STANFORD -- Stanford University's Class of 2014 on Sunday got an inspiring if sobering send-off from the tech world's royal tag-team, as Bill and Melinda Gates took to matching podiums to pitch students on the power of seeing the glass half full.
"There are so many remarkable things going on here at this campus," Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder, told the more than 5,000 students accepting bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. "But if Melinda and I had to put into one word what we love most about Stanford, it's the optimism. There's an infectious feeling here that innovation can solve almost every problem."
For the next 25 minutes, the couple took turns telling stories of how their personal experiences working with the sick and impoverished in South Africa and India had changed their lives.
"On our journey together," Bill Gates said, "our optimism evolved."
It was a powerful message. And it was almost as if the lessons they were sharing were so weighty that it required two people to deliver what was the first-ever in-tandem commencement speech in Stanford history. After an initial greeting in which the couple stood side by side, the co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation broke the ice by finding common ground with the students who had filled the field at Stanford Stadium.
"Some people call you nerds," Melinda said. "And you claim the label with pride."
Bill added: "Well, so do we."
And with that, the levity ended as the couple shared a sort of tortured travelogue filled with infants succumbing to drug-resistant tuberculosis, children orphaned by mothers with AIDS and sex workers in India plagued not just by life-threatening diseases but by the humiliation of being shoved to the bottom of society.
"Most of these women had been abandoned by their husbands, and that's why they'd gone into prostitution," Melinda Gates told the crowd, gathered under pale blue skies etched with wisps of clouds. "They were trying to make enough money to feed their kids. They were so low in the eyes of society that they could be raped and robbed and beaten by anybody -- even by police -- and nobody cared."
One of these prostitutes, dying of AIDS, was painfully memorable, Melinda Gates said with an emotional delivery that had the students and the 25,000 family and friends in the stands rapt in stunned silence. She talked about how she "felt totally helpless. I had absolutely nothing I could offer her. I knew I couldn't save her, but I didn't want her to be alone."
Then she explained how that feeling of helplessness fueled her desire to use the foundation to help those suffering around the world. "Sometimes," she said, "it's the people you can't help who inspire you the most."
Her husband's catharsis took place in Soweto, South Africa, where he had gone as a high-tech emissary but returned as a different man, eventually pivoting his life's work from building software to stemming the scourge of malaria and improving tuberculosis cure rates with much cheaper drug regimens.
"Before I went to Soweto," he said, "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."
Their somber stories were in sharp relief to the otherwise festive atmosphere that accompanied the school's 123rd commencement ceremony. Just before President John Hennessy addressed the crowd and warmed them up for the commencement speech, there was the traditional Wacky Walk, a decidedly nontraditional procession that featured graduates entering the field in all manner of costume.
Decked out as centipedes and fighter jets, cardboard buses and taco trucks, the classmates filled the stadium floor with a Carmen Miranda-style homage to the offbeat. There were hirsute guys in bathrobes beneath their half-open gowns, female students waving immigration-reform protest signs and conga-line cross-dressers with young men in gorilla masks.
Two hours later, Bill and Melinda Gates were ending their speech with her plea to "take your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of others optimistic as well."
And then she circled back in a reference to her own stories from India.
"In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart.
"When it happens," she said, "don't turn away from it. Turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born."
The message resonated with students as they gathered afterward with family and friends.
"I thought they were fantastic," said Ma'ayan Dembo, a 22-year-old Palo Alto native with a new bachelor's degree in urban studies. "Lately I've been contemplating a lot of the same ideas the Gateses were talking about today -- how we have these great tech tools, but we're using them to address silly problems, like how to connect your iPhone to your iPod, or use Uber for a ride home.
"They inspired me to work instead on the very real problems that are waiting for us all out there right now."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.
Bill: "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."
Melinda: "When we strip away our luck and privilege and consider where we'd be without them, it becomes easier to see someone who's poor and sick and say, 'That could be me.' This is empathy; it tears down barriers and opens up new frontiers for optimism."
Bill (talking about a woman in Africa): "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."
Melinda: "As you leave Stanford, take your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of others optimistic as well. In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born."