Commencement: Innovation for a Better World

My daughter graduated from Oberlin College on Memorial Day.  The ceremony took place in a park with little shade on a crystal clear day, the kind you get in the Midwest when the temperature spikes 40 degrees in twenty-four hours.  It was sweltering.

 

But the true intensity came from the anticipation of what lies ahead, measured in people to be helped, a planet to be saved, lives to be changed.

 

Of course, the template for graduation speeches is to remind students to remember friends and institution; follow their dreams; and give back to others. 

 

But Oberlin is different.  A liberal arts college and music conservatory founded in 1833 in Oberlin, Ohio, it admitted women from the beginning, and granted women the first bachelor's degrees in the country in 1841.  In 1835, it became the first college to adopt a policy to admit students regardless of race. 

 

The town has long had progressive roots as well.  It was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom in the north.  Residents' of Oberlin and the neighboring town of Wellington efforts in helping a fugitive slave flee to Canada reportedly sparked the Civil War.

 

Today, Oberlin and its environmental visionary, Professor David Orr, are in the early stages of creating a carbon-neutral, economically vibrant community that brings together town and gown, farm and city, today's needs and tomorrow's demands.  The Oberlin Project is a beacon pointing to the kind of world we can create if we try.

 

So, there was a rich and storied context as Oberlin's commencement speaker, Dr. Helene D Gayle, spoke about changing the world. 

 

Dr. Gayle had planned to be a pediatrician but had an epiphany at her brother's college graduation, where an epidemiologist described a successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.  The speech allowed Gayle to see how her own skills in medicine could be more broadly applied in a career in public health, providing her the opportunity to address interlinked problems of poverty, lack of affordable health care, and a broad set of inequities throughout the world. 

 

Thus was launched her remarkable career, first with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where her efforts focused on HIV/AIDS; then at the Gates Foundation, where she directed the foundation's HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program; and now at CARE (one of the best known organizations in the world devoted to fighting poverty, supporting women, and bringing about 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's remarks, their futures shifted in positive ways that will be revealed over the course of their lifetimes.  And yet others - including those who want to make a difference in the world - are still searching, despite the glimpse of all things sustainable, equitable, and right about the world that four years at Oberlin exposed them to.  I know, because I asked.  And because I teach students who are also looking to create meaning in their lives.

 

As a professor at the Ross School of Business I teach courses with titles that are a bit too long, like Solving Societal Problems through Innovation and Enterprise.  In these courses, I want my students to see that innovation can propel for-profit and nonprofit organizations to tackle some of the world's chief challenges: poverty, health care, education, the environment.  And taking these problems on can be done from a sense of opportunity, not just responsibility. 

 

We discuss ways to dramatically improve health care with cell 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 as entrepreneurs, and college-ready students in Arica who cannot afford tuition by providing free, world-class college curricula.  We discuss charities run as for-profits, multinational corporations working in full-partnership with slum dwellers, alliances between environmental NGOs and huge retailers who intimately depend on each other for their mutual success through saving the rainforests, and powerful means of harnessing the power of collective action to identify, solve, and accelerate solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.

 

Why do students flock to these courses?  Because they hunger to combine their intellect and their hearts.  They crave the sense of meaning that comes from creating, especially when they find work that provides them with a means of support and a vehicle to have huge impact.  And mostly because they see the world with fresh eyes, free from the cynicism that that can come from thinking that anything that can be tried, has been tried.

 

The companies and organizations that are forging a better world need fresh eyes, too.  The practices that have gotten where we are - a physical planet in perilous shape and a socio-economic planet where the distribution of wealth and access to life's necessities (let alone luxuries) is more skewed than ever before in history in favor of the "haves" - are not the same practices that can lead us to a planet capable of sustaining us physically or providing a secure, healthy world that 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 completing your degree. I'm so proud of you.  As you take your Oberlin degree into the world, I know we are lucky to have you joining the fight for a more sustainable world.  Lead, take action, and become a life-long student."  (The word "student," derived from Latin, suggests study, scholarship, and learning - not necessarily formal education, you know.)

 

And to students everywhere - whether you're enrolled in a degree program; striking out on your own as a (social) entrepreneur; working in an organization; or possibly running one - I say, 


"There's never been a time we've more urgently needed new ways of addressing the societal issues in front of us.  There are innovative ways for business to seek opportunity to serve, rather than acting purely with greed, frustrating progress, or withholding their formidable talents that could be 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 old ways, which no longer serve us, and look at the world anew."

 

I have had the privilege to teach and learn from "students" of all stripes who want a more just society: those enrolled in my classes of course; but also those who I've worked with and supported on the ground in inner cities and the farthest corners of the planet;  officials of organizations devoted to a more equitable society, whether they occupy corner offices or cramped quarters in an attic; 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 we solve societal problems through innovation and enterprise.   Let us learn together.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Gordon published on June 1, 2011 12:51 PM.

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