Long before stepping up to the podium yesterday (June 7) for the graduation ceremony at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Areeba Kamal had a heart-wrenching story to tell. In January of last year, in the middle of a job interview on campus, she received word that her mother–more than 8,000 miles away in Pakistan–had suffered a stroke.
She spent the next 20 hours in a plane, traveling from San Francisco to Karachi, trying to arrange a ventilator for her mother. By the time Kamal arrived at the airport in Pakistan, she discovered that her mother had already passed away. Instead of going to her family home, she ended up going straight to the morgue where, consumed with grief, she refused to recognize her mother’s frozen corpse. To Kamal, losing her mother was like losing a limb or forgoing a part of her brain.
In sharing this personally intimate story with her classmates, she delivered not only a highly memorable and moving speech. It was the most inspiring and stirring addresses by a graduating MBA in this uniquely disrupted year. Without consulting a single note, Kamal spoke straight from the heart with unusual poise and self-assurance. In little more than seven minutes, she distilled the trials of an era marked not only by the pandemic but by the social unrest and divisiveness that has accompanied it. And yet, there was a powerful lesson here as well: the need to embrace radical hope to move forward. When Kamal’s address was over, her fellow students rose to their feet and gave her a well-deserved standing ovation, as much for her words as for her own personal story.
REJECTED BY 29 OF 35 U.S. COLLEGES AND WAITLISTED BY FIVE
Born in Pakistan, Kamal went to a high school in her home country before pursuing the idea of getting her college degree in the U.S. She applied to 35 U.S. colleges, was rejected from 29 of them, waitlisted at five, and ultimately accepted by one school. Her profound hope had been to secure enough financial aid to get the first four-year college diploma in her family (Poets&Quants featured Kamal in a 2020 feature on First Generation MBAs). When Mount Holyoke College came through with a full ride scholarship, Kamal left Pakistan for the first time at age 20. She would earn a degree in computer science, graduating with a 3.93 GPA. After stints at Merrill Lynch as a sales and trading analyst and the boutique consulting firm of Charles River Associates as a senior associate, both in New York, she applied to six graduate schools, gaining an admit from the GSB.
While an MBA, Kamal was the co-leader of the First-Generation/Low-Income Club. Judging by a recorded talk given in front of her classmates after her mother’s death, a disquisition on the censorship of grief that is every bit as compelling if not more so than her commencement address, Kamal is a natural orator who views her life as an extension of her mother’s. “My mother always saw my journey as an extension of her own legacy to do difficult but meaningful things, to make the world a better, more creative, more equitable place by virtue of her life’s work,” she told a Stanford interviewer. “She taught me how to persevere in the face of every challenge, and to use my voice every chance I get.”
During her second year at Stanford, she accepted a full-time position as a product manager at Apple. Kamal’s goal: To explore the role of technology in building greater equity and access across the world.
A MARCH 6, 2020, EMAIL READ IN DISBELIEF
Her speech to the Class of 2021 opened with the day, March 6th of 2020, when she received an email while eating her dinner. It read simply:
All classes would be moved online indefinitely due to the spread of COVID 19.
“I remember reading it in disbelief,” she recalled. “Surely, it was an overreaction to shutter the entire GSB, I thought. Surely this cannot last beyond a few days. Well, I was very wrong. Fast forward to June 7, 2021, and we are graduating as a band of 400 students who woke up one morning in 2020 and confronted the end of the world as we knew it: Our classrooms reduced to grid view on Zoom, our campus swaddled in caution tape, our skies scarlet with ball fires, our cities roiling in pain after the murder of George Floyd, our newspapers brimming with shock after the insurrection in Washington, D.C.
“For me, the realization I was inhabiting an unfamiliar reality dawned a month before COVID-19 stormed our world. In January, 2020, I got a call that my mother—my heart, my soul, my everything—was in the ER struggling to breathe. I spent the 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Pakistan searching frantically for a ventilator, discovered on landing in my hometown that my mother was already dead. I then drove from the airport to the morgue to the graveyard. Then, I flew back to the GSB in a bubble of grief that expanded and engorged and engulfed the entire world around me. Suddenly, everyone around me was also searching for a ventilator. Everyone around me was also struggling to go on.
‘WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SURVIVE THE END OF YOUR LIFE AS YOU KNOW IT?’
“What does it take to survive the end of your life as you know it?
“What does it take to survive change, survive grief, survive a pandemic that wrecks havoc on lives, and organizations, and the entire world.
“It takes what philosopher Jonathan Lear called radical hope. Radical hope means identifying something worth fighting for and someone who will fight with you. Then, taking a million small steps forward against the current of adversity.
“Radical hope means looking past the darkness you have been plunged into to bridge a future so radiant that it transcends your ability to see or understand it, a future so joyful that you are compelled to bring it to life.
‘RADICAL HOPE IS OUR WEAPON AGAINST DESPAIR’
“Radical hope is our weapon against despair, even when despair feels justified. It is something we practice, not something we have. It is the only way, as James Baldwin puts it, to cease fleeing reality and begin changing it….
“I see radical hope as the force that brought you and me out of the jowls of fear and into this amphitheater ensconced in the unimaginable strength that stems from unimaginable strike. The kind of shared bonds that only stems from shared struggle.
“The world we enter today might be darker than it did two years ago. Global poverty increased last year for the first time in two decades with up to 500 million people pushed into destitution even as billionaires grew their wealth.
‘IT’S GETTING HARDER TO LOOK AWAY FROM EXTREME INEQUALITY, CLIMATE CHANGE OR THREATS TO DEMOCRACY’
“It’s getting harder to look away from extreme inequality or climate change or threats to democracy but as Amanda Gorman would say, ‘There is always light if we are brave enough to see it. There is always light if we are brave enough to be it.’
“Starting today you and I get to leave this magical place with more power, more privilege and more practice in radical hope. You and I get to face every challenge from her on now fortified by with this diploma and guarded by this community.
“You and I get to take up every morning for the rest of our lives and ask ourselves, ‘How will I use my radical hope today to bridge the space between what is and what should be? Which injustice will I tackle? Which opportunity will I bring to life?”
To see Kamal deliver his extraordinary speech, click on the video of the commencement ceremony and go directly to 38:25 minutes into the celebration.