Dear Class of 2017

Every June, as commencement season comes to a close, I look forward to watching the speeches and getting a fresh dose of insight from the world’s most fascinating and provocative thinkers.

This year’s speeches were a little different, though. Many speakers moved beyond urging graduates to live up to their potential and asked them to help other people live up to their potential. These speeches were as much about the world the graduates can create as about the graduates themselves.

Here are five speeches that inspired me to think a bit differently this year:

Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, urged the women in the audience “not to play it safe.” Boys in our society are taught to be brave, she said, but girls are taught to be perfect. We need to stop teaching girls to limit themselves to what they know they do well. We need to start pushing them to let themselves fail. Warren Buffett gave similar advice to me and Bill when we started the foundation. It’s easy to jump over a low bar, but it doesn’t accomplish anything extraordinary. And everyone, girls and boys, should be striving for extraordinary.

Mark Zuckerberg talked about “a renewed sense of purpose,” and he challenged the audience to “create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.” I was inspired by the idea that one’s purpose in life might be to help other people find theirs. Finding one’s purpose is a lifelong calling. No matter how old you are, you can always learn more about the world around you, and more about yourself. And when you see where your passions and talents intersect with what the world needs, that’s purpose.

Patty Stonesifer, who was a colleague of mine at Microsoft, the first CEO of our foundation, and now runs an organization focused on ending poverty, gave a powerful speech about acknowledging privilege. She described her realization that she had paid more attention to the barriers she faced as a woman than the benefits she has received as a white person, which forced me think harder about what helped me get the opportunities I’ve had. Patty urged the graduates to move from “awareness to action.”

Kumail Nanjiani’s speech was definitely the funniest of the speeches I saw this year. But when he talked about his experience moving to Iowa after living his entire life in Pakistan, he wasn’t just being hilarious; he was also proving that the word “American” describes an unbelievable range of experiences, and they’re all important. Nanjiani’s speech reminded me of one of my favorite lyrics from Hamilton: “Immigrants, we get the job done.”

David O. Brown, the former chief of police of my hometown of Dallas, referred directly to Hamilton in his speech at the University of Texas. He told the graduates that, like America’s Founders, they need to combine protesting what they don’t like with service that helps repair it. He also had a practical suggestion for overcoming divisions in our society: “Invite someone home for dinner that doesn’t look like you.”

“Invite someone home for dinner that doesn’t look like you.”

If I could add one thing to Chief Brown’s advice, it would be this: Look around you to find role models who inspire you. Chief Brown is a role model. Reshma Saujani is a role model. So are Mark Zuckerberg, Patty Stonesifer, and Kumail Nanjiani. They are brave, they have found their purpose, and they act. They serve in their own ways to make the world a little bit better, a little bit more equitable, for everybody. They inspire me.

by Melinda Gates

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