Microsoft founder Bill Gates told the National Urban League on Thursday that a child's success should not depend on the race or income of parents and that poverty cannot be an excuse for a poor education.
Gates said shifting the emphasis to education helps in the battle against poverty.
"Let me acknowledge that I don't understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families, and schools and teachers," the billionaire said at the civil rights group's annual convention. "I don't ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can't let it be an excuse."
Gates, who now runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, cited his foundation's work with charter schools as an example.
"We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood," said Gates. "So let's end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it's more the other way around: Improving education is the best way to solve poverty."
After speaking, Gates joined Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, who Bill Gates playfully called his "cousin," for a conversation on education. "He's the Harvard professor," said Bill Gates. "I'm the Harvard drop out."
But Henry Louis Gates praised Bill Gates and compared him to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who also gave away much of his wealth to humanitarian causes. Henry Louis Gates said the Microsoft founder purposely seeks to help communities with large Latino and black populations.
"Not only is Bill Gates a cousin, ladies and gentlemen, Bill Gates is a brother," Henry Louis Gates said.
Though the forum was about education, many could not refrain from talking about the economy and a possible default by the federal government. Urban League officials have warned that failure by Congress to prevent default risks putting black and Latino families further behind economically.
New York City's Rev. Al Sharpton said advocates need to change the conversation about the debt ceiling and get political leaders to talk more about job creation in minority communities.
"The issue is jobs, jobs, jobs, and quality education in our community," Sharpton said to applause.
Rev. Jesse Jackson of Chicago told The Associated Press that the debt crisis was a "manufactured crisis" by political leaders.
"The debt ceiling will be raised. The issue is (that) the floor is being lowered," said Jackson, alluding to new reports that middle class and poor blacks and Latino families have been hit hard but the recession. "The floor is dropping and there are cracks in that floor."
Travis Townsend Jr., an Atlanta lawyer attending the convention, said he didn't think most people are prepared for the effects of a government default.
"How do you prepare for an unknown increase in interest rates? And you don't know if it's going to actually happen at all," Townsend said. "Many people are just trying to deal with day to day anyway."