Saturday, May 12, 2012

Commencement Address 2012

Today, May 12, 2012, was Commencement Day at Howard University, my long-time employer ... and at A&T, Winston-Salem, Tuskegee, Virginia Union, and Claflin to name a few other HBCUs. So I got to thinking, "What would I say to the happy young graduates if I were asked to give the commencement address at one of these institutions? "

What words of wisdom would I impart to them that would enhance their chances of success, knowing that most of them will probably forget most of what I say within a few moments after I was done? What would I say in ten or fifteen minutes that they might remember for the rest of their lives?

I find it difficult to explain original ideas in only ten or fifteen minutes, but then again, originality shouldn't be the primary metric for commencement addresses. Commencements should provide last minute reminders of important stuff that students have already learned, but should never forget. Eloquence will make these things easier to remember, but it's not essential. I recall the video of Steve Jobs' justly famous commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. He delivered a clear message -- "Follow your heart" -- but made it unforgettable by presenting his message in the context of a succinct, but painfully honest summation of his life. So, assuming that most of the graduates in my HBCU audience are black, here goes:

Today is your day. Congratulations graduates!!! Your classes are done. It's all over. Finally!!! No more lectures for a while, perhaps forever. You won't have to take notes because I'm not going to say anything you haven't heard many times before.

Commencement speakers are supposed to share their "secrets" of success. Well, truth be told, commencement speeches are like recipes for stuffing ==> Every cook has his or her own favorite recipe; and all of the recipes contain the same ingredients more or less; and all of the ingredients are familiar to the dinner guests. So you already know my ingredients, but the way I mix them may contain a surprise or two.

Here's my recipe:
Success = Ambition + Knowledge + Courage + Hard Work + Selective Networking
Ambition & Knowledge
I'm sure that your instructors and mentors have encouraged you to be ambitious, to aim high, and to consider unexplored paths.  And the fact that you  celebrate the completion of your degree requirements today shows that you understand the importance of knowledge for achieving your ambitions, whatever they may be. 
  • But here's a word of caution for those of you who who think that today marks the end of your formal studies for the rest of your lives. Please don't take these sentiments too seriously. Nothing will undermine your future success more surely in today's knowledge-based global economies than your failure to recognize the need to substantially expand your knowledge base from time to time. Learning has always been a life-long endeavor, but it has become even more so now than ever before, as field after field is up-ended by the introduction of ever more powerful information technologies again and again and again. So wave your happy goodbys today, but don't burn any mental bridges because you'll be back ... again and again and again ... :-)
Now moving on to my third ingredient, courage, let me say that every graduate needs courage. But if you're black and willing to explore new career paths, you may find yourself confronting an old adversary, racism, whenever you become a pioneer as one of the first blacks in a field or in an organization.  

It takes courage to confront prejudice whenever it appears. It took courage for Dr. King and his brave colleagues to confront legalized prejudice back in the Sixties; and it will take courage for you to confront the de facto prejudice that you will encounter from time to time throughout your lives. Yes, racism is still out there, not as strong as it was before the Civil Rights Revolution, but pervasive enough to disappoint those of us who are old enough to have heard Dr. King's powerful description of his dream and strong enough to defeat those of you who lack the extra courage you'll need to persevere in its presence.

Hard Work
Ingredient number four. I'm sure that all of you know that you yourselves will have to work hard to succeed; but I'm concerned that some of you may not realize just how hard your ambitious white competitors are already working to achieve their dreams. Yes, most of them will have better connections in the workplace than most of you; and yes, they won't have to overcome unfair hurdles of racism. But don't be fooled by their posturing that their success is "inevitable" ... because it isn't, and they know it.
  • I was recently amused to learn about "Stanford ducks" -- hard working, over achievers who seem to float placidly on that famous university's academic waters, but whose feet are always paddling furiously just below the surface.
  • I was amused because many years ago a colleague of mine from Ghana used the same metaphor to describe the colonial British who had made a great show of being unflappable and unperturbed, but were always furiously paddling to maintain their advantages. 
Please remember that our society only rewards a few winners, so most of your white competitors are going to lose, and they know it. That's why they work so hard. And that's why you "black ducks" will have to work even harder.

Selective Networking
The fifth and final ingredient in my recipe for success is selective networking. The old maxim, "It's not what you know, but who you know" no longer holds. Nowadays it's what you know AND who you know. In a knowledge-based economy, what you know provides access to opportunities that are allocated through your networks of associates. Indeed, it's difficult to become well-connected or to remain well-connected if you don't have valuable knowledge that's needed by the other members of your networks.

In a world driven by accelerating advances in information technology (IT), advances that make your professional networks more important than ever, it's good to know that IT also facilitates your capacity to maintain your networks:
  • Most of you probably know that at the present time LinkedIn provides the most powerful tool for managing your professional networks.
  • LinkedIn makes it easy to inform other members of your networks about your past experiences and your current expertise, and alerts them when you acquire more skills and/or experiences. And it makes it easy for you to obtain references from colleagues that can be viewed by prospective employers and/or by prospective partners in proposed projects or new business ventures.  Please use LinkedIn, but keep on the lookout for the emergence of networking tools that are even more effective.
  • Please be "selective." We're not talking about Facebook "friends"; this is your career; so having a small, high quality network of respected peers and powerful potential mentor/advocates is far better than a large network of nobodies.
Example of a Selective Network
I conclude my remarks by calling your attention to a specific example, the well documented cluster of overlapping, high-tech networks known as "Silicon Valley" whose most prominent nodes include Stanford University, UC Berkeley, many of the professors in those institutions, venture capital firms and individual investors, world class corporate behemoths like Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Oracle,  Intel, Yahoo!, Google, and Facebook, plus thousands of freewheeling entrepreneurs -- including current students and recent grads of Stanford and UC Berkeley -- whose world class ambitions are to found the next Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Oracle, Intel, Yahoo!, Google, and Facebook.

When Soledad O'Brien's documentary "Black in America, the New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" aired on CNN in October 2011, its bad news was that there weren't any black high-tech entrepreneurs in the Valley. The good news is that this finding was an overstatement of a painful truth.  The documentary should have stated that black high-tech entrepreneurs existed, but were grossly underrepresented in the major networks. The better news is that black entrepreneurs are now actively promoting their own networks via organizations like Black Founders. Of course the best news will come when HBCUs decide to  play active roles in the formation of networks of black high-tech entrepreneurs in other locations, comparable to the roles that Stanford and UC Berkeley play for their students and their alums in Silicon Valley.

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