Charles Henry Fowler once said, “The best teachers of humanity are the lives of great men.” These great men and women, if only for a few minutes, have stood in front of fresh college graduates, providing them with lessons learned and advice as they proceed to another phase in life.
In recent years, alongside the growing demand for social entrepreneurship education, those who have stood in front of graduating students include social entrepreneurs – the very people whose work is for humanity.
The graduating class of 2013 will also get their chance to hear from leaders in social entrepreneurship. On Saturday, for example, Presidio Graduate School will invite Cheryl Dorsey, the president of the pioneering social entrepreneur funding organization Echoing Green, to give a speech to the new MBA, MPA, and Dual Degree program graduates.
What wisdom she will share is up for speculation, but in the meantime, here are 5 past graduation speeches delivered by social entrepreneurs.
1. Jim Fruchterman, Saint Mary’s College of California – 2012
Fruchterman is the founder of Benetech, a social enterprise using technology innovation to solve unmet social needs. He spoke about his own failures – five companies to be exact – as well as a prized success story – a reading machine for the blind that could scan any document and turn it into a text file.
The machine wouldn’t make “boatloads of money” and being in Silicon Valley, venture capital investors do the same to any other product that wouldn’t make money, “drop it like a red hot potato”. So Fruchterman’s lawyer advised him to start his own nonprofit company, which today is a social enterprise. He took the advice thinking he would do it for a year and go back to profit-making ventures. But that was over 20 years ago.
Fruchterman’s three main ideas are: fail early, fast, and often, treat the people around you as the most important asset in your life, and do triple the amount of good for others as you could ever imagine receiving back.
2. Jacqueline Novogratz, Gettysburg College – 2012
Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder of Acumen (previously Acumen Fund), a nonprofit global venture fund. She reveals a bit about her story as told in The Blue Sweater. After college she wanted to take some time off before going into the real world, but her mom convinced her to at least go through the college interviewing process. At that point, all she wanted to do was to know and travel the world. Her first interview was with Chase Manhattan Bank. She stumbled into the job after learning that it was an opportunity to learn about the world.
It turned out that she loved being a banker – especially the idea of investing money into entrepreneurs and seeing their ideas turn into jobs and things of beauty. What bugged her was that the poor were always left out as banks thought they were too risky and difficult. She had heard of the idea of microfinance and thought she would replicate the idea in Africa. So she quit her job and went to Rwanda, and ended up starting the country’s first microfinance bank.
“I tell you these stories because there will be moments in your life when you have to make those hard decisions that can only come from listening to the deepest part of yourself. And you will certainly have those moments if you decide to venture out and try to do something few have ever done. I don’t say this lightly. I personally know it comes at a price. You will find that people might not always understand you. You might even close off certain relationships. But in paying that price, you will discover who you really are and what you are capable of doing. And of course that journey of change and self discovery comes with a high risk of falling flat on your face, repeatedly. I have fallen down and gotten up more times than I can say. But as the great American philosopher John Wayne used to say: life is about getting up one more time than you’ve been knocked down.”
3. Muhammad Yunus, Duke University – 2010
In the era of social networks and mobile apps, Muhammad Yunus reminds new graduates that in this generation, they have technology at their disposal. What they decide to do with that technology –make lots of money or change the world – will be their choice. As graduates of Duke University, Yunus adds that they are a lucky bunch, because they have the privilege of education unlike millions others around the world who are just as bright and creative, but lacking an opportunity.
Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank story is not an unfamiliar one. What started as a small idea to lend loans to poor women has turned into a worldwide, game-changing idea that recognizes poor people as creditworthy, capable individuals. Yunus points out that gaps exist all around, and that he simply looked at what the problems were around him.
“Each human being has the enormous power to change the world. Are you going to use that to change the world? That’s the question.”
For students who have had the chance at education, there’s no reason why they would fare less well than the women of Grameen Bank, he adds.
4. Anna Meloto-Wilk, Entrepreneurs School of Asia – 2012
Anna Meloto-Wilk is the co-founder of a Philippines-based social enterprise called Gandang Kalikasan that markets its natural personal care products under the brand Human Nature. With one parent a prominent social entrepreneur in the Philippines, Meloto-Wilk had unique experiences growing up. At age 16, she went to a youth camp at a slum where she met another teenager who, apart from spending days stealing food and nights working the streets as a prostitute rather than attending school, was just like herself. Meloto-Wilk explains that this “life-changing” experience led her to realize that people are equals and everybody deserves dignity and respect.
She offers tips particularly to students wanting to start their own social enterprise: come up with the best product and don’t ever short change the customer to make a profit, treat all your employees with dignity and respect, and do not think any job is beneath you.
Her full speech can be found here.
5. Andreas Heinecke, EBS University – 2011
Andreas Heinecke founded the first Dialogue in the Dark in 1989. Since then, the social enterprise that opens dialogue about blindness has expanded around the world. In his speech, he references Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford by describing his own journey to connecting the dots. Among other things, he credits his Jewish and Nazi-German family background for making him want to figure out what leads people to marginalization and extermination.
Having been through a near-death experience himself, he cautions new graduates to use it as a focus tool.
“Being confronted [by] death shows you so clearly that you don’t have to waste time, you have to only do things that you really would like to do, and all the things you don’t want to do, don’t do it. This is really the ultimate wisdom that I can share with you. Don’t waste your time with people you don’t like, don’t do a job you don’t like, don’t become too complex, stay simple. This is very, very important. I don’t spend a single day on something I don’t like.”
His other messages are short and simple: find your passion, identify your capabilities. Stay hungry, stay humble.
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