When Bill Gates visited wards full of patients dying from tuberculosis in the South African township of Soweto in the '90s, his heart broke, but his resolve was left untouched.
"This was hell with a waiting list," Gates told the graduating class of Stanford University in a commencement address he delivered with his wife, Melinda. "But seeing this hell didn’t reduce my optimism, it channeled it."
Gates’ account of his first visit to Soweto was just one of a number of devastating anecdotes the couple shared in their speech, which detailed the advocacy work they have pursued in the areas of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
They urged the graduates to hold tightly to their passion for innovation and to their optimistic spirit. But the Gateses also pushed the students to cling just as fiercely to their feelings of empathy, an emotion the couple believes is integral to making meaningful change in the world.
"If we have optimism without empathy then it doesn’t matter how much we master the secrets of science," Gates said. "We’re not really solving problems, we’re just working on puzzles."
The co-founder of Microsoft also had some encouraging words for the new grads.
"I think most of you have a broader world view than I had at your age," he said. "You can do better at this than I did."
Melinda Gates talked ardently about her work with prostitutes and AIDS patients, and how she felt at once both helpless and determined to make a difference.
When she first met sex workers in India, she was horrified by the way many of these women -- many of whom had turned to prostitution after being abandoned by their husbands -- were degraded by society.
She said that they could be beaten, robbed and raped by anyone, even the police, and no one would bat an eye.
With the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, prostitutes in India have been able to advocate for condoms, and develop support groups and a network that has helped them advocate for themselves and keep them safe.
The organization has also made significant advances in the treatment of TB.
In the past, $2,000 drug treatments resulted in a 50 percent cure rate after 18 months. Now, there is an 80 percent cure rate after six months for under $100, Bill Gates said.
To be achieve such goals, though, the couple urged the students to seek out the most dire of situations and to keep in mind that they could easily have been into them.
"When were you born, who are your parents, where did you grow up? None of us earn these things," Melinda Gates said. "These things were given to us. So when we strip away all of our luck and our privilege, and we consider where we'd be without them, it becomes much easier to see someone who's poor and say, 'That could be me.' And that's empathy."