What tech leaders are telling 2014 graduates

Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg gave their best advice to grads.

Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, delivered a commencement speech at Stanford University on June 15. Credit: Getty Images

Given the ubiquity of technology, university graduates who have the opportunity to hear leaders of the field speak at their commencement ceremonies often feel inspired as they embark on their post-college journeys.

Several big-name tech leaders offered their best advice to the class of 2014.

Some of the most noteworthy commencement speakers this year include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda; Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the user-generated social networking website Reddit; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. Here’s a look at what each speaker had to say.

Bill and Melinda Gates: You can make a difference

Addressing Stanford University on June 15 with his wife, Melinda, Bill Gates opened up about his personal experiences working with the sick and impoverished in South Africa and India. At first, it was his mission in the 1990s to democratize technology, but an eye-opening trip to South Africa in which he saw the dire the living conditions made him reprioritize.

Diseases like multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and AIDS are endemic in places like South Africa, and good health care is hard to come by. But talking to people in the community and witnessing these conditions firsthand didn’t cause Gates to shrug his shoulders and walk away; it fueled his philanthropic passion.

“This was hell with a waiting list,” he said. “But seeing hell didn’t reduce my optimism; it channeled 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.’”

Gates worked with a team of experts to develop a new TB drug regime, which now has an 80 to 90 percent cure rate after six months, and it costs $100. The previous drug regime had a 50 percent cure rate after 18 months and cost $2,000.

“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,” Gates said. “We absolutely can.”

Alexis Ohanian: ‘We’re all just hacking it’    

Ohanian’s speech at Carthage College on May 25 was honest and stripped of the pretension that graduates should focus on changing the world.

He opened up about what it was like to be scoffed at by a Yahoo executive who had invited him to Silicon Valley to discuss Reddit when it was a brand-new startup.

“Anytime you learn or do something new, you’re probably going to fail. You’re probably going to suck at it,” he said. “Everyone starts out bad at doing stuff. That’s OK. It’s a process; that’s what life is. It’s time spent alternating between success and failure. You can’t have one without the other. The sooner you become comfortable with this, the better.”

He told graduates to constantly think and challenge themselves, but to not stress out about whether they’re on the “right” path.

“We’re all just hacking it,” he said. “Anyone who claims to have it all figured out is just lying. Every single one of us is just as clueless, is just as curious, is just as insecure about what they’re gonna do themselves. There’s no blueprint.”

Sheryl Sandberg: Ignore self-doubt

Sandberg told graduates of City Colleges of Chicago on May 3 that subscribing to self-doubt will only hurt them, which she has learned through various life experiences.

“Over my many years in school and the workforce, I have seen so many people hold themselves back,” she said.

But banishing self-doubt and taking a leap of faith opens boundless opportunities, Sandberg said.

“I’ve seen over and over how much self-belief drives outcomes. And that’s why I force myself to sit at the table, even when I am not sure I belong there — and yes, this still happens to me.

“And when I’m not sure anyone wants my opinion, I take a deep breath and speak up anyway,” she concluded.

Megan Anderle
Megan Anderle is a journalist based in northern New Jersey who writes about technology, business, and sustainability. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Forbes, and The Record.
Megan Anderle
Tags: Downtime,Education,Industries,Leadership,Tech Culture
  • lewtag

    Sometimes facts of reality just overcome fantasy….take the loss of all the international HIV researchers on the plane crash last week in Ukraine….mmm/?????….let me see all the positive prosperity speakers spin that one into their pie in the sky….

  • Christine Judy

    Yes, good old Bill, letting go of 18,000 US employees… I’m sure will be hiring H1-B visas in the near future… I can’t tell you how many personal stories I’ve heard from people who are being let go and training the foreigner that will be taking their job. Proud of you Bill, you’re a good old US citizen. (cough)

  • Doug Lynn

    The root of humanity’s problems are spiritual depravity. All the money, all the medicine and all the technology in the world will not fix people that are self destructive or people that think stealing from or killing others will make their lives better.

  • gn

    The guy has been giving away his wealth for 10 years plus. I didn’t no he was to the left.
    Also would you be willing to pay more for his product if it was made in America?

  • Jack Handy

    No its not. it’s shameful self-promotion of her book. And your take on her message is exactly what Ohanian is saying, just without the rhetoric.