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Class Day Speech, May 2008

This is an exquisite day.

A time that is truly momentous. For almost all of us, it marks receipt of the last degree we will ever earn. It marks the final transition of the mind from preparation to application. It marks a move away from learning about the possible and toward creating it. And so for us, it is a new sunrise. Not the sunrise of countless speeches, not the sunrise that comes every 24 hours, it is the sun rising on what is in many ways a final dawn. Up until now, our life has been defined by rapid and grand transitions. From childhood to independence, from high school to college, college to work, and back again. These transitions will now become much less dramatic and more rare. The march is now toward self-definition and legacy.

It is a profound moment and a defining one.

In my time today, I would also like to discuss my path here, three defining experiences that have transformed how I view this institution, and what they may tell us about the future.
My own journey started in the small town of Rock Hill, SC. Now, there are smaller cities than Rock Hill, but not many. Rock Hill was just large enough to have a part-time mayor and a 24-hour waffle house.

Growing up in Rock hill, I never met a Harvard MBA. Harvard did not seem like a real place. It was a fanciful land. A place talked about in novels. A place where the children of great families-Kennedys and Bushes-went to learn and play together. A place where greatness came to be cultivated. That was my view then.

I had never visited HBS before I came for class. I drove 25 hours straight from Dallas, Texas and arrived only one day before class started. I reached Boston exhausted the night before. I could not sleep until I had at least seen the campus. This product of SC state schools wanted to quench his sense of awe. He wanted to face east to see the coming sun. I drove to the circle, stopped between Baker and Spangler, looked around, and felt like a giddy teenager. That is my first memory of the Harvard Business School. The place that made a 30-year old skeptic feel like a kid again.
And so I came in part because it was the unattainable. We all came for different reasons. Some came looking for a credential, some for a 2-year vacation, some to think more deeply about the world’s challenges and some because this was the only school to realize that turkeys are people too. With all these motivations and inner struggles, we came together and made memories.

I recall, a night at the Kong with a scorpion bowl and spontaneously bursting into song with friends at Newport. I remember seeing 30 grown men, on the way to the Priscilla ball dressed up as Hooters girls, and not being sure which image disturbed me most-that of those who shaved or those who didn’t. I remember the first comment in class and the first pass, I remember walking into my dorm room for the first time and thinking it was a closet, and then coming to the realization that it was my room because they didn’t put airplane bathrooms in closets.

I remember walking across the Charles on a moon-kissed night, holding the hand of a classmate, and falling in love.

But HBS was captured for me in the form of a Japanese classmate. He and his wife had married in a hurried ceremony before coming to HBS. They wanted a second ceremony with more family. HBS was family. They had the ceremony in Webb Chappell. They were married by our section President and drenched in bubbles blown by our section. It was a beautiful and moving traditional Japanese ceremony. The newly weds walked out for a second time into a new day, with another chance to contemplate new horizons. They had exchanged vows about forever. That forever was witnessed and participated in by the HBS community. They wanted us to be a part of their forever. That is my second defining memory for HBS, a place where forever happens.

And now we prepare to go to that forever, to reenter a shifting world. One where political power is increasingly following economic power, and economic power is growing more diffuse. In 2006 and 2007, 124 countries grew at over 4 percent. This is the most widespread growth in human history. These countries have nationalistic pride, political interests and justifiable claims. They also thirst for resources, have citizens determined to move more freely, and have different ideas about the role of markets and capitalism and democracy. Creating a governing infrastructure that can peacefully accommodate their ascension may be the defining task of our generation.

But that is why I love HBS. It is a place where we can find answers to the world’s challenges within ourselves. In a world where hundreds of cultures will have the wherewithal to demand respect and understanding, we have the preparation of leaving a diverse institution where you can take a trip around the world simply by whispering over your shoulder to a classmate. Nothing is assured. If the studies of the Class of 1979 taught us anything, it is that, despite their towering successes, the majority of graduates don’t grab headlines. They live comfortable but unremarkable lives. This is the norm. It is striking how many times greatness is prophesized and how seldom it is fulfilled.

But I have seen us bring perspective to nuance, tackle irreducible complexity with alacrity and ease, and bring deep humanity to seemingly sterile issues. And that is how I know, without any doubt, that no matter how dark it may at times seem, the sun is coming.

This faith in the promise of our class brings me to my third and last defining memory; it is one of the most piercing in my life.

After the end of a student lead trek to Egypt, I went to Ethiopia with a classmate. Ethiopia was one the most endearing countries I have ever visited and I instantly fell in love with it. But one day, driving through downtown in the capital city of Addis Ababa, I witnessed truly desperate poverty. When our taxi stopped at a light, we were instantly surrounded by pleas for help. A woman put her hand on my window. She had the most haunting, desperate eyes and a call that could only come from a soul that was in pain. She was little more than skin and bones and a desire to survive. She had lost an arm. In her remaining arm, she carried an infant who was trying to draw milk from a breast that had nothing to give.

That image haunted me for a long time and it still does. But I have come to sleep easier knowing that there are 900 people who I know can make the world a better place for that infant to grow up in. That is my third defining memory of HBS: a place where sweet dreams are restored.

It is with this new boundless sense of optimism that I reenter the world. Knowing that there are 900 brothers and sisters who can do the unimaginable. Life is not easy. Our lives may not be comfortable or prosperous, momentous or long, but all of these things are closer because of our time together. This glorious time together. Time at an institution that looks much different from the inside than I imagined in the slower streets of Rock Hill. No longer just the stuff of novels, for me, it is the now place of new childhoods, this place where forever happens, this community that restores sweet dreams.

We emerge from this twilight now, into the new world, and this is our SUNRISE. There are few new dawns in life. This is one. Let us be equal to the day that awaits.

September 2, 2008
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