Dr. Judith Rodin’s Miami Dade College
April 28, 2012
Thank you President Padron… Members of the Board of Trustees… distinguished guests… friends and family of the graduates… and of course, the amazing Class of 2012. Congratulations!
I have to be honest. When your outstanding president invited me to speak here, I was a little unsure if I should accept.
Two years ago, your commencement speaker was Bill Clinton. Last year, Barack Obama. A few years before, George W. Bush. Those are some tough acts to follow.
So I thought long and hard… I compared the weather in New York to the weather in Miami… and then I finally told my husband:
“Paul… I’m going to take my talents to South Beach!”
But this isn’t “The Decision.”It’s your graduation. And I am truly honored to join you on such a special day. Because it’s your talents, and your education, that we celebrate today. It’s your decision to work hard that will pay off in just a few minutes when you receive your degree from MDC.
From 181 countries, you’ve come together at this wonderful institution. And just look at all that you’ve accomplished in your time here.
You’ve trained to work in small businesses and nuclear power plants… Entered and won film competitions… edited award-winning literary magazines… and studied economics in Shanghai.
Many of you are the first in your families to attend college.
Some of you worked part-time or even full-time while keeping up your studies.
Some of you made a long commute… raised a family… and made good grades all while making ends meet.
Most—if not all—of you have had to overcome significant obstacles, beat the odds, and exceed expectations to sit here today.
It wasn’t easy, I know. But you made it. And confronting and overcoming these challenges will make you more resilient for the challenges ahead.
So for yourselves… and for your families… your professors and friends and everyone who believed in you and helped you achieve this milestone… how about a loud and loving round of applause?
As exciting as this moment is, as relieved as you all are… you may be thinking, “What next? Where do I go from here? What do I set my sights on?”
That’s never an easy question to answer. Of course, it requires some soul searching. But in addition to looking inside, it’s so important to look outside, too—to look at the world around you.
What does it look like? What is your place in it?
As the head of a 100-year-old foundation established “to promote the wellbeing of mankind,” I spend a lot of time looking at the world and how it’s changing. So let me say, look quickly… or you might miss it.
Because today, the world is a whirlwind.
It’s technological upheaval, and social upheaval. It’s products, people, and ideas moving faster than ever before.
Some of you first came to MDC two years ago or four years ago. But whenever you arrived, think about how much has changed even since then.
Four years ago, the iPhone was a brand new gadget and the iPad didn’t exist. Barack Obama was a first-term Senator. And “Pitbull” was something you took on a walk, not something you listened to in the car.
Today, people upload two-and-a-half days worth of YouTube videos every minute and Tweet an average of 140 million times each day. In a few months, Facebook will reach 1 billion users, which, if it were a country, would make it the third largest in the world. Cars can park themselves, and if you’ve been following what Google is up to, they can even drive themselves.
In fact, things are changing so profoundly and so fast that my money is on the Dolphins to make the playoffs this year!
At the Rockefeller Foundation, we are privileged to have a front row seat to the incredible, rapid, worldwide evolution underway. And one of the things we see is that the most successful efforts—whether they are made by people, companies or countries—are those that leverage the power of innovation to overcome the challenges born of our increasingly complex and fast- changing world.
What do I mean by leveraging innovation? These days, it’s hard to know what some people even mean when they use the word “innovation.” It’s become a favorite buzzword—used to describe wacky products like TV remotes that are also bottle openers. Innovation is such an overused word that in 2010, “innovative” was the second most used term on LinkedIn… second only to “extensive experience.”
But when I talk about innovation, I mean seeing old problems in new ways. Or taking something that’s already been done, and asking, “what if we did it differently?” Across countries and industries, in good times and bad, the most successful people today have learned, to borrow a famous phrase from Steve Jobs, to “Think Different.”
Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the Internet. But, as any of you who have seen the Social Network know, he realized that there was a way to take ordinary social interactions and combine them online in one world changing website.
Apple didn’t invent cell phones or touch screen technology. But by combining those things in unprecedented ways, and with an appreciation for sleek, easy-to-use and beautiful devices, Apple created entirely new products — the iPhone and iPad.
And Walmart didn’t invent retail or the big box store. But it built new kinds of supply chains like no store before.
Our world has been revolutionized by the powerful ways in which people have simply thought differently. I truly believe that anyone can innovate, and you can do it from anywhere. Innovation doesn’t just take place in a lab or a particle accelerator. It’s Mark Zuckerberg staying up late at night in his dorm room, working on his dream. It’s students like you who, right now, all across America and on this very campus, are tinkering with their own dreams.
There’s also a deeper lesson here. The power of the innovation comes from the passion of the innovators.
When you care about what you’re doing, you keep trying new things until you succeed. So whatever you’re trying to achieve, you have to follow your heart as well as your head. Because if it’s personal, you stick with it when you confront obstacles, rejection, and negativity. You just have to find what matters to you.
Steve Jobs, after all, failed a lot. He was forced out of Apple, failed in his NeXT startup, and didn’t know what he was doing when he started out at Pixar. But as he put it after becoming one of the most successful men on the planet, “none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple… the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did.”
Jobs’ story might be legendary now, but there are thousands of others like it. Don’t be afraid to add yours to them. It’s what you learn from the failures that matter and make a difference—in your lives and the ones you touch through your work.
So seek out and give in to that restless urge to try something, to make something, to do something—better, faster, easier than ever before, no matter what career you are choosing.
Let me tell you about a doctor I admire very much named Sania Nishtar. She absolutely embodies that drive to make a difference. In her native country of Pakistan, a child dies every minute of every day from preventable, treatable diseases. Sania wanted “to end the silent and unjustified suffering of millions of individuals for whom the right to health remains unfulfilled—but she realized that she couldn’t do it one patient at a time.” Her passion fueled her innovation, which she named, appropriately, “Heartfile.”
No person, except the very rich, is insured in Pakistan. So, if a worker, a day laborer, broke his leg in several places falling off of scaffolding, in the normal turn of events it would take him 8 or 10 weeks to go through the bureaucracy in Pakistan, and have them verify that he was poor enough to qualify for state-supported surgery. In the meantime his leg would set badly and he’s lost eight weeks of work, which means his family is suffering too.
Through Heartfile, Sania is revolutionizing health care in Pakistan. Doctors can now use cell phones to check a government database that will verify a patient’s poverty status within 24-48 hours. Using SMS texting, she then solicits donations from everyone around the world willing to give as little as $1 dollar for the patient’s treatment. Poor people now get the life-saving medical care they need with game-changing innovation, Sania’s.
That desire to help others—to better our own lives and the lives of the people around us—is something many of you share. It’s what led an extraordinary recent MDC graduate, Ximena Prugue, to found a nonprofit, [Giving the Green Light], that provides Indian villagers with solar-powered flashlights and prevents thousands of deaths from kerosene smoke. It’s why at MDC you’ve helped register voters, championed sustainability, and demonstrated your commitment to this vibrant community.
Growing up in Philadelphia, I always wanted to give back to my hometown. As it turned out, fulfilling my dream to make a difference meant doing things differently, too.
I am a product of Philly public schools, and I was very fortunate to earn a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, which I had never dreamed of being able to attend. Many years later, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime, to become President of the University of Pennsylvania —the first alumna to lead the university.
But by the time I had the great privilege of leading Penn, the neighborhood surrounding the campus was in dreadful shape.
Crime had soared. One in five residents lived below the poverty level. Shops and businesses had closed. Middle class families had moved out, and drug dealers had moved in. The streets were literally filled with trash. The neighborhood McDonald’s was so dangerous that it was nicknamed “McDeath.”
A lot of people told me this wasn’t Penn’s problem. Some at Penn told me we should pay attention to the campus and not the community. Some community members thought we were meddling, or didn’t understand, or would make things worse.
But this was my city. And I had grown up right on the edge of that neighborhood. And just like President Padron, I felt we had an obligation as a university to help our neighbors.
So we got to work. And we innovated, doing things no college or university had ever done, or at least doing some things in entirely new ways. And at every step, someone was upset about something. Whenever anything went wrong, the chorus of “no’s” would start again.
But our passion drove us to do things differently.
We rehabbed hundreds of rundown homes and apartments and rented or sold them cheaply back to the public. We built a new neighborhood public school, and reenergized the others. We revived deserted commercial areas… and turned McDeath into an amazing new cinema and supermarket. We hired and trained neighborhood residents and helped local entrepreneurs to build businesses that would sell goods and services that the university needed and was buying elsewhere. And we transformed the Penn curriculum to add 100 service learning courses. In one case, a geology class learned about lead and lead poisoning in class and then worked with local middle school students to test lead levels in their homes, and design interventions to reduce the risks of lead poisoning.
I had a university to run as my day job. But passion for the neighborhood inspired what became award-winning innovation. And these innovations allowed us to transform a blighted community into a flourishing, highly diverse, and still affordable community.
As you venture out to achieve your dreams, no matter what your day job, apply your passion and innovation to your community. That is part of the legacy of what you’ve learned here at MDC, and what being part of this vibrant city is all about.
I spend a lot of time in Miami, so I’ve had the chance to soak up the incredible dynamism of this place. This is a truly global city, home to the most international banks and one of the world’s busiest ports… home to biotech revolutions and commercial innovations…and, my son tells me, home to some very innovative institutions, like Mansion and LIV.
But it is also home to pockets of poverty and blight. Both the opportunities and the problems should compel your attention and commitment.
The great innovator, Thomas Edison, saw something in this state. For decades, he experimented and explored not far from here. He let the sights and sounds of this region spur him to think, to create, and to innovate.
Edison was driven by one desire, and it is the advice I leave you with today:
“There’s a way to do it better,” he once said. “Find it.”
Class of 2012, I urge you to find that thing that inspires you. Find that thing that challenges you. Find that thing that drives you to innovate. Find it.
Because when you do, you’ll also find your true self. You’ll find your future unfolding before you. And you just might find that you can change the world.
Class of 2012, I commend to you your future. It is yours for the taking. Congratulations, and good luck.