Melinda French Gates Offers Guidance to Stanford Graduates on Managing Life’s Transitions During Commencement Speech

Melinda French Gates speaking at the commencement ceremony at Stanford University on Sunday. (Stanford University / Andrew Brodhead)

In her commencement speech at Stanford University on Sunday morning, Melinda French Gates got personal and philosophical.

French Gates acknowledged the big step the Stanford grads were taking — which included her daughter, Phoebe Gates, who earned her undergraduate degree.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about transitions,” French Gates told the 20,000-person crowd.

That includes her divorce three years ago from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and last month leaving her role at the Gates Foundation, which she helped launch 25 years ago, to pursue her own philanthropic efforts with a focus on family issues and women’s reproductive rights.

Referencing the spiritual leader Ram Dass, French Gates recounted a story about a big wave who feared being destroyed upon crashing into the shore, but was reassured by a wiser, smaller wave that it had nothing to fear because they were not waves, but water.

“It captures what it’s like to experience an enormous transition without losing the core of who you are. I turned 60 this year, and you don’t get to be my age without navigating all kinds of transitions,” she said.

Melinda French Gates at Stanford University’s graduation. (Stanford University / Andrew Brodhead)

She advised the students that they would survive tough changes, and what mattered most is not enduring them, but what you do after as a result.

“I’ve learned that the next day is when the real work begins,” she said. “Because what we do the next day is what makes us who we are.”

French Gates offered three lessons for the graduates to take with them.

Sit with the transition rather than race to the next challenge. French Gates said that while the Gates Foundation’s initial focus was on vaccines, she realized through conversations with the people and women they were aiding that contraceptives were hugely transformative, and she shifted course to emphasize that work.

“I learned how much society benefits when women are able to make their own decisions, control their own resources, and direct their own futures,” French Gates said, earning her a round of applause.

She advised the students to keep an open mind about where their careers and lives take them, to remember that they’re “water” and not defined by one path and one identity.

Find “small waves” to help you on your journey, and be a small wave for others. French Gates shared a story of her experience working at Microsoft where she was only woman in her hiring class of MBAs. While she initially loved the job, the brash, aggressive culture was wearing her down and she thought of quitting.

A friend and colleague named Charlotte helped her find her way.

“She’d already figured out how to navigate the culture there without losing her own identity,” French Gates said. “Having Charlotte in my life made it possible for me to imagine a future at Microsoft, also.”

Melinda French Gates addresses Stanford University’s 2024 graduating class, which included her daughter, Phoebe Gates. (Stanford University / Andrew Brodhead)

Build a web of deserved trust. Referencing a concept from the late Charlie Munger, a vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, French Gates advised the graduates to work towards creating a society in which people can rely on each other for support and in working towards a greater good.

That includes personal relationships as well, and French Gates shared a story about a close friend whom she comforted when her young husband died of cancer. That friend in turn helped French Gates bear her grief when she ended her marriage after 27 years.

“Yes, you are graduating into a broken world, but it is community that rebuilds things,” French Gates said. “You’ve already started building that community here, and together is how you’ll make the broken things whole again.”

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