English Course Identification
In 2007, William Henry “Bill” Gates III, the richest man in the world and Chairman of Microsoft Corporation, received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University and delivered the commencement speech to Harvard’s graduating class. Six years later, in 2013, Oprah Winfrey, the richest African-American in the twentieth century, and the only black billionaire in North America, received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University and delivered the commencement speech to that year’s graduating class. In addition to their enormous wealth, both Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are internationally recognized for their extraordinary philanthropic commitments. In their commencement speeches, each of these world-famous billionaire-philanthropists provided the Harvard graduates with definitions of success and each one offered advice to the graduates on how best to achieve that success. However, there were significant differences between the definitions of success and the advice that each of these enormously successful entrepreneurs provided to the Harvard graduates.
The difference between their speeches was obvious from their first words. Bill Gates spoke with easy wit and great charm to an audience that he clearly did not feel inferior to in any way, for any reason. His speech was straightforward, highly entertaining and very instructive. In the body of his speech he was cautiously critical of Harvard students’ limited understanding of the world of suffering outside Harvard’s privileged campus walls. Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, went beyond being respectful and was openly deferential to the audience. Her talk opened with almost embarrassing emotional excess: “Oh my goodness! I’m at Harvard! Wow!” (Winfrey, 2013). The body of the speech maintained that pop-media gushing tone. Bill Gates’s commencement speech was appropriate to the Harvard audience and context. Oprah Winfrey’s was more suited to her trademark confessional form of tabloid talk show.
Bill Gates went to some length to emphasize to the audience that there are important areas of their education that Harvard does not prepare them for. Those areas involve “the awful inequities in the world” (Gates, 2007). He also emphasized that neither the market nor governments address these inequities. He directed the graduates’ attention to their obligation to “find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians” (Gates, 2007). He outlined five necessary steps they would need to take to meet this obligation: 1. See the problem. 2. Simplify the problem to determine a solution. 3. Set a goal on how to solve the problem. 4. Find the approach to achieve the solution that has the most impact. 5. Apply the best existing technology to achieve that solution. He concluded with the reminder that the Class of 2007 graduates automatically enjoy great “talent, privilege and opportunity” and consequently “there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect” from them (Gates, 2007).
Oprah Winfrey had a different message for the 2013 graduates. Her message was about relying on self-confidence, self-assurance, and the conviction that “there is no such thing as failure” because “now and forever when you Google yourself your search results will read ‘Harvard 2013’ ” (Winfrey, 2013). Her vision for their future success was self-serving and self-absorbed. “Maybe you want to make a difference by serving in government. Maybe you want to launch your own television show. Or maybe you simply want to collect some change” (Winfrey, 2013). With each example of what she herself achieved, or what others have achieved, her focus always turned back on the personal anecdote and private self image. She repeatedly emphasized a pop-psychology and mass media perspective as everyone’s primary concern, from sitting presidents to pop-culture celebrities. Her conclusion to her commencement speech returned to that point. She closed with the question about herself: “Was that okay?” (Winfrey, 2013).
The differences are great between Bill Gates 2007 commencement speech to Harvard graduates, and Oprah Winfrey’s 2013 commencement speech to that year’s Harvard graduates. Bill Gates challenged Harvard’s Class of 2007 to recognize the gaps in their education and use their many advantages to serve the pressing needs of the greater world. Oprah Winfrey urged the Class of 2013 to walk decisively and be sure to check the mirror and their audience for feedback.
Gates, Bill (2007). Harvard commencement speech transcript. Network World.
Retrieved from: http://www.networkworld.com/news/2007/060807-gates-commencement.html
Winfrey, Oprah (2013). Commencement address as delivered by Oprah Winfrey May
30, 2013. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/05/winfreys-commencement-address/