Melinda Gates, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and wife of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, will return to her alma mater to address the Class of 2013 Sunday.
Gates, Trinity ’86 and Fuqua ’87, is co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and helped developed many of Microsoft’s multimedia products. She also served on Duke’s Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2003.
“I came to speak at Duke because I love Duke,” Gates wrote in an email Thursday. “My experience here was amazing, and the school has only gotten better since then....This weekend is another special opportunity for me to keep building my relationship with Duke and I am deeply honored to be addressing the graduating class.”
Named one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year, along with her husband Bill and U2 vocalist Bono, in 2005 and one of the top 100 Foreign Policy Magazine’s “Global Thinkers,” Gates retired from her position at Microsoft in 1996 to devote more time to her family and philanthropy. She co-founded the Gates foundation in January 2000 with her husband. Since its inception, the organization has contributed more than $26 billion to support grants from more than 100 countries.
Gates noted that the theme of her commencement speech is connection, and will explore how technology allows people to forge life-changing relationships.
“Given how today’s college graduates are considered so technologically connected, I want to explore some of the other possible meanings of connection—deep human connections with people—and consider how forging these connections can change the lives of the graduates and the lives of others,” she said.
She added that her message is relevant to Duke students in particular because they possess qualities that will allow them to have a big impact on the future.
“Duke students are talented and motivated to succeed, and I know they will make a big impact on the future,” she said. “I want to point some of that talent toward fixing the big inequities that hamper progress in many poor countries.”
President Richard Brodhead invited Gates to speak at commencement several years ago, and she agreed to speak earlier this year. For that reason, there was not a formal committee established to recommend a commencement speaker to Brodhead.
“I can’t think of a more inspiring way to send our students forth to their careers than to have Melinda Gates speak at our commencement,” Brodhead said in a press release Nov. 27. “A double Duke graduate, she gives us a shining example of the difference a compassionate advocate can make in the world.”
The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private organization with an endowment of $36.2 billion, has played a major role in the development and success of various University endeavors. A Gates’ gift created the University Scholars Program in 1998. In 2007, in conjunction with the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment, it established a $30 million gift to launch DukeEngage, which has become one of the University’s most popular programs. The program provides opportunities for undergraduate students to volunteer in individual and group projects in the United States and other countries.
Senior Class President Elysia Pan said Gates is a good fit for the Class of 2013 as the graduating class has been particularly active and passionate about DukeEngage.
“She is one of the quintessential Duke alums we look up to,” Pan said. “We’re so excited to hear more about her life after Duke. It will be a really electrifying moment.”
The foundation has also supported Duke’s burgeoning focus on science and research, donating $35 million in 2002 for the construction of the French Family Science Center.
In the Gates family’s namesake, the 280,000-sq. ft. building is home to research laboratories for chemistry and biology.
The foundation has also contributed $10 million toward financial aid for undergraduates and business school students.
Some students noted that the University’s selection is a step forward for women on campus.
“As a female at Duke, it’s encouraging to have a woman commencement speaker, and it shows that we are going in the right direction,” Senior Libby Hase said. “It makes sense she was selected given that she is so connected to Duke and cares so much about this community.”
Sophomore Ariana Qayumi noted that, given the recent photo campaign by the Women’s Housing Option about the female body image, Gates will be an important voice for women on campus.
“I could see, though, how some people might see [Gates] as a cop out because of her connection to DukeEngage and the French Family Science Center,” sophomore Ray Liu noted. “But, I think that she is a great person to connect the graduating class to society, specifically on the civic engagement level. She is an example of one who is attuned to what you learn in college and is able to use that to bring about greater change.”
—Editor’s note: the original version of this article, which ran in the Nov. 27, 2012 issue of The Chronicle, has been updated.
Danielle Muoio contributed reporting.