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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, Entrepreneurs, Leaders

Sage Wisdom and Advice from Selected 2017 Commencement Speakers

Class-of-2017_Image-1As the calendar advances into the month of June, most graduates of the Class of 2017 have already received their diplomas, certificates, or other credentials. This annual rite of passage for graduates includes marching to Pomp and Circumstances and listening to advice from just about anyone who has some to give. While their advice is free, everyone does not get the distinguished honor of speaking at these events.

The list of commencement speakers for the Class of 2017 was diverse and long. They came from every level of government, academia, business, Hollywood, etc. My selected list of 2017 commencement speakers include, Fareed Zakaria, Octavia Spencer, Pharrell Williams, Katharine Johnson, Mark Zuckerberg, Governor Doug Ducey, Senator Kamala Harris, Mayor Javier Gonzales, Reshma Saujani, Howard Schultz, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and Senator Cory Booker.

Many thanks to C-Span and Time Magazine for transcripts and videos of most of these commencement addresses.

Fareed Zakaria, Journalist and Author, @ Bucknell University

“There is, we all know, a kind of anti-intellectualism on the right these days – the denial of facts, of reason, of science. But there is also an anti-intellectualism on the left. An attitude of righteousness that says we are so pure, we are so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea that we don’t like or disagree with. There is no such idea. There is no idea that is beyond the pale. Everything should be within the arena, and should be worth contesting.

We want to celebrate every kind of diversity these days except intellectual diversity.…It is the greatest danger I think you will face over the course of your lives – this ability to close yourselves off into some kind of bubble where you don’t contemplate the possibility that you are wrong.

So I plead with you, not just on college campuses but through life, keep yourselves open, keep yourselves able to listen to, to argue with, to engage with people of wildly different perspectives, even the ones that you cannot abide.”

Octavia Spencer, Actress and Author, @ Kent State University

“Now, there may be a temptation to think that these were the best years of your lives because of everything and everyone you discovered here. But that would be too narrow a vision, too myopic. I promise you that everyone here has been a part of shaping you for a future you could never have dreamt for yourself.

But my dear graduates, let me be frank, the best years are very much ahead of you. And they can be whatever you want them to be. Your work, your life, your weekdays, your weekends, can all be filled with as much meaning as you dictate.

Define success and define your best years by every day that you work hard towards achieving your goals. Your talent and efforts got you here today and that talent will continue to open doors for you. And luck will play its part too. But a strong work ethic is vital and it will get you farther than talent and luck ever could, trust me, I know. Little talent and a lot of hard work!

So keep moving forward. And don’t be frustrated when your path gets messy because it will get messy. You’ll fall and you’ll fail along the way. Wildly. Embrace the mess. Say with me, “embrace the mess”, as Nora Ephron used to say. Get ready for it. And don’t let the potential to fail stop you from moving forward.

Pharrell Williams, Musician, Songwriter, and Producer, @ New York University

“Speaking to you guys today has me charged up. As you find your ways to serve humanity, it gives me great comfort knowing this generation is the first that understands that we need to lift up our women. Imagine the possibilities when we remove imbalance from the ether. Imagine the possibilities when women are not held back. Your generation is unraveling deeply entrenched laws, principles and misguided values that have held women back for far too long and therefore, have held us all back. The world you will live in will be better for it.

This is the first generation that navigates the world with the security and confidence to treat women as equal. You are the first ever. Our country has never seen this before. It makes some people uncomfortable. But just imagine the possibilities.…Be humble, but not too humble. Don’t be invisible.

Katherine Johnson, Physicist and NASA Pioneer, @ Hampton University

“Help people as much as you can. You will do better if you cause people to want to learn. Help as many people as you can because it is not fun if you know a lot of stuff and they don’t know anything. Go as many places as you can to help as many persons as you can. Make it worth their while and it will be worth your while all your life…

Learn to like learning. Enjoy learning. What you know is much better used by other people. The purpose of information is to be used by people. Not to be written in a book to read, but to be used so that everybody that does read it will understand it. Love learning.…You will do better if you cause people to want to learn, want to teach, and want to help.”

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Co-Founder of Facebook @ Harvard University

“Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.…Change starts local. Even global changes start small — with people like us. In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our biggest opportunities, comes down to this — your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose.”

Honorable Doug Ducey, Governor of the State of Arizona, @ Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Prescott)

“Life never goes perfectly according to the plans we have in our heads, and [you may find]  yourselves in difficult situations in the years ahead. Maybe that dream job is feeling more like a dead-end, or maybe you visualized a certain level of success by a certain age and you just have not achieved it. Some refer to this as a mid-life crisis.

My advice is whenever you are hit with those thoughts and feelings, do not stop. Make a decision and keep moving. Today’s burdens may become tomorrow’s opportunities, and you will never know unless you just keep moving and powering through.”

Honorable Kamala Harris, United States Senator (D-CA), @ Howard University

 “As James Baldwin reminds us, the time is always now. You do not need a big title to make a big difference. Graduates, as you begin this next and so exciting phase of your life, I have one request of you. When you get your diploma take a good look at it. Remember what is on it: Veritas and Utilitas – Truth and Service. That is your duty. That is the charge of a Howard graduate. Whatever you plan to do next, whether you want to design the latest app, cure cancer, or run a business. Whether you will be a dentist, lawyer, teacher, or accountant, let your guiding principle be truth and service.”

“…And above all, above all, above all remember you are blessed because wherever you came from — wherever you came from — you now have the gift of a Howard University education.”

Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, @ Scripps College (Claremont, CA)

“So, what is the lesson? My obsession with perfection, the pedigrees and credentials was a long detour that kept me from doing the things I really wanted to do which was change the world. Bravery was the key that unlocked every door.  It has taken me 33 years to figure out that brown girls can do white guy things too.

But today, today all of you, you do not have 33 years to waste. Our world is transforming and it is transforming fast. If you do not step up now, we will be left behind. Please see that the same thing happens with young girls. They are programmed. They are brilliant, they are talented. They are capable as the boys, but they are afraid. Afraid of imperfection, critical feedback, trying something they may not excel at right away.

They figure out early on what they are good at, and they stick to it, and they avoid the more competitive subjects like STEM and computer science. They are not taught to be brave the way the boys are. What can we do? We cannot topple the structures without addressing culture, and culture is a problem and the solution is you. Learn from my mistakes. Do not wait for the perfect credential, or one day you might find yourself looking for a recommendation letter at a funeral.”

Honorable Javier Gonzales, Mayor of Santa Fe, NM (D), @ New Mexico Highlands University (Santa Fe)

“Do not think that all of us here in these robes patting you on the back mean that your work is finished. No. This is a milestone and not a finish. As you built your leadership skills in the classrooms and spent those early mornings studying, and preparing for exams as you dreamed about your future, we have been hard at work out there preparing a way for you.                                                                                                                  

Now your time has come, and not a moment too soon. You give us such great hope at a time in New Mexico when hope is something we so badly need to rediscover…Like each of you, I love this place so much, and I know and believe it is and we are capable of so much more.  In all of my travels, I have never seen a place like New Mexico. The natural beauty, the culture, the food, the art, the music, and the history — the traditions we pass down from one generation to the next. These are second to none. Even with all that, they are still not our greatest resources. I am looking at our greatest resource right now.”

Howard Schultz, Executive Chairman and former CEO of Starbucks, @ Arizona State University

“I’m extremely optimistic, especially when I look out and see you, because the future is not up to them, not up to Washington, it’s up to you.

This milestone in your life may come with some anxiety about what tomorrow holds and you may have questions that only time can answer.

But as a young man, who once sat nervously at his own commencement, I encourage you to always trust yourself and to be mindful of these three enduring questions. How will you respect your parents and honor your family? How will you share your success and serve others with dignity? And how will you lead with humility and demonstrate moral courage?

You are leaving this campus as the best prepared generation in the history of our country. You each possess entrepreneurial spirit, the passion, and the commitment to create the future you deserve. However, don’t stop there. Try not to rely only on what you have learned in the classroom.

Summon your compassion, your curiosity, your empathy towards others and your commitment to service. Give more than you receive and I promise you, it will come back to you in ways you can’t possibly imagine.

Each of you is here today because of someone else. A parent, a sibling, a teacher, a neighbor, a mentor, someone who had faith and confidence in you, like my mother had in me, and nurtured your dreams.”

Honorable Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, former United States Senator, former First Lady, author, speaker, and women’s rights activist, @ Wellesley College

“Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, first President of the Czech Republic, wrote an essay called The Power of the Powerless. And in it, he said:

‘The moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, ‘The emperor is naked!’—when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game—everything suddenly appears in another light.’

What he’s telling us is if you feel powerless, don’t. Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter. In the years to come, there will be trolls galore—online and in person—eager to tell you that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say or anything meaningful to contribute. They may even call you a Nasty Woman. Some may take a slightly more sophisticated approach and say your elite education means you are out of touch with real people. In other words, “sit down and shut up.” Now, in my experience, that’s the last thing you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate.

And here’s the good news. What you’ve learned these four years is precisely what you need to face the challenges of this moment. First, you learned critical thinking. I can still remember the professors who challenged me to make decisions with good information, rigorous reasoning, real deliberation. I know we didn’t have much of that in this past election, but we have to get back to it. After all, in the words of my predecessor in the Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Not long ago, I got a note from a group of Wellesley alums and students who had supported me in the campaign. They worked their hearts out. And, like a lot of people, they’re wondering: What do we do now?

Well I think there’s only one answer, to keep going. Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your dreams, or even your anger – those are powerful forces. But harness them to make a difference in the world. Stand up for truth and reason. Do it in private – in conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, your neighborhoods. And do it in public—in Medium posts, on social media, or grab a sign and head to a protest. Make defending truth and a free society a core value of your life every single day.

Honorable Cory Booker, United States Senator (D-NJ) and former Mayor of Newark, NJ, @ University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)

“I am a person who believes I am in a struggle, as we all are. The beautiful thing that I’ve realized is that we’re all in this struggle together. We perceive that there are differences between us, gaps and gulfs, but we are far more united, far more indivisible, far more involved in a larger common struggle than we know…but I realized a simple lesson the older I get, that how we live our days is how we live our lives. And as we’re chasing after our destinations, our goals and our dreams, it actually is those small things we do every single day that define us. In fact, in truth, more than a big speech than you’ve prepared for, more than a big goal or a big dream, more than the big fight, more than our race, more than our religion, it is our actions every day that define who we are. They define us.

I’ve begun to learn in my life that perhaps the biggest thing you could do in a given day is really just a small act of kindness, of decency, of love, an exhibition of moral imagination, or creative compassion. I wonder about this when we miss our opportunities every single day with just the people around us while we talk big about changing the world or about what’s wrong with other people, but we forget that we have so much power to make a difference.

It was Desmond Tutu who said, ‘Do a little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good, put together, that overwhelm the world.’ We’re not here because of the people we read about in history books, yes, that’s part of the story, but we’re here because of little bits of good, of sacrifice, of decency, of mercy and of love.”


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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