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Class Day Speech of Lisa Lewin

I’ve been thinking about how hard it’s going to be to walk away from this place in June, leaving behind 900 unbelievably dynamic classmates; my lax sixteen-hour work week; free beer every Friday; biweekly vacations and, of course, endless opportunities to learn. I was trying to compare how I feel today with how I felt on my last day at work almost two years ago. I don’t remember much about that day except that I walked out of the building completely empty-handed, not because I didn’t have any personal belongings in my office, but because I was so deliriously happy to be leaving that I had carried home my things three months before I even gave notice. This, needless to say, is a very different feeling. We have led a very charmed life for two years.

With that said, it would be a bit disingenuous to describe our experience as completely carefree. We were not insulated from the very sobering events of the last two years.

I just finished reading David Callahan’s book, kindred spirits; about the highly successful Harvard business school class of 1949. It reads like an HBS case – which is why I just read the introduction and skimmed the rest. (kidding) basically, it explains how their collective life experiences shaped their character.

Reading it begs the question, what, if anything, will be written about the class of 2003, as we too came of age during a profound inflection point in history.

We arrived at HBS in the wake of the internet economy implosion, followed by a corporate ethics meltdown that together sent retirement savings and faith in the capital markets straight through the floor. So by November, we were confronting a punishing job market where it seemed the supply of MBAs far outstripped demand.

The persistent aids epidemic in Africa gave us the dubious distinction of living during the world’s worst human health crisis since the plague.

And we needed look no further than our own back yard to find a tragic, “abuse of power” story unfolding among leaders of the American catholic church.

Finally, in the second week of September, just 21 days into our Harvard
business school journey, the class of 2003 collectively witnessed a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. And we have experienced the emotional and geopolitical fallout ever since.

The syllabus for the class of 2003 was not for the faint of heart. It more than just the typical MBA lessons, like discounted cash flows, operations management or how many 29-year old MBAs it takes to out drink one undergraduate (although I think we have firmly established that the answer is greater than one).

Instead it served up lessons like, how in an intimately interconnected world, problems are decreasingly isolated and increasingly collective; we were reminded that the phrase “efficient markets” is an oxymoron, and we get daily confirmation that good leadership is an incredibly scarce resource.

So what does it mean that we we’re here at Harvard Business School when the world changed?

I want to pause here to briefly describe the HBS case method for the non-HBS members of the audience. Basically, cases lay out tough management problems. They are not generally examples of great, or even good, writing. They have loads of gratuitous and conflicting information, the protagonist’s motives are often questionable, and various stakeholders appear to assert their interests. Some cases are challenging and provocative. Others are effective as a mild sedative. But we tackle them with an appreciation that the conditions presented are not unlike life. We wrestle with the content and debate each other, in class, everyday, and along the way, we develop this muscle called good judgment. We get infected by the passions of fellow classmates and, occasionally, by their compassion. Above all, we subscribe to an imperative to act, rather than just passively observe.

That’s why the class of 2003 I know comprises, by and large, a group of critical thinkers, passionate, unafraid of ambiguity, and a growing capacity for exercising sound judgment in the face of uncertainty. Call me crazy, but they sound like the kind of people the world needs a lot more of. Demand for some technical skills might fluctuate with the economy, but demand for leadership is constant.

With that said, I can’t predict exactly what will be written about the class of 2003. But if our life experiences and training at all bespeak our future impact, I do have one recommendation for our biographer: start writing now.

June 2, 2003
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