For the first time in its 112-year history, Harvard Business School held a graduation where no one showed up on campus. There were no processions in caps and gowns. No pomp and circumstance marches. No one stood in front of the iconic Baker Library to toss a cap toward the blue sky.
Like so many things today, the entire celebration was virtual. Graduates sat mostly in casual clothes in the comfort of their apartments and homes, often away from their own families. But this is Harvard Business School, one of the best-endowed and wealthiest schools in the world, so HBS wasn’t about to let the occasion go by unmarked. No, it was determined to make it as memorable a celebration as any of the more than 100 graduations that preceded it. made the best of it.
Altogether, the school put on 15 different videos, a commemorative photo mosaic, a pre-recorded mashup of pictures and video clips over the past two years, speeches by the two class co-presidents, a joint commencement address by two alums from Africa, a Class Day talk by a graduating student chosen by her classmates, along with the obligatory remarks by Dean Nitin Nohria. Each of the ten sections, from A to J, had their own diploma ceremonies, separate live streams where every single graduate was called out as a slide appeared on the screen with their photo and name for a full eight seconds each (and in many cases, there was even a live Zoom stream of the celebrations in their homes as their pictures popped up).
‘THE LAST TWO MONTHS HAVE BEEN THE HARDEST AND STRANGEST VERSIONS OF REALITY WE HAVE EVER LIVED THROUGH’
Claire Wagner, chosen to give the student address, showed up with her husband, Josh, and their son, Leon, who was born at the beginning of the fall semester and who had come to campus with her when he was all of five months old. She was the first Class Day speaker with a joint degree from the medical school, and the first Class Day speaker to become a mother while at HBS.
Before she dove into her remarks, she kissed her child, handed him over to her husband for his nap, and then faced the camera head-on. She acknowledged that the last two months, moving from the classrooms on campus to a computer screen via Zoom during the pandemic, was the “hardest and strangest versions of reality that we have ever lived through.” She extorted her classmates to reimagine what normal can be.
For an online alternative, it was an impressive show. The section diploma ceremonies alone totaled a combined six and one-half hours for more than 900 MBA graduates, involving five faculty members and Jan Rivkin, the senior associate dean for the MBA program. But the highlight of the day was Dean Nohria who addressed his tenth and last graduating class of MBAs before retiring as dean to join the faculty once again.
‘MY FATHER GREW UP IN A VILLAGE WITHOUT ELECTRICITY AND LEARNED TO READ BY CANDLELIGHT’
Wearing his academic regalia and standing behind a podium, Nohria delivered a heartfelt farewell that was at times intimately introspective and an urgent call to action for this class to become the next Greatest Generation, a nod to that generation that rebuilt the world in the aftermath of World War II. There were moments when his voice slightly cracked, particularly in recalling his father’s remarkable rags-to-riches success story or he told the class the things he was most grateful for during the 58 years of his life.
“My father,” explained Nohria, “has been an inspiration for me in so many ways. He was born in India in the 1930s. He grew up in a village without electricity in a region where summer temperatures often reached 110 degrees. He learned to read by candlelight, yet somehow found a way to get a college education and even study and work abroad. He went on to become the chief executive of a company that worked on electrifying India, bringing fans, air conditioning, electric lights and other modern conveniences to villages just like the one he grew up in. That gave him great meaning from his work as was the fact that his company created jobs for thousands of people. Growing up and watching my father lead his company, I became convinced that when good executives run good businesses there is no greater force for societal good.”
And Norhia recalled his own good fortune as well, retelling his unique American Dream narrative. “I have always,” he said, “seen my life as a series of happy accidents, an improbable journey that brought an engineering student who grew up in India, had never traveled abroad or seen snow, to study and eventually teach leadership here in Boston.
‘I AM GRATEFUL FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM AT A TIME WHEN OTHERS ARE FINDING IT SO MUCH MORE ELUSIVE’
“So I am grateful to that small technical school down the river called MIT for giving me the only scholarship I received which enabled me to start my journey in this country and get an excellent education.
“I am grateful for the chance HBS took on a graduate of that other school down the river and for changing the arc of my life, giving me more opportunities than I could ever have imagined including becoming dean.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to live the American Dream at a time when others are finding it so much more elusive.
“I am grateful for all the people who have supported me during my journey: my parents, my family and friends, my teachers and my mentors, some of whom are taking advantage of this virtual event to join in. I love you all.
“I am so grateful that I had the sixth sense to single-mindedly pursue my wife Monica from the first day I met her. She has been my most steadfast supporter since. And I am grateful for my daughters who bring me immense pride and job.
“Most of all, I will forever be grateful to the faculty, staff, alumni and students who work each day to fulfill the mission of HBS. Working with all of you has been a truly extraordinary privilege, one that I will cherish all my life.”
‘LET’S BE GRATEFUL THAT WE ARE ALIVE’
He urged the students to be grateful for the things the good things in their life that can often be taken for granted.
“Let’s be grateful that we are alive,” he said. “People who are young tend to take this for granted but amid the horrific losses so many families are experiencing right now let’s remember that life itself is a blessing.
“Let’s be grateful that despite the most unexpected interruption, we did finish the school year. You have earned your diploma. From now on you will forever be graduates of Harvard business school. During your time at the school, you read and dissected nearly 500 cases, you survived cold calls, including on Zoom, you completed papers and exams, and you also succeeded in the teamwork required by FIELD and other courses. You have indeed mastered the art and science of business administration and prepared yourself for leadership.
‘GO BECOME OUR NEXT GREATEST GENERATION’
“As you move toward leadership roles, be grateful that you were drawn to business as your calling. There are few better ways to do well and to do good. I urge each of you to do what you can to lead in ways that not only advance your own aspirations but always make a positive contribution to society…
“You, the Class of 2020, are as prepared as anyone to meet the challenges the world is facing now. Go become our next Greatest Generation.”