Drexel University Commencement 2017

I was fortunate to attend 2017 Drexel Commencement as their commencement speaker this year. There, I saw some beautiful buildings on campus like this one that I captured in 360.

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My commencement address was based upon what I wrote here below, but I shortened it a bit on the fly. You can watch the 9-minute speech on YouTube here.

Thank you President Fry, Drexel Board of Trustees, Faculty, Students, Staff, and Distinguished Guests. And congratulation to fellow honorees Doctors Duckworth, Knoll, and Sheller. 

I imagine that a lot of sacrifice has gone into this day.

Especially for the many parents and guardians who contributed above and beyond their financial means to see this dream come true for their beloved student. Whether it’s the scaling back of your early retirement plans, or any extra hardship you took on to make this day happen for your student. As a parent, I am truly one with your pain.

Now. I’m not trying to guilt any students here. And, I know that many of you have paid your own way and struggled to do so.

But I bring up this touchy subject of money because it is something that *I* didn’t understand terribly well, if at all, when I was in your shoes back in 1988 when I graduated from college. It took a variety of experiences to get me to become comfortable with money. I recall how in my mid-30s, a finance person told me that I was a creative person … so, “don’t worry about the money.”

This was the third time in my life that someone important had said this to me. And what happens when someone keeps telling you not to worry about something? I got worried about it. So, I earned an MBA as a part-time hobby. And a decade later I found myself working as a partner in a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, Kleiner Perkins.

So, full disclosure — money talk doesn’t get me worried anymore. And my bit about the financial sacrifice on behalf of parents and guardians here was another way to tell them, “don’t worry about the money.” It has already been paid. You can’t get it back. It’s the graduates turn now to worry.

But don’t worry. Students. Graduates. Because, based upon what I’ve seen at Drexel, I can assure you that you have something powerful. Just yesterday, I sat with two students at the Baiada Institute at the Close School of Entrepreneurship — Maggie Treuting and Moe Salama — founders of two unique, social enterprises. They combine Drexel’s special approach to co-ops, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement — that I wish I had access to when I was your age.

Six months ago, I visited Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. I was fresh off a visit in neighborhoods of Detroit — working on a project envisioned by Mr. Hajj Flemings to bring small businesses on the other side of the digital divide, online. In Detroit, Hajj brought me to Old Redford — a neighborhood that has seen a disproportionate amount of urban blight. Hajj’s belief, was that because businesses there had no Web presence, no one would shop, or even go there. Why? Because if they weren’t on Google, they didn’t exist.

So when I visited the Dornsife Center, the vision of President Fry for Drexel to become “the most civically engaged university in the U.S.” clicked for me. I could see that the neighborhoods of Philadelphia were the REAL classrooms of tomorrow, and in turn Drexel could bring technology know-how. The proverbial, “Win-Win.”

How? With Drexel’s own high-tech, Media Lab — the ExCITe Center — making waves not just in Philadelphia, but in the world. The ExCITe Center has become the national home of the STEM to STEAM movement — adding Art to STEM education. STEAM.

A few weekends ago, I worked with students, staff, and faculty on a STEAM project to bring small businesses in the Lancaster neighborhood — online. Together with Community Leaders, such as class of 2016’s Jabari Jones, Lancaster 21’s Kwaku Boateng, Drexel team members Andy Stutzman, Dr. Brandon Morton, AND Professor Youngmoo Kim, We expanded Rebrand Cities CEO Hajj Flemings’ vision to a second city, Philadephia. It’s been a dream team … or dream STEAM team.


So, Drexel graduates.  

I’d like to send you off with three pieces of advice that have served me well.

NUMBER 1: Listen politely to your elders, and disobey them when you can.

Why? Because they might be wrong, and they just don’t know it. My parents didn’t want me to become an artist. It isn’t that artists are bad people or anything. They just thought that I couldn’t make any money if I went down that path. Luckily I didn’t listen to them, and it turned out okay.

Being young means being unafraid to do things the “wrong” way. You can do this at any age — but as a new graduate, you are definitely in your prime. So break the speed limit while nobody’s looking.

NUMBER 2 applies to when you’ve broken the speed limit with good intentions, and accidentally done something wrong, and it goes terribly bad. This will happen if you try to do anything you don’t know how to do. And it sucks. It hurts. It is embarrassing. And what do you learn? Don’t ever do it again. Go home. YOU FAILED.

But in tech startups today, we LOVE to say: “Fail harder.” “Fail fast.”

To me, and my apologies to any Facebook employees in this audience, it doesn’t make any sense to worship failure like that. “Fail?” Failure is BAD. Why would you want to wish failure on anyone? That’s the definition of being … kind of a jerk. Go ahead, fail. 

So I like to say, instead, “Recover fast.”  NUMBER 2 is, Failing fast is ONLY good, when you can recover fast.

The late Nelson Mandela put it best, “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.

When you fall, get back up. GET! UP!

Don’t forget. You are not alone. Let your fellow Drexel graduates pick you up if and when necessary. I like data, and I like to test hypotheses. So, how many of you graduates will be there to cheer on your closest Drexel friends in their greatest time of need? (The rousing reaction by the crowd indicated that Drexel Dragons are super tight and can be counted upon!) 

NUMBER 3: Design and work inclusively, and you will undoubtedly make a greater impact with your careers. Why? Because many biases govern HOW things get made in the world. Ask WHO is doing the making versus WHO is doing the consuming, and you will often discover that they are incongruent.

Because the majority of roles with power in this world have historically been in the hands of men, we tend to end up with products and services that serve our needs best.

For example, I am a fairly intelligent, CIS male, who is now armed with a Drexel honorary degree, and I have designed all kinds of things in my career. But you probably wouldn’t want me to go and design, say, a tampon.

I could probably do a pretty good job, but I’m missing something really important.  

Not that. Stay with me. I mean … I am missing EMPATHY.

Empathy is really important when you are designing something. Empathy makes you a better designer. It makes you a better manager. It makes you a better teacher. It makes you a better parent.

Why? Empathy makes you fully invested and accountable for THEIR success. For those WHO are depending upon YOU to solve THEIR problem.

For an example of how things can go tragically wrong, consider how the majority of digital photo filters for something like Snapchat or Instagram are often engineered and tested by people with lighter skin, so they often don’t work well when you have darker skin. Think about that for a moment.

Or, consider how for older folks like me, the majority of apps on your phone today are designed with tiny type — at ultralight weights — that are fine for the people in their 20s who create these things for us. I don’t know about you, but I can barely read them. These are examples of designing for EX-clusion — and in doing so, it means that the products won’t be as impactful, or as profitable, as they could be.

Look to the cultural and commercial success of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award winning movie “Moonlight,” or Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” TV series, or the Wachowski Sister’s “Sense8,” or Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman.” Or Ryan Coogler’s multi-faceted love letter to the home of “Rocky Balboa” — Here. Philadelphia. — with the movie “Creed.” These are examples of just a few innovations coming out of the entertainment industry that show us a new path forward that benefits every one of us.

So, regardless of the industry or space you are about to enter — in order to succeed in designing, making, and delivering fantastic products, services, and experiences — always remember to bring the full range of your customers deep into your work, and be inclusive in the making of that work. And in the credit and profits for that work, too!

Don’t let yourself think that you know best — and that you have everything covered. Because you won’t.

You’ll end up designing for YOURself. That worked fine in the last century. It won’t work as well in this one. Thank you.

FYI Walking into Citizens Bank Park stadium, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, was the true definition of “an experience” for me.