It’s rare that a commencement address rises above the ordinary, a nice got-to-have speech filled with cliches about fulfilling one’s promise. It’s even rarer that a graduating student shows up the official invited speaker at a commencement to deliver a highly memorable and rousing oration.
But it happened last month at Harvard Business School when one of the some 900 graduating MBAs stepped behind the podium and before the microphone.
With surprising poise and self-confidence, Casey Gerald rose to the occasion, giving the most inspiring and stirring speech we have ever seen given by a graduating MBA.
His 17-minute Clintonesque exhortation–without notes–to fellow students and their families even overshadowed Khan Academy Founder Salman Khan who returned to HBS to deliver the official address to the Class of 2014 at the annual pre-commencement Class Day ceremony.
Gerald spoke movingly about a near-death experience with armed gunmen in his hometown of Dallas, and how that changed his life forever. “A strange thing happened as I accepted that I was about to die: I stopped being afraid.” He then decided to “give my life to a cause greater than myself.”
A LAWYER AT YALE SAID THAT IF YOU WANTED TO CHANGE THE WORLD IN THE 21ST CENTURY GET AN MBA
Initially convinced he would become a lawyer, a summer internship within a law firm “quickly disabused me of the idea.” Investment banking came next as an intern at Lehman Brothers in the summers of 2007 and 2008. He got an inside view of the firm’s dramatic collapse. “It’s the story of my generation,” Casey says. “No one thought an institution like that would come tumbling down. But we all saw how fragile and vulnerable any institution can be.”
While at Yale, Casey attended a law school event at which the speaker made an observation that had a lasting impact upon him. “He said law was the instrument of social change in the twentieth century,” Casey explains, “but if you want to change the world in the twenty-first century, get an MBA.” Casey applied, and was accepted into, HBS’ deferred admission 2+2 program, using the two years of work experience to explore options in both social policy and business. He worked for the Center for American Progress, the Cities of Service Coalition, and Reboot, “a design-based approach to innovation in the public sector,” and the latter through Neiman Marcus, where he worked on the president’s five-year strategic plan.
After arriving at Harvard Business School from Yale, Gerald said that HBS “changed who we were; it reminded us who we could be. It reminded us that we didn’t have to wait until we were rich or powerful, or until we actually knew finance, to make a difference. We could act right now.”
ON THE FRONT LINES OF CHANGE
With three classmates, Casey founded a non-profit, MBAs Across America, which is a movement of MBAs and entrepreneurs working together to revitalize America. “We saw the signs for hope in entrepreneurs who were on the front lines of change. They showed us that the new ‘bottom line’ in business is the impact you have on your community and the world around you — that no amount of profit could make up for purpose.”
Last summer, Gerald set out on an 8,000-mile journey across the country with three other classmates to talk to people in “nooks and crannies, and the unbeaten paths,” to discover the interconnectedness of people’s lives, dreams, and aspirations.
The conclusion of his speech was a remarkable exhortation to his classmates, leaving little doubt that Gerald has at least the potential to become the next Obama.