MOORHEAD - The richest American, a man worth $67 billion by one recent estimate, on Saturday told an audience at Concordia College that one of the world's most critical issues is the gap between the rich and the poor.
"I think, if we're not careful, that divide will grow and grow," said Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and international philanthropist.
In discussing that inequity and other pressing issues, Gates said learning and innovation are the way to solve global problems.
"I think it's a wonderful time to be a student," Gates said. "It's going to take all the ingenuity that all of you have to find the solutions."
Gates spoke at length about innovation, philanthropy and even his initial passion, software, as part of the dedication ceremony for the college's new Offutt School of Business and renovated Grant Center.
Concordia's Memorial Auditorium was filled with 3,800 students and community members, who had to get through tight security to enter - including a check of all bags and coats. Gates spoke for about an hour, starting at 10:30 a.m.
The 57-year-old, pegged by Forbes Magazine's most recent rankings as the second-wealthiest man in the world, briefly discussed what he called his two careers - first with software giant Microsoft and now with his charitable foundation.
Through his work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has traveled across the globe. He spoke about the poverty he's seen in Africa to remind the audience of the divide in wealth.
"They're in a different place, geographically. We have to make sure they're not left behind," Gates said.
After prepared remarks, Gates answered pre-selected questions from Concordia students.
The questions ranged from addressing education and health care to how the billionaire manages his wealth and philanthropic work.
The question and answer session was moderated by Concordia President William Craft. Students asking the questions were on stage with Gates and Craft.
Throughout the discussion, Gates repeatedly referenced how his work with Microsoft helped him learn and provided resources for his philanthropy through the Gates Foundation.
"In my 20s and 30s, I was fanatical about software," Gates said. He described his intense work hours with no vacation. "I enjoyed being a fanatic," he said.
But he knew when he reached his late 40s and 50s, he wouldn't be able to work that intensely, and the industry would require younger, fresher minds.
"I always knew it would have something to do with philanthropy and innovation," he said of his post-Microsoft career.
Gates was introduced by Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, an oil company that's one of the most active players in North Dakota's Oil Patch. He is a fellow placeholder on the Forbes billionaire list in 2013 - as the 90th-wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of $11.3 billion.
Both Gates and Hamm are involved in The Giving Pledge, which has the nation's wealthiest people devote a majority of their finances to philanthropy. It was Hamm's connection to Gates and Offutt's connection to Hamm that brought Gates to Concordia.
The Offutt School of Business' namesake, Ron Offutt, introduced Hamm. Offutt, a 1964 Concordia graduate, is the founder of RDO Equipment Co. and the R.D. Offutt Co. potato farms.
"This, as our students might say, is an epic day for Concordia," Offutt said, and the crowd laughed. "It's also an epic day in the life of Ron Offutt."
"Mr. Gates reflects the Offutt's school's ideas," Offutt said.
Christie Gleason, a Concordia junior majoring in business and communication, said seeing Gates speak "was amazing."
"It was such an experience," she said. "I'm still processing it."
Several people were pleased with Gates' ability to knowledgeably answer students' questions.
"Very good questions and terrific answers," said Tony McRae, a retired Concordia faculty member.
Not everyone at Concordia was happy about Saturday's event. Outside the auditorium, there were about a dozen protesters railing against the business practices of Hamm and Offutt.
Robert Shimek, a White Earth Indian Reservation resident, said there are negative effects from the pesticides used on Offutt's potato farms. One protester's sign read, "Clean water, not dirty drilling. Get Hamm out of North Dakota."
However, like most who attended the event, Craft said he was thrilled about the opportunity for Concordia students to learn from Gates. He said he admired that Gates himself is "so much a learner."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311