My daughter graduated from Oberlin College on Memorial Day.The ceremony took place in a park withlittle shade on a crystal clear day, the kind you get in the Midwest when thetemperature spikes 40 degrees in twenty-four hours.It was sweltering.
But the true intensity came from the anticipation of what liesahead, measured in people to be helped, a planet to be saved, lives to be changed.
Of course, the template for graduation speeches is to remindstudents to remember friends and institution; follow their dreams; and giveback to others.
But Oberlin is different.A liberal arts college and music conservatory founded in1833 in Oberlin, Ohio, it admitted women from the beginning, and granted women thefirst bachelor’s degrees in the country in 1841.In 1835, it became the first college to adopt a policy toadmit students regardless of race.
The town has long had progressive roots as well.It was a pivotal stop on theUnderground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom in the north.Residents’ of Oberlin and theneighboring town of Wellington efforts in helping a fugitive slave flee toCanada reportedly sparked the Civil War.
Today, Oberlin and its environmental visionary, ProfessorDavid Orr, are in the early stages of creating a carbon-neutral, economicallyvibrant community that brings together town and gown, farm and city, today’sneeds and tomorrow’s demands.TheOberlin Project is a beacon pointing to the kind of world we can create if wetry.
So, there was a rich and storied context as Oberlin’s commencementspeaker, Dr. Helene D Gayle, spoke about changing the world.
Dr. Gayle had planned to be a pediatrician but had anepiphany at her brother’s college graduation, where an epidemiologist describeda successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.The speech allowed Gayle to see how her own skills inmedicine could be more broadly applied in a career in public health, providing herthe opportunity to address interlinked problems of poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, and a broad set of inequities throughout the world.
Thus was launched her remarkable career, first with theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention where her efforts focused onHIV/AIDS; then at the Gates Foundation, where she directed the foundation’sHIV, TB and Reproductive Health program; and now at CARE (one of the best knownorganizations in the world devoted to fighting poverty, supporting women, and bringingabout social justice), where she has been President and CEO since 2006.
All because she was moved by a commencement address.
Some Oberlin graduates undoubtedly were moved by Dr. Gayle’sremarks, their futures shifted in positive ways that will be revealed over thecourse of their lifetimes.And yetothers – including those who want to make a difference in the world – are stillsearching, despite the glimpse of all things sustainable, equitable, and rightabout the world that four years at Oberlin exposed them to.I know, because I asked.And because I teach students who arealso looking to create meaning in their lives.
As a professor at the Ross School of Business I teachcourses with titles that are a bit too long, like Solving Societal Problemsthrough Innovation and Enterprise.In these courses, I want my students to see that innovation can propelfor-profit and nonprofit organizationsto tackle some of the world’s chiefchallenges: poverty, health care, education, the environment.And taking these problems on can bedone from a sense of opportunity, not just responsibility.
We discuss ways to dramatically improve health care withcell phones, discarded medicines, and video games.We consider improving education for children in India with”educational Karaoke,” teenagers in the worst Bronx schools by training them asentrepreneurs, and college-ready students in Arica who cannot afford tuition byproviding free, world-class college curricula.We discuss charities run as for-profits, multinationalcorporations working in full-partnership with slum dwellers, alliances betweenenvironmental NGOs and huge retailers who intimately depend on each other fortheir mutual success through saving the rainforests, and powerful means ofharnessing the power of collective action to identify, solve, and acceleratesolutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.
Why do students flock to these courses?Because they hunger to combine theirintellect and their hearts.They cravethe sense of meaning that comes from creating, especially when they find workthat provides them with a means of support and a vehicle to have huge impact.And mostly because they see the worldwith fresh eyes, free from the cynicism that that can come from thinking thatanything that can be tried, has been tried.
The companies and organizations that are forging a betterworld need fresh eyes, too.Thepractices that have gotten where we are – a physical planet in perilous shapeand a socio-economic planet where the distribution of wealth and access tolife’s necessities (let alone luxuries) is more skewed than ever before inhistory in favor of the “haves” – are not the same practices that can lead usto a planet capable of sustaining us physically or providing a secure, healthy worldthat truly creates opportunity for all.
Graduation is both an end and a beginning.It is a time to reflect, give thanks,and seek renewal.
To my daughter Hannah I say,
“Congratulations on completingyour degree. I’m so proud of you.As you take your Oberlin degree into the world, I know we are lucky tohave you joining the fight for a more sustainable world.Lead, take action, and become alife-long student.”(The word”student,” derived from Latin, suggests study, scholarship, and learning – notnecessarily formal education, you know.)
And to students everywhere – whether you’re enrolled in adegree program; striking out on your own as a (social) entrepreneur; working inan organization; or possibly running one – I say,
“There’s never been a timewe’ve more urgently needed new ways of addressing the societal issues in frontof us.There are innovative waysfor business to seek opportunity to serve, rather than acting purely withgreed, frustrating progress, or withholding their formidable talents that couldbe used to create immeasurable benefits.It’s time to see the world with fresh eyes and create a better world.It’s time for us to graduate from oldways, which no longer serve us, and look at the world anew.”
I have had the privilege to teach and learn from “students” ofall stripes who want a more just society: those enrolled in my classes of course; but also those whoI’ve worked with and supported on the ground in inner cities and the farthestcorners of the planet; officials of organizations devoted to a more equitablesociety, whether they occupy corner offices or cramped quarters in anattic; and like-minded do-ers seeking to make inroads against injustice through the provision of clean water, access to microfinance, more sustainable food systems, the elimination of homelessness, to name a few areas.
I invite you to join me in exploring a new world where wesolve societal problems through innovation and enterprise.Let us learn together.