Harvard’s Famous Dropout Gets The Last Laugh

Bill Gates spoke to Harvard alumni and newly minted graduates on Thursday during the day’s commencement activities at his old alma mater with his usual self-deprecating humor.

How else would the world’s richest man begin an address to 70 years of Harvard grads gathered in Harvard Yard, when he himself never finished his degree at the prestigious school?

“I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: ‘Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree’,” Gates said to his father, who was seated in the audience.

Gates, who dropped out after two years and never actually graduated from Harvard, also received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater Thursday, as did basketball great Bill Russell.

He started his college education in 1973 but took a leave of absence during his junior year to pursue his future at Microsoft , which he and Paul Allen had co-founded in 1975. Thursday marked the thirtieth reunion of what would have been his graduating class of 1977.

Gates joked that he was Harvard’s “most successful dropout” and that he’d also talked his old college buddy, Steve Ballmer, who did graduate from Harvard, into later dropping out of graduate school in business to join the company. Ballmer, who was also seated on the dais Thursday, is today Microsoft’s CEO and second-largest stockholder.

“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,” Gates quipped.

He also told his audience that advances in computers and the Internet over the past 30 years mean that the younger generation has exponentially greater possibilities open to them in the areas benefiting society and helping to erase global inequities, like poverty, hunger and disease, than his own generation had.

Turning to his theme of charity and of technology as an enabler to reducing life’s inequities, he quoted from a letter his mother, herself known for her philanthropic work during her life, had written to his then bride-to-be, Melinda, on the eve of their wedding: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

The multi-billionaire talked about how he and his wife, who was also seated in the audience, had learned from a news article about how millions of children in the world die from treatable diseases every year that the developed world had developed cures for years earlier. He explained how that realization helped to guide the goals of their charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The rise of the personal computer and the Internet have made it possible to reduce inequities like poverty, hunger and treatable diseases to a degree never before possible, Gates told the audience.

“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 staggering degree,” he added.

Then he turned to his audience, urging them to be involved in charitable work, but also to just spend a few hours a week staying informed by reading on the Internet in order to better understand the complexities of the world’s problems.

“When you consider what those of us here in this [Harvard] 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.”

Harvard’s commencement activities, including Gates’ speech, were Webcast. The video archive and a written transcript will be posted as well.

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