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Class Day Essay Finalists – Richard Pole

Whakarongo mai, whakarongo mai.
Te mihi tuatahi ki ti atua.
Te mihi tuarua ki a matou kaiwhakahaere.
Te mihi tuatoru ki a tatou.
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou e hoa ma.

My greeting hails, as I do, from deep in the South Pacific – a small, and some would say insignificant nation called New Zealand. A place that I am proud to call my home. Like many of you I came a great distance to take my seat at Harvard Business School, and believe me there have been many hours when I have lain awake at night trying to explain to myself what on earth I was doing here.

I have heard senior faculty refer to HBS as the Westpoint of Capitalism – which I agree is a cute way of thinking about it. The same faculty though would I am sure deny that HBS is any sort of ‘boot camp’ – and here I would have to push back. The first year of the program was for me, and I’m sure for many of you too, ‘hard yacker’ (as we would say in New Zealand). Endless cases, new material, relentless pressure to say something intelligent in class, and the ruthless recruiting machine. The low point for me was Thanksgiving Weekend. I finally succumbed to the unspoken recruitment pressure and in a fit of madness grabbed a pair of clippers and shaved off my dreadlocks. I emerged back onto HBS campus like a newly shorn sheep, blinking in the dull November light. My redundant hair I ceremoniously packaged up and sent to my mother in New Zealand. This was also the first and only time that I have forged Dean Light’s signature. Included with the hair was a note that read: “Dear Mrs Pole, we have finally subdued your son for long enough to give him a decent haircut. Now we will endeavour to find him a job. We will be finished with him in June 08, when his transformation will be complete – signed Dean Light, Harvard Business School.”

It was not until I was spat out the other end of an incredibly unfruitful ‘dedicated interview week’ that I had the glimmerings of a personal epiphany. My epiphany came to me as I was walking back to campus through the John F Kennedy memorial park. For that reason, please allow me to express my epiphany by way of a misquote from that great American President: Ich bin nicht ein Frankfurter. I am not a sausage. And HBS is not a sausage factory.

The 12 months that have followed that epiphany have, I believe, been characterized by me increasingly ‘getting over myself’. Instead I have enthusiastically embraced the learning opportunities that HBS presents us with. My HBS education has taken me from the fundamentals of the required curriculum to the delicate specifics of Professor Porter’s Healthcare Immersion Program. From a summer internship managing healthcare delivery in The Bronx, to a field study in the villages of Uganda.

As quaint as it may sound this place has changed me – and changed me for the better.

My story is, of course, completely exportable. Many of you have a similar story to tell. You may have come from even further afield. You may have completed this Harvard MBA in a language that isn’t your own. Many of you from other parts of the US will have felt as dislocated as I did when you first arrived in Boston. And even those of you who call the great state of Massachusetts home have grappled with the HBS experience, albeit right here in your own backyard.

Despite our geographic diversity. Despite our differing world views, our differences in political opinion. Despite our different cultural backgrounds, and the diversity of our religious convictions, there is something that will now always unite us.

We are the HBS Centennial Class of 2008. And just as they said we would we have made it. We are graduating back into the world. We are primed with new knowledge, new skills. We are full of promise. And now the challenge ahead of us is not only to convert that potential into action. Not just to go forth and make a difference – but to go forth and make a positive difference.

Which begs the question – how exactly does one do that? What did we learn here that enables us to make a positive difference? Why did we put ourselves, and our partners and families, through the intensity and pressure of the Harvard MBA?

Tough questions. Hard to answer. But even a simpler question like “what is the most important thing you have learnt here at HBS?” presents a myriad of differing responses depending on who you ask. For instance, I still don’t know exactly what a hedge fund is – but I’ve learnt that people who work for them are a good source of fundraising.

If I asked one of you, my far more learned colleagues, “what is the most important thing you have learnt here at HBS?” you might discuss the merits of the Sharpe Ratio, or the benefits of Pareto Optimization, or the perhaps the subtle beauty of the Efficient Frontier. But to be honest, I would be far more interested in hearing what you have learnt about yourself.

And even more importantly, in these classrooms adorned by the flags of hundreds of nations, tell me what you’ve learned about the people around you. Tell me about the Melissas, the Joeys, the Pedros that you have met, here at HBS.

One universal truth that is increasingly apparent is that the skills and knowledge that we have acquired in business and management will be practiced and applied in a social context. The 900 classmates we are graduating with have 6 billion brothers and sisters around the world. The decisions you make in Boston, New York and London in the years ahead, will have effects that will eventually be felt around the world by people that you don’t know, but who are just like Melissa, and Joey and Pedro.

Surely, the most important thing we have learnt here at the Westpoint of Capitalism is not just how to create value, but how to share it. Not just how to access markets, but how to make markets accessible. Not just how to make a decent profit decently, but how to empower others to do the same.

In years ahead, it may be easy for principles to blur. Our diversity, as outlined above, makes it difficult to prescribe a one size fits all guiding message. But if you asked me to put my neck out I would say that in my opinion, the most important thing we have learnt here at HBS is an appreciation and a compassion for humanity.

When writing this speech, I found inspiration in a saying from my home country. It is a saying, which I think transcends diversity, and reminds us that at the end of the day we are all in this together.

The saying goes like this:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
Maku a ki atu. He tangata. He tangata. He tangata.

If you were to ask me – what is the most important thing in this world? – I would tell you: it is people, it is people, it is people.

May 5, 2008
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