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Melinda Gates: What Graduates Need to Hear at Commencement This Year

4 minute read
French Gates is founder of Pivotal Ventures and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This spring is a special one for our family. My daughter, Jenn, graduates from college this June, and my son, Rory, graduates from high school a few days earlier.

Even when I’m not playing the role of proud mother, I tend to be a fan of commencement season — because I also tend to be a fan of commencement speeches. They’re a unique chance for America’s thinkers, doers and builders to offer a more personal reflection on the world as they see it and their hopes for the generation that will inherit it.

I used to think that the best commencement addresses are the ones that leave audiences feeling charged with a sense of possibility about the lives they’ll lead and the mark they will make on the future. But this year, I’m hoping for something more.

You often hear the refrain that commencements are about beginnings — and that, for the graduates, the best still lies ahead. Graduates are encouraged to dream big, bold dreams and to imagine that when they cross the stage and enter the next phase of their lives, they’ll be stepping into a world full of possibility.

What I wish we heard more of is what these speakers plan to do to ensure that vision of the future 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% 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.

When I talk to business leaders across the country about their vision for the future, it’s clear that no one understands these stakes better than they do — and it’s heartening to see more and more organizations beginning to test solutions.

Gathering data is a good place to start. The more businesses know about their employees — who’s being recruited, hired and promoted — the easier it is for them to set targets for inclusion and diversity. Data helps us understand what’s working, what isn’t and who’s being left behind.

Paid family and medical leave is a great example of a policy that is working. Companies across a wide range of industries have all found that establishing a robust paid leave policy can help keep more new moms in the jobs they’re good at. Companies have also discovered that providing paid leave to all parents — men and women — can go a long way toward closing gender gaps in pay and management.

There’s no doubt that every company’s approach to building a better workplace will be a little different, but one thing all of us can do is lead by the power of our example. That might mean insisting that your hiring pools reflect the diversity you want to see in your workforce, as leaders from TaskRabbit and Time’s Up recently suggested at South by Southwest.

It could mean committing to mentor women, as dozens of CEOs have already done as part of the #MentorHer campaign.

It could even be as simple as taking paid family leave when you need it, so your employees understand that it’s okay for them to do so, too.

All of these steps help get us closer to a workplace that will really work for all of the incredible young people about to join it.

Any commencement speaker can encourage young people to live up to their potential. But these graduates deserve more than encouragement; they deserve action. This spring, I’ll be listening with special attention to the leaders whose speeches reflect that.

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