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Inspirational Words from B-School Commencement Speakers

As commencement draws near for most MBA students, it’s worth a look back on last year’s batch of inspirational speakers who went up to the podium to send off the Class of 2010. Of all of the corporate executives, entrepreneurs and public officials who went before graduating classes at the world’s best business schools last year, Jeff Skoll gets our vote as the best speaker of the bunch. The founder of eBay turned social entrepreneur recalled the time his father came home and announced to the then teenage Skoll that he had cancer and that “it looked pretty bad.”

What his father next said would stay with Skoll for many years. As Skoll told Stanford’s Class of 2010, “He said that he wasn’t so much afraid that he might die, but that he hadn’t done the things that he wanted to with his life. Fortunately, my father is still alive today, but for me that was a wakeup call and it set me on a mission.”

Skoll, who once dreamt of being a writer, became an entrepreneur. His message to the graduating MBAs was simple yet heartfelt: “Some of you came to business school already sure of your dreams and your ideal path.  Others of you are looking for new ideas, new opportunities, and new paths.Whether or not you have a firm grasp of your future, I have two messages for each new graduate here today.

“My first message is to define your dream and chase it with as much rigor and authenticity as you can muster. Arguably, most all of you are already successful according to conventional definitions, and most all of you will get out of debt quickly, and make plenty of money.  But while you’re thinking about making money, make sure you’re also thinking about making meaning.  Money without meaning can be an unfulfilling life.  All of you entrepreneurial graduates here today absolutely can and should seek both.

“One GSB graduate and friend of mine, Jacqueline Novogratz, is a perfect example of what I mean.  She had been an investment banker, found her passion as an advocate for the poor, and went on to work at the World Bank.  She realized there must be a better way, and with the encouragement of her GSB mentor, John Gardner, she decided to start the Acumen Fund.  Her work now affects millions of people in Africa and Asia.

“Through the Skoll Foundation, which I created eleven years ago, I work with Jacqueline Novogratz and other leading social entrepreneurs who live their dreams by using their skills to solve the world’s most pressing problems.  How will each of you pursue and live your dream?

“My second message has to do with the urgency of time. I recently attended my GSB 15th year reunion and it has left me in a reflective state. Three of my classmates are no longer with us.  I know that you too have lost classmates recently and that they are very much on your mind today. There are some lessons in this for all of us. Right now, it may seem as if you have a lot of time to make decisions that may take you on a path different from where you ultimately want to end up, someday. Maybe you want to be a painter or a singer or an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur, but that job with a big salary is calling out.  You will get to those other things, someday.

“For many people, someday will never come.  It certainly never came for our classmates who are no longer with us. So my second message is that time is more precious than money.  Every one of you has the capacity to get more money.  But none of us can manufacture more time. As I finish my thoughts today, I’d like to leave you with these words from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’

“So, my soon-to-be fellow GSB alumni:  seek meaning, focus on your dreams and begin to live them today, not someday…. If you do that, then the future will be an unquestionably beautiful place.”

On the east coast on May 27th, a few weeks earlier, Harvard MBAs celebrated the business school’s 100th commencement. Before a sun-drenched audience of 901 Harvard MBA candidates, their families, and friends, Sir Ronald Cohen (MBA 1969), cofounder and former chairman of Apax Partners, one of the world’s preeminent venture capital and private equity firms, delivered the annual Class Day Distinguished Speaker address. Noting that interest in entrepreneurship and venture capital was just beginning to catch on at HBS and elsewhere when he was earning his MBA (“Those were the days of big corporations,” he said), he urged graduating students to do all they could to help the causes of social entrepreneurship and social venture capital as these fields gather momentum in the early part of the 21st century.

“The reality is that our brains and skills have never been applied with the same consistency, the same intensity of effort, the same focus in dealing with social issues as they have been in building companies,” Cohen said. “In fact, these same skills are capable of transforming social issues.” Accomplishing this is all the more important, he noted, in a world where the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, despite a rising standard of living. Governments are at a loss as to what to do, he continued, and thus they turn to people with the skills like those held by Harvard MBAs to help them.

Cohen offered the MBAs-to-be three takeaways as they prepare to put their HBS lessons into practice:

  • The value of uncertainty: “Things that are certain don’t bring the prospect of great success or great profit. Only uncertain things do. Your ability and the tools you have acquired here to be able to foresee what is about to happen and take advantage of it is perhaps your greatest asset.”
  • Everything is trial and error: It was liberating for me to understand that however good you are, you may fail, because not everything is under your control. The trick of the entrepreneur is to turn unavoidable setbacks into advantages every time. If you manage to do that, you win the respect of your teams, and you create credibility for everything you do.”
  • The importance of standing by one’s principles: “[People will come to you with deals you don’t think are appropriate.] They will argue, ‘if we don’t do this, our competitors will get ahead.’ But the answer should still be no. Just understand that when you do something out of principle, there’s always a cost to it. But it’s always a bargain in the end. The track record of principled companies and principled management is much better than that of corrupt organizations.”

At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Kraft Foods Chairman and CEO Irene Rosenfeld told graduates on June 22 to “tune out the noise and follow your heart.” In an address on a hot, steamy day, Rosenfeld provided the graduates with a “recipe” for a successful career, sharing broad guidelines and practical advice as well as insights from her own career and life. Beginning with a theme that resonated throughout the ceremony, Rosenfeld encouraged the graduates to be true to themselves as they pursue their careers.

She also urged them to follow the golden rule, pointing out that it is an essential element of good business. “The reality is that nice guys and gals can finish first if you simply treat others the way you would want to be treated — with respect, dignity and candor,” she said.  “You will have many jobs … all of them opportunities to learn and to grow,” she said. “In time it will all weave together to create a tapestry you simply can’t see today, but I promise you, it will be beautiful.”