Campus & Community

Bill Gates to speak at Commencement

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Microsoft co-founder is principal speaker at Afternoon Exercises

William H. (Bill) Gates, one of the world’s most influential business leaders and foremost philanthropists, will be the principal speaker at the Afternoon Exercises during Harvard’s 356th Commencement on June 7.

“I am very pleased that the Harvard community will have the opportunity to hear from Bill Gates on June 7,” said Paul Finnegan, president of the Harvard Alumni Association. “His contributions to the world of business and technology, and the great example he has set through his far-reaching philanthropy, will rightfully put him on center stage in Harvard Yard. I look forward to greeting him in June.”

Gates is a member of the Harvard College Class of 1977, which will celebrate its 30th reunion during Commencement Week.

Born in Seattle in 1955, Gates showed an early interest in math and science, and as a student at Lakeside School he taught himself computer programming. By the time he arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1973, he and his fellow computer devotees at Lakeside had already founded several for-profit companies and sold their programming services to a number of clients.

While at Harvard College, Gates pursued his passion for computer programming and came to know his classmate and future business partner Steven Ballmer (who lived down the hall at Currier House). As an undergraduate, he teamed with his childhood friend Paul Allen to develop a version of the programming language BASIC for the first microcomputer, the MITS Altair. With a foresighted vision of the immense future potential of desktop computing, Gates left Harvard during his junior year to devote himself to building Microsoft, the company he and Allen founded in 1975.

Over the years, guided by Gates’ leadership, Microsoft has risen to become the world’s largest maker of computer software, with annual revenues now exceeding $44 billion. He served as the company’s chief executive officer until 2000 and is currently its chairman and chief software architect. As of July 2008, Gates intends to relinquish his day-to-day role at Microsoft to spend more time on his global health and education work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He will remain as Microsoft’s chairman.

Gates and his wife, Melinda French Gates, created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. The foundation is “guided by the belief that every life has equal value” and supports initiatives intended “to reduce inequities and improve lives around the world.” With an endowment of more than $30 billion, the Gates Foundation is the world’s largest philanthropic foundation. (Its endowment is expected roughly to double in size within the next several years as the result of a pledge from Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.) The foundation currently makes grants totaling more than $1.5 billion a year.

In recent years, the Gates Foundation has devoted a growing share of its grants to promoting global health, with particular emphasis on combating malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS in the developing world. It also supports major initiatives to alleviate global poverty and hunger. In addition, the foundation works in partnership with organizations across the United States to enhance both the quality of high school education and the availability of learning opportunities for preschool children. Among its educational programs, the foundation has funded an ambitious initiative to bring computers and Internet access to public libraries in low-income communities. To date, the Gates Foundation has committed more than $3.6 billion to organizations working in global health and more than $2 billion to improve educational opportunities.

A variety of Harvard programs, ranging across the Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Nieman Foundation, have benefited from Gates Foundation grants and from Gates’ personal philanthropy. Among other gifts and grants, a donation from Gates and Ballmer in 1999 led to the naming of Harvard’s new electrical engineering and computer science facility, the Maxwell Dworkin Building, for their mothers, Mary Maxwell Gates and Beatrice Dworkin Ballmer.

Gates is the author of two best-selling books, “The Road Ahead” (1995) and “Business @ the Speed of Thought” (1999). He has donated the proceeds of both books to nonprofit organizations that support the use of technology in education and skills development.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005, Gates has been widely recognized for both his business and philanthropic activities. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, and in 2005 it named Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Bono, as its “persons of the year” for their work on global poverty and disease.