It’s rare that a commencement address rises above the ordinary, a nice got-to-have speech filled with cliches about fulfilling one’s promise. It’s even rarer that a graduating student shows up the official invited speaker at a commencement to deliver a highly memorable and moving speech.
But it happened last month at Harvard Business School when one of the some 900 graduating MBAs stepped behind the podium and in front of the mike.
With surprising poise and self-confidence, Casey Gerald rose to the occasion, delivering the most inspiring and stirring speech we have ever seen given by a graduating MBA.
His 17-minute Clintonesque exhortation–without notes–to fellow students even overshadowed Khan Academy Founder Salman Khan who returned to HBS to deliver the official address to the Class of 2014 at the annual pre-commencement Class Day ceremony.
Gerald spoke movingly about a near-death experience with armed gunmen in his hometown of Dallas, and how that changed his life forever. “A strange thing happened as I accepted that I was about to die: I stopped being afraid.” He then decided to “give my life to a cause greater than myself.”
After arriving at Harvard Business School from Yale, Gerald said that HBS “changed who we were; it reminded us who we could be. It reminded us that we didn’t have to wait until we were rich or powerful, or until we actually knew finance, to make a difference. We could act right now.”
With three classmates, Casey founded a non-profit, MBAs Across America, which is a movement of MBAs and entrepreneurs working together to revitalize America. “We saw the signs for hope in entrepreneurs who were on the front lines of change. They showed us that the new ‘bottom line’ in business is the impact you have on your community and the world around you — that no amount of profit could make up for purpose.”
Last summer, Gerald set out on an 8,000-mile journey across the country with three other classmates to talk to people in “nooks and crannies, and the unbeaten paths,” to discover the interconnectedness of people’s lives, dreams, and aspirations.
The conclusion of his speech was a remarkable exhortation to his classmates, leaving little doubt that Gerald has at least the potential to become the next Obama.
“After all the miles and the memories of the last two years, now I see the biggest sign of hope: You, my friends, my fellow graduates, not because of what we have done, but because I know we have more work to do. In your hands as well as mine lies the hope for a new generation of business leaders in which each of us becomes a pioneer, in which each of us commits our time and talent not just to the treasures of today, but to the frontier of tomorrow where new dreams and new hopes and new possibilities are waiting.
“As we leave this place for the last time, some as Baker Scholars and some by the seat of our pants, we take up the work of not just making a living but of making a life. For if all we have learned here are Four Ps, and Five Forces and Six Sigma, we will prove William Faulkner right, that we labor under a curse, that we live not for love but for lust, for defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, for victories without hope, and worst of all without pity or compassion, that our griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars, that we live not from the heart but from the glands.
“No, my friends, we have more work to do, hard work, frightening work, uncertain work and unending work, work that may test us, work that may defeat us, work for which we may not get the credit but work for which the whole world depends. The time is short and the odds are long but I believe that we are ready nonetheless, with the love of those who raised us, with the lessons of those who taught us, with the strength of those who stand beside us as we face what lies ahead. I say let us begin.”