WITTENBERG COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
May 12, 2012
Congratulations, Class of 2012! It’s such an honor to be here today.
I can still remember what it feels like to sit where you sit -- the great relief, the kudos, the celebration -- mixed together with all the packing and poignant goodbyes to friends you’ve forged through midnight study groups, poetry readings, sports, science experiments, walks through Cliff Park...maybe even putting your coats on backwards and walking around with your thumbs up (!). This is your moment. Exams are behind you. The papers written and the grades in. The pizza delivery team has been thanked. And the all-nighters are over -- well, at least until you start your own business or have children! (All-nighters are such great training!)
I hope your years here were as remarkable as mine, and that you will leave Wittenberg to begin an incredible journey that would not have been possible without it. President Erickson mentioned the gift from the high school English teacher, who literally caught up with me and handed me $1,200 dollars in cash and told me to go to college. There hasn’t been a day go by since I left this campus that I don’t think of her and the impact of her gift. So much so, that playing an active role in creating opportunity for others became -- not just my passion -- but my career, one I spent in philanthropy and rebuilding urban neighborhoods.
In many ways, talking about my youth will sound like ancient history. I was born in a time of legal racial segregation and a time when you could grow up never seeing a woman doctor, lawyer, pilot, police officer, professor, or politician.
But I also grew up during a time of great social change -- Brown vs. The Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, bus boycotts, freedom rides, and Title IX.
Forty years ago years ago when I entered Wittenberg, my brother had just left for Vietnam, many of us were still boycotting grapes in support of Cesar Chavez, and if we were lucky enough, we brought the latest technology with us to school -- the Selectric typewriter. Being friends with someone meant you actually knew them, mail had a stamp on it, a social network was a fraternity or sorority, and no one went to college to be an app developer.
Much is different now. But there is also much that is the same.
One of the things that perhaps hasn’t changed is that I majored in English so my parents thought I’d never get a job. (Any of you having that experience?)
But there are other things that haven’t changed. Women are still under-represented in technology, science and math. Legal segregation ended, but we still talk about “low-income communities” and “communities of color” as inter-changeable. Many of these communities are still without access to fresh foods, sidewalks, jobs, medical care, and housing.
My Wittenberg experience, which started as a commitment to “Pay it Forward”, became a journey that took me from the farms of Appalachia to an Indian Reservation to spending 15 years working at the Four Corners of Death (a southeastern San Diego neighborhood controlled by 42 gangs) where I mobilized residents to step out of their homes and build a vibrant village -- with a major grocery, bank, restaurants, jobs, safe streets, and cultural celebrations. Not just building buildings - but building community, with thousands of people working on teams to plan, design, build, manage, and own a piece of their block.
Today, that village is visited by thousands of people every year from all over the world, (including a team from Wittenberg and the Springfield community). It is the perfect place for people who want to leave their mark -- literally -- because they can perfect their graffiti art, and for the more gutsy (like President Erickson) people can test their skills in every aspect of hip hop and urban culture. (David -- I didn’t see your dad doing the Cat Daddy, the Dougie, or the Shuffle, but I can say that he really had it going on with the Electric Slide!)
When I’ve spoken on college campuses in the past, students always ask me: what training did I get or what did I study to be able to do this work? Was it business? Securities law? Economics?
So I want to share four stories about what I studied and what I learned to be able to do what I do. Literature taught me perhaps my most important skill -- to be able to imaginatively identify with others and understand the profound role of storytelling as a tool for social change. But the four things I studied that I want to talk about today are:
- BABE RUTH
- AND GOATS!
CLASS #1 -- TOMATOES: A LESSON IN OPPORTUNITY
Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
From an early age, I was influenced by working in my dad’s business (he was a finance guy and a contractor). But what I didn’t realize right away was how much my business life was influenced
by my mom -- the real entrepreneur in the family -- a woman who saw opportunity in everything and wasn’t afraid of going after it.
Stimulated by a love of reading, I wanted to see the world, but by the time I hit high school, my father had closed his business, and in my small Ohio farm town, there were no jobs. But my mom never told me I couldn’t go to see the world; instead she would say, “if you want to do it, figure it out.”
With a friend, I had spent a summer working on a farm in Kentucky. Before hot houses and the mass distribution of produce year round, farmers had a very short window to get their crops to market. Watching them struggle, I saw an opportunity. Noticing that tomatoes ripened six weeks earlier in Kentucky than in Ohio, I rented a three-quarter-ton truck (barely old enough to have my driver’s license), bought tomatoes out of the fields (2 cents a pound!), and hauled them to Ohio to sell.
Using this six-week window I was able to earn the money I needed to feed my wander-lust -- England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and across the U.S. By the second year, I was able to take this business income to supplement the gift my teacher gave me and get myself to college.
Since then, I think often about what I learned from my time with tomatoes. As a young woman I thought to be good in business I had to be “like my dad” – and I thought that meant to be assertive, analytical, good with the numbers.
But what I learned - was that I also needed to be “like my mom” -- creative, out of the box, unafraid of hard work, and most importantly - myself.
Today, I am grateful that I love proformas, capital strategies, and bottom lines. And I am equally grateful that I love the creative and visionary part of working without a template, stimulating the creativity of working teams, and making people believe that anything is possible.
Comedian and early TV actor Milton Berle once said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”
The other lesson I learned from tomatoes? If you can’t get a job, make one up.
The career path you prepared for today may be obsolete by tomorrow. Think beyond the job. Know yourself, your values, your greatest gifts and talents, your purpose, and your passion. Then proactively build a door to opportunity.
Whether you have your degree in English, business, theater or economics, your career is likely to take you to a whole new place -- a place where you will be called on to rely -- not just on your skills -- but on your instinct and intuition. Not just on your analytical side -- but on your creative side. Not just on your ability to train for a job -- but your ability (as Steve Jobs so astutely put it) “to read what is not yet on the page.”
The great thing about having a liberal arts background is the exposure to the broad spectrum of fields. You have learned to learn. Now it is your job to see how all these fields connect and develop your ability to step into some new place where there are no formulas, prototypes, or boundaries. Steve Jobs didn’t invent anything outright; he was a master at pushing innovation at the intersection of humanities and technology, art and information, beauty and industrial design.
While my work for the last 20 years didn’t require me to integrate hardware and software, it did require me to figure out how to work across disciplines, integrating social and economic impact, community building and commercial development, securities law and organizing, art and the built environment.
I love the quote by Robert Wieder, "Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport."
CLASS #2 -- KIDS: A LESSON IN LEARNING
As the American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler once said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
In 1992, with four multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns under my belt, I was asked to do a feasibility study for a small science enrichment program that for 30 years had been giving children-of-color a jump start in the science and technology fields. This little center had an amazing track-record of success. But the facility was substandard. The program had been in a 2,000-square-foot condemned house for the entire 30 years, and according to the kids, there was a monster in the bathroom! (I don’t know how all the adults missed this, but we did!).
This little grassroots group had never raised more than $80,000 in its history, so when I did the study, conventional wisdom indicated that even a $500,000 goal would be an incredible stretch. Against all I had been taught and learned in 20 years of fundraising, I decided to file the report away and never show it to the non-profit’s leadership. Seeing the excitement of the youth who loved the center, I couldn’t bring myself to be the one to tell them it wouldn’t work.
Someone once told me: if you can’t get it done by the book, then get it done some other way. With Plan A out the window, we moved to Plan B, and 12 of the youth agreed to be my lead campaign committee. It was from this team (kids as young as 10 years old), in a simple team-building exercise, that I learned one of my most important lessons about the psychology of success.
For the exercise, the kids were to divide into two groups, take a pile of straws, and construct the tallest free-standing structure they could build. They could talk during the planning, but weren’t allowed to speak during the construction. They decided to divide up by girls and boys.
As they started construction, both groups’ first attempts failed. The girls sat and stared. The boys very carefully deconstructed and began again.
At the end of the exercise, it was actually the girl’s structure that went four feet in the air and the boys’ never got off the ground. As these kids debriefed about what had happened, the girls shared that when their first attempt failed, they decided not to plunge into rebuilding. And as they examined it, they realized that the way it had fallen provided a stable base to build on and took it up from there.
What these girls taught me was about patience and perspective. When something goes wrong, you don’t always have to tear it down or start over. Step back, study it, see all the angles and possibilities, look for every lesson, challenge your own world view about what success and failure look like. The answer may be right in front of you.
Building on the lessons of anything and everything that went wrong, these children went on to lead a campaign that by standard methodology was not feasible. They were hungry learners. Every decision they made was based on -- not what they already knew -- but on what they wanted to learn. These kids planned a $4 million campaign that went over $6 million, and today a 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art science institute now serves the next generation of youth coming up in their community -- proving that ordinary people are truly capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.
John Eliot, in his work on cultivating exceptional performance, said: “As soon as anyone starts telling you to be ‘realistic’, cross that person off your invitation list.”
CLASS #3 -- BABE RUTH: A LESSON IN COURAGE
When I met Joe Jacobs in the early 90s, he was Chairman of the Jacobs Engineering Group, then about a $7 billion Fortune 500 company and growing. But he had grown up poor, in an immigrant family that helped him get to college. After the company went public, he and his wife decided to give their money away -- to “pay it forward.” Thinking I was on a short-term consulting contract to help him think through his philanthropy, I ended up going on an adventure in risk-taking, working for him the next 13 years until he passed away.
In his office he had a statue of Babe Ruth and the inscription read -- as he loved to point out -- that “Babe Ruth struck out 1330 times.” “When you swing for the fences,” he would say, “you are bound to strike out. Be OK with it. If you don’t swing, you will never hit the ball.”
The longer I knew Joe the more I realized that this was not just a lesson in risk-taking. It was a lesson in courage. When the ball comes at you 90 miles an hour, whatever you do, don’t flinch and don’t back away from the plate.
In 1997, San Diego’s southeastern neighborhoods suffered from wide-scale blight and disinvestment. Gangs were prevalent. Businesses had moved out. In over 30 years, there had been no major grocery store serving 88,000 people. To change those conditions, Joe’s family foundation wanted to help neighborhood residents develop an abandoned industrial site into a commercial project they would plan, build, and own. The area was considered high risk, the site contaminated, and the project not feasible. No developer would touch it.
One day, Joe pulled me aside and told me if he were going to invest in the development, I would have to take the lead on it. I remember saying: “that’s crazy; I don’t have any commercial development experience.” He put his hand on my shoulder and told me to figure it out, follow my instincts, and don’t be afraid of failure. “If this site could have been developed by people who know development,” he said, “it would have been already.
So I took it on, remembering the kids from the Elementary Institute of Science and holding the wisdom of the Babe Ruth statue in my heart. I led the development team, and we began to organize residents, so they would have a voice in the planning and could also use the development to build a resume. The project -- not surprisingly -- was fraught with challenges.
- But when construction companies wouldn’t work with community contractors, we became the construction company.
- When the Public Utilities Commission wouldn’t give us access to the site over trolley tracks that blocked it, we tunneled under them.
- When the banks wouldn’t finance it, we figured out how to use tax credits.
- When residents wanted an amphitheater stage built in a dry creek bed, using the slope of its banks for seating, and the Army Corps of Engineers said no permanent structures in a waterway...what did we do? We permitted the stage as a dock.
Today, the old factory site -- once a 20-acre dump -- is a vibrant and thriving center of culture and commerce that was built like a community barn-raising. Nearly 3,000 adults and over 1,500 kids served on teams to make it happen. It was built by local contractors. It is home to community businesses. It employs over 200 residents. It brings back nearly $50 million worth of business each year. And in the most pioneering stock offering to come out of California -- and the country -- we won the right go public, and the IPO sold out with 425 resident owners.
I can’t tell you all I learned from this journey, but the biggest thing Joe and his Babe Ruth statue taught me was that failure is not a destination; it is a moment in time. And because success is also ever-changing, what will end up being more important to your career than your credentials is your ability to over-come challenge.
As Winston Churchill so wonderfully put it, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
CLASS #4 -- GOATS: A LESSON IN GIVING
Another great quote by Winston Churchill that I have thought about much during my 40 years in philanthropy is: “You make a living by what you do; but you make a life by what you give.”
In the mid-90s I went to Cairo to teach strategic planning methods and as I travelled, I would very often see these big economic projects plopped in villages and abandoned. When I asked why, I got the same answer in every village -- “We never really wanted it. What we really wanted were goats.”
Much of what is given is based on bad assumptions. It is all too often about determining for others what they want and need based on our own personal frame-of-reference. But people have to own their own change -- the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the lessons to be learned. Success cannot be given; it must be earned.
The most amazing gift my English teacher gave me was her vote of confidence, her belief in me. She saw me as important enough to be a link in the chain of support that was given to her.
She didn’t tell me what to do, where to go, or what to study. She didn’t make me sign a contract or loan agreement. She simply opened a door and offered me the opportunity to walk through it on my own. To figure out the rest, to rise or fall, to take my lumps, to prove myself...to myself....And then to pass it on.
The world is transformed everyday by acts of kindness -- both large (the gift of my English teacher) and small (four years later, two people in the University Advancement office took up a collection to buy me my first suit so I’d have something special to wear the day of my Wittenberg commencement)... Both acts of kindness equally profound.
I understand from your senior class president, Jenna Montali, that your class did an amazing job with its legacy gift to the University, leading every decade since the 1930s in alumni participation in giving. Your class has laid out the challenge for all of us to remember the people who helped us get here and remind us that that responsibility is now in our hands.
Wherever you go in life, never forget. Make every effort in your life to build a bridge across the lines that divide us -- rich and poor, black and white, native and immigrant, educated and uneducated -- not because you have something to give, but because you have something to learn about what it means to be fundamentally human. Your life will be richer, our communities more caring, and the world a better place to live.
An unknown author once said, “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”
Before I close, I want to take a moment to acknowledge President Erickson. I know today must be bitter sweet for you. Your son is graduating and will be going off to write the next chapter of his life, and you and Lin close out the final days of your own Wittenberg journey. I want to personally thank you for your leadership this past seven years and for reconnecting so many of us to the roots we planted here on this campus. I know you will continue your incredible work of drawing young people into the field of learning. For that, many thanks.
And to the Class of 2012, I hope you -- as I did -- will continue to be a part of a powerful and dynamic community of learning.
Like tomatoes, kids, Babe Ruth, and goats, you will find your teachers, your lessons, your stories to hold in your heart -- stories that will help you find hope in hard times, keep you humble on the platform of success, serve as a guide in understanding your place in the shared prosperity of the world, and bring you joy in the great adventure of life.
When I think of Wittenberg’s motto “Having light we pass it on to others,” it makes me think of George Bernard Shaw’s line: “Life is no ‘brief candle’. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
So I leave you with these thoughts:
- Be yourself, know your values, and trust your instinct. You have learned to learn. Today’s business environment will require that you never stop cultivating your curiosity and creativity.
- Swing for the fences. Remember that failures are just moments in time and challenges represent the greatest opportunities for innovation and break-through.
- Become a bridge across the things that divide us -- race, class, language, culture, and even academic disciplines -- and know that differences help us see in our blind spots and make us stronger. Teachers will show up where you least expect them, and they will hand you unannounced and even surprising gifts of learning.
- Thank someone today... and remember to pay it forward. You are a link in the circle of giving.
A big congratulations and and a heart-felt thank you for letting me share my story.