every year from malaria. But we're sure as hell going to bring you computers."

Before I went to Soweto, I thought I understood the world's problems, but I was blind to the most important ones. I was so taken aback by what I saw that I had to ask myself, "Do I still believe that innovation can solve the world's toughest problems?"

I promised myself that before I came back to Africa, I would find out more about what keeps people poor.

Over the years, Melinda and I did learn more about the most pressing needs of the poor.

On a later trip to South Africa, I paid a visit to a hospital for patients with MDR-TB, or multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, a disease with a cure rate of under 50 percent.

I remember that hospital as a place of despair.

It was a giant open ward with a sea of patients shuffling around in pajamas, wearing masks.

There was one floor just for children, including some babies lying in bed.

They had a little school for the kids who were well enough to learn, but many of the children couldn't make it, and the hospital didn't seem to know whether it was worth it to keep the school open.

I talked to a patient there in her early thirties.

She had been a worker at a TB hospital when she came down with a cough.

She went to a doctor, and he told her she had drug-resistant TB. She was later diagnosed with AIDS.

She wasn't going to live much longer, but there were plenty of MDR patients waiting to take her bed when she vacated it.

This was hell with a waiting list.

But seeing hell didn't reduce my optimism; it channelled it.

I got in the car and told the doctor who was working with us: "Yeah, I know. MDR-TB is hard to cure. But we should be able to do something for these people."

This year, we're entering phase three with a new TB drug regime.

For patients who respond, instead of a 50 percent cure rate after 18 months for $2,000, we could get an 80 to 90 per cent cure rate after six months for under $100.

That's better by a factor of a hundred.

Optimism is often dismissed as false hope. But there is also false hopelessness.

That's the attitude that says we can't defeat poverty and disease.

We absolutely can.

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Do you have the courage to read this?

Image: Bill and Melinda Gates at the 123rd Stanford Commencement on June 15.
Photographs: Courtesy

....Melinda Gates: Ten years ago, I travelled to India with friends.

On the last day there, I had a meeting with prostitutes.

I expected to talk to them about the risk of AIDS, but they wanted to talk to me about stigma.

Many of these women had been abandoned by their husbands, and that's why they'd gone into prostitution.

They were trying to make enough money to feed their children.

They were so low in the eyes of society that they could be raped and robbed and beaten by anyone -- even the police -- and nobody cared.

Talking to them about their lives was so moving to me.

But what I remember most was how much they wanted to touch me and be touched by me.

It was as if physical contact somehow proved their worth.

As I was leaving, we took a photo of all of us hand in hand.

Later that day, I spent some time in a home for the dying.

I walked into a large hall and saw rows and rows of cots.

Every cot was attended to except for one far off in the corner that no one was going near, so I decided to go over there.

The patient was a woman who seemed to be in her thirties. I remember her eyes.

She had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes.

She was emaciated, on the verge of death. Her intestines weren't holding anything -- so the workers had put her on a cot with a hole cut out in the bottom, and everything just poured through into a pan below.

I could tell she had AIDS, both from the way she looked, and the fact that she was off in the corner alone.

The stigma of AIDS is vicious -- especially for women -- and the punishment is abandonment.

When I arrived at her cot, I suddenly felt completely and totally helpless.

I had absolutely nothing I could offer this woman.

I knew I couldn't save her, but I didn't want her to be alone.

So I knelt down with her and put a hand out, she grabbed my hand and wouldn't let go.

I couldn't speak her language, I couldn't think of what I should say to her.

I said "It's going to be okay. It's not your fault. It's not your fault."

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Do you have the courage to read this?

Image: Bill and Melinda Gates wore 'nerd' glasses to prove a point.
Photographs: Courtesy

After spending some time with her, she started pointing to the rooftop.

She clearly wanted to go up and I realised that the sun was going down and what she wanted to do was go up on the rooftop and see the sunset.

The workers in this home for the dying were very busy and I said to them: Can we take her up on the rooftop?

No no, we have to pass out medicines.

So I waited for that to happen and I asked another worker and they said "No. No, we are too busy, we can't get her up there."

So finally I just scooped the woman up in my arms.

She was nothing more than skin over bones and I took her up to the rooftop and I found one of those plastic chairs that blows over in the light breeze.

I put her there, sat her down and put a blanket over her legs and she sat there facing to the west watching the sunset.

The workers knew, I made sure they knew she was up there so that they could bring her down later that evening after the sun went down.

And then I had to leave.

But she never left me.

I felt completely and totally inadequate in the face of this woman's death.

But sometimes it's the people that you can't help that inspire you the most.

I knew that those sex workers I met that morning could become the women I carried upstairs in the evening -- unless they found a way to defy the stigma that hung over their lives.

Over the past 10 years, our foundation has helped sex workers build support groups so they could empower each other to speak out for safe sex and demand that their clients use condoms.

Their brave efforts helped keep HIV prevalence low among sex workers, and a lot of studies show that is a big reason why the AIDS epidemic in India hasn't exploded.

When these sex workers gathered together to help stop AIDS transmission, something unexpected and wonderful happened.

The community they formed became a platform for everything.

They were able to set up speed-dial networks to respond to violent attacks.

Police and others who raped and robbed them couldn't get away with it any more.

The women set up systems to encourage savings.

They used financial services that helped some of them start businesses and leave sex work.

This was all done by people society considered the lowliest of the low.

Optimism, for me, isn't a passive expectation that things are going to get better; for me, it's a conviction that we can make things better -- that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don't lose hope and if we don't look away.

Do you have the courage to read this?

Image: (LtoR)Dean for Religious Life at Stanford Rev Scotty McLennan, Stanford Provost John Etchemendy, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, and President John Hennessy at the commencement.
Photographs: Courtesy

Bill Gates: Over the next generation, you Stanford graduates will lead a new wave of innovation.

Which problems will you decide to solve?

If your world is wide, you can create the future we all want.

If your world is narrow, you may create the future the pessimists fear.

I started learning in Soweto that if we're going to make our optimism matter to everyone and empower people everywhere, we have to see the lives of those most in need.

If we have optimism without empathy -- then it doesn't matter how much we master the secrets of science, we're not really solving problems; we're just working on puzzles.

I think most of you have a broader worldview than I had at your age.

You can do better at this than I did.

If you put your hearts and minds to it, you can surprise the pessimists.

We're eager to see it.

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Do you have the courage to read this?

Image: Graduates at the commencement ceremony at Stanford University.
Photographs: Courtesy

Melinda Gates: So let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism.

On a trip to South Asia, I met a desperately poor Indian woman who brought me her two small children and begged me: "Please take them home with you."

When I begged her for her forgiveness and said I could not, she said: "Then please take one."

On another trip, to South Los Angeles, I met a group of high school students from a tough neighbourhood when one young woman said to me: "Do you ever feel like we are the kids whose parents shirked their responsibilities, that we're just the leftovers?"

These women broke my heart -- and they still do. And the empathy intensifies if I admit to myself: "That could be me."

When I talk with the mothers I meet during my travels, there is no difference at all in what we want for our children. The only difference is our ability to provide it to our children.

So what accounts for that difference?

Bill and I talk about this with our own kids at the dinner table.

Bill worked incredibly hard and took risks and made sacrifices for success.

But there is another essential ingredient of success, and that is luck -- absolute and total luck!

When were you born? Who are your parents? Where did you grow up?

None of us earned these things. These things were given to us.

When we strip away all our luck and privilege and we consider where we'd be without them, it becomes much easier to see someone who's poor and sick and say "that could be me."

And that's empathy; it tears down barriers and it opens up new frontiers for optimism.

So here is our appeal to you all: As you leave Stanford, take all your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of people optimistic as well.

You don't have to rush. You have careers to launch and debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That's plenty enough for now.

But in the course of your lives, perhaps without any plan on your part, you'll see suffering that will break your heart.

When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it.

That is the moment when change is born.

Congratulations and good luck to the class of 2014.