Commencement Speakers Encourage Grads to Change the World

Commencement Speakers Encourage Grads to Change the World main image

In a world where it seems as though everything has already been done, business school graduates have no choice but to seek inspiration. They need advice on how to move forward, make a difference, and simply survive.

Sometimes commencement speakers have just the right words to set graduates on their path – or at least give them something to ponder.

In the beginning

To get off to a good start in life, you need someone to show you the way. Jordan Rose, who presented the student speech at Indiana University Kelley School of Business says, “Winning students are only as good as their champion teachers”. Indeed, professors can have a profound impact on their students. They serve as mentors, and the lessons they share in the classroom can be carried throughout someone’s career.

The mark of a generation

A number of challenges are facing the world, from an increasing class divide to climate change. Many people are faithful to the Class of 2019 in the hopes that it will have the strength and skill to address these issues. Neethi Johnson, the student speaker at Ohio State Max M. Fisher College of Business provided some hope.

“We are the dreamers and the doers. We will lead in a way that doesn’t look one quarter at a time, but at long term sustainability,” she said. “We will lead in a way, where we won’t be afraid to ask those difficult questions, to take those calculated risks. We will lead in a way, where we also give back, where we put our hearts and minds together to drive success outside the workplace into our homes, communities, and our world.”

A call to save the world

While he addressed the entire MIT Sloan School of Management, business icon and three-term Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg wanted all the graduates to understand just how important they are to the future of humanity.

“Our most important and pressing mission – your generation’s mission – isn’t to explore deep space and reach faraway places,” he said. “It is to save our own planet, the one that we’re living on, from climate change. Unlike 1962, the primary challenge before you isn’t scientific or technological. It is political.”

He added that he hoped to motivate graduates to join advocacy groups, knock on doors, and vote because political activism is the best way to get Americans to understand the dire consequences of ignoring warning signs and passing science off as myth.

The strength within

Business schools pay much lip service to diversity and the importance of thinking outside the box. Lord Browne of Madingley, a 1981 M.S. graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business and former CEO of BP, put into words for his alma mater what diversity means to each individual.

“Being different is a strength, while conformity is not,” he said. “Difference is what the world expects of every Stanford GSB graduate. It expects you to challenge the norms rather than to obey them. It expects you to be yourselves and reshape the world.”

Actionable items

Daymond John, founder of FUBU clothing, marketing and branding expert, and judge on TV’s Shark Tank, provided the graduates of University of Michigan Ross School of Business with a “three things” lesson on chasing startup dreams.

“One, continue to set those goals. The only way you will find success is by setting goals. Two, continue to do your homework. You will understand your assets and liabilities. Your assets are what feed you. Your liabilities are what eat you. Keep learning goals instead of earning goals. Three, you are your brand. Describe yourself in two to five words. On Shark Tank, we don’t invest in companies. We invest in people,” he said.

Learning from mistakes

Patrick Awuah was a Class of 1999 graduate of the University of California Haas School of Business’ MBA program. He came to Haas with the goal of developing a university in his home nation of Ghana to educate his people and help lift the country. He began planning as a student, and classmates, professors, and administrators continue to help him today. Now, he is the founder and president of Ashesi University in Ghana.

Truly, Awuah wanted grads to comprehend the importance of struggle and how that will shape them as leaders. “Be willing to accept the lessons that your work and life will teach you moving forward,” he said. “You will soar. You will stumble sometimes, but you will recover stronger and wiser.”

Fail fast and often

Not surprisingly, failure was a theme often visited at commencement 2019. Jonathan Gray, president and COO of the asset management firm Blackstone Group, told the University of Pennsylvania's The Wharton School graduates that the failure, humiliation, and rejection he experienced as an aspiring high school basketball player, and when trying to date his now wife served him well.

“We’re all given gifts in life,” said Gray. “Some, like a Wharton degree and the opportunity it offers, are obvious. But others we can’t see clearly at the time. These are hidden gifts and what we do with them make all the difference.” For him, those failures provided a competitive drive and desire to prove himself over and over again.

Regaining trust

One of the greatest challenges for business graduates is getting people to believe in them again. Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria called on graduates to take action.

“We’re relying on you to restore society’s trust in business and its leaders,” he said. “People are inspired by those who demonstrate courage, people who are more interested in others than themselves, by those who are motivated by a cause that is larger than their own organizations.”

Never give up

Sure, this may sound like a cliché. However, the speakers of 2019 are telling graduates to go for moonshots, to save the planet, to change the world. That kind of challenge requires leaders with guts and a thick skin. Sometimes, even they need a reminder to just keep going.

“The sky isn’t the limit,” said Astronaut Sandra Magnus, who spoke at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business commencement. “Trust me, I know.”

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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