Melinda Gates Just Asked For 1 Thing In Commencement Speeches This Year

Leadership lessons from Bill and Melinda Gates can be found just about every time they speak in public, whether it’s on personal lessons they’ve learned, people they admire, or within the context of their game-changing charitable foundation.

Melinda Gates just added to their growing library of lessons offered via a letter she wrote for Time where she shared what she’s hoping for in this year’s batch of commencement speeches.

Gates talked about the usual commencement address that she has come to love–about the power of possibility, your best years are ahead of you, and the need to dream big.

You know the drill.

But she asked for this year’s crop to step it up a few notches and address a broader, critical context needed in today’s reality. You can read her full letter–here’s the power-packed punchline (slightly edited for clarity):

What I wish we heard more of [in commencement speeches] is what these speakers plan to do to ensure that a vision of the future [of possibility and promise] has a place in it for every graduate.

As much as we like to tell young people that they will go as far as their talents will take them, it’s no secret that the modern American workplace still works better for some people than for others. The results are plain to see–whether you’re looking at the fact there are more men named James than women leading Fortune 500 companies or the data that tells us African-American women and Hispanic women together hold fewer than 5 percent of the jobs in tech.

What has also become clear is that the costs of these inequalities are simply too high to bear. Invisible biases, closed networks, and insufficient leave policies put insurmountable barriers in front of millions of Americans’ path to the careers they dream of. Our society is losing out on their talent and their contributions. And businesses are at risk of losing their advantage in the global economy.

In those few paragraphs, Melinda Gates showed why Bill may have married up.

There has been no shortage of spotlight and discussion about how the appalling lack of diversity in business has reached a tipping point. On the other side of the coin, astonishing research continues to pile up about the importance of diversity–nuggets like the fact that companies with diverse leadership are 45 percent more likely to gain market share and 70 percent more likely to capture a new market.

So Gates took a different tack on making much-needed progress on the problem.

Here’s why Gates’s approach is genius.

Gates chose a brilliant avenue for making change by enrolling a massive influencer crowd–those giving commencement speeches. Think about the multiplicative power of each graduation speaker addressing thousands of impressionable students at a time, speech by speech. Those in the crowd are, of course, those about to enter our workforce and get right to work on what needs to change.

If we can’t or won’t change it, we can influence those who influence those who will. That sentence made sense, right?

The world-class philanthropist (and world-class act) was also smart enough to first acknowledge what is great about the vast majority of commencement speeches–that they are brimming with possibility and calls to action for graduates to dream big, do big, be big.  So don’t lose that. But scope up the context–it needs to be about the possibilities for all.

I have this visual of commencement speech givers across the country reading Gates’s plea and hastily making powerful edits on their MacBook Pros.

Gates also gave specific examples of what change could look like, rather than just a blanket bemoaning. In her letter, she went on to say that ensuring greater possibilities for all might mean role-modeling taking paid family leave, mentoring women (as many CEOs are now doing as part of the #MentorHer campaign), or “insisting that your hiring pools reflect the diversity you want to see in your workforce.”

Melinda Gates chose a wise path to help change the one we’re on. If you’re giving, listening to, attending, or reading about a commencement speech this year, the spirit of her message should be reflected not only in your words but in the actions to follow.


Looking for inspiration at work? Instead of asking how to find it, ask yourself how you lost it in the first place! We’re so excited for you to Find the Fire with us today!

This article by Scott Mautz also appeared on To read more Inc. articles by Scott Mautz, click here.