This is a talk I gave at my 10-year Stanford GSB Reunion today.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a privilege it is to have gone to Stanford, and all the gifts that being an alum of the Graduate School of Business continues to give us. And also about what we are all doing to honor that gift.
I want to talk to you about what we’re all doing here. And I don’t mean just sitting here, in this room. I mean, here we are, we went to Stanford 10 years ago, and now, we’re together and we’re having a conversation about Changing Lives, Changing Organizations, Changing the World, the Stanford GSB tagline. That showed up after we had all graduated, but when I first heard that phrase, it really inspired me and resonated with what I experienced at Stanford.
If you were at Stanford in 2003, you couldn’t escape the endless ways to do something positive for the world. Maybe you graduated with a PMP certificate in hand, or with fond memories of your SMIF or Board Fellows experience. Maybe you raised money for a great cause, or volunteered, or came up with the idea for a new kind of business that would improve the lives of the poor, like Matt Scott did with Ignite. I look around, and I see Colleen James, who is helping to make Knoll furniture more sustainable, and Carl Palmer and Robert Keith who are using innovative financing models to protect and restore wild areas with Beartooth Capital. I see friends who went into corporate social responsibility, global health or international development, school reform, or social enterprise. We’ve given in ways visible and invisible, when we were asked and when there was a need that we couldn’t ignore.
Whatever our experience here or where it led us, we always knew that our development as leaders and professionals would be inextricably linked to how we contributed to the world around us.
But now it’s ten years since we graduated. We’re all somewhere on that journey, but are we doing enough? Have we just met the standard for giving back, or have we gone further to find our own unique capacity to make a difference in the world in ways that might be difficult, or impossible to achieve for someone else? Are we working on what we think is most urgent, or on what is most convenient?
How can you know if you’re doing enough, since everyone’s path is different? And we are, now, men and women of a certain age, building lives outside of our careers, juggling the demands of work, relationships, sometimes young children, and for those of us lucky enough to be part of the sandwich generation, aging parents. Is this really the right time to be worrying about whether we’re doing enough for the rest of the world?
Maybe this is an uncomfortable conversation. Wouldn’t it be better if we could all just pat ourselves on the back for everything we’ve already done? But I believe that even though we are at a moment in our lives when things aren’t nearly as simple and straightforward as they were ten years ago, that these questions are as important now as they were ten years ago. And what I want to ask each of you to do, since someone was foolish enough to give me this platform, is just to ask yourself the tough questions about how you are impacting the world around you, how you are, as Carl and Robert say on their quite awesome website, leaving the world better than you found it.
As Rilke said, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Everyone’s journey is their own, and there is no one way to have an impact. But here we are, and I see who is in this room, and think about what the world needs, and I think it is a powerful combination. I don’t have the answer for how to optimize your impact, because it depends on who you are and what you are best able to contribute, but I think the answer for each of us has two parts. The first comes from asking ourselves these tough questions, and the second I’ll get to in a moment.
2 years ago I learned something that sort of blew my mind. I’ve worked for no fewer than 5 Stanford MBAs – I guess it’s like a rule I have, you can’t supervise me if you didn’t get an MBA from this place. But two years ago I learned that the three most important of these were actually in the same class. The class of 1991. Jacqueline Novogratz, who I work for now, started Acumen to change how the world tackles poverty and has actually succeeded in changing the face of philanthropy; Derek Brown, the former Senior Vice President of Ashoka is now the Executive Director of Peace Appeal, which develops peace processes in some of the most violent and conflict ridden parts of the world. And Charles McGlashan.
Charles took a big bet on me when I was just a few years out of college, putting me on a plane to Mexico two weeks after he hired me with a binder and a pep talk, all set to train the managers of an auto plant outside Mexico City on environmental management systems. He taught me about waste management economics and about holding my head high when we were mocked by plant managers in Detroit for believing in a greener world.
Charles personally advocated for me when I applied for my dream jobs at Ashoka and Acumen, and what I didn’t know was that he was reaching out to two classmates, encouraging them to take the same big bet that he had. Charles changed my life a few times over, and changed the world around him in profound ways. A bicycle path in Marin County was just named for Charles, who raised $2 million to improve it and served on the board of supervisors there for six years as a champion for sustainable transportation.
They also named this path for Charles because he recently passed away. Charles died of a heart attack two years ago at the age of 49. It was a tremendous loss for his friends and family, and for the world. But Charles gave everything he had and helped others, like me, on their own path. His life was far, far too short, but his legacy of impact is undeniable.
I think of him, Derek and Jacqueline. One class. And I think about what we will do. Class of 2003. Maybe asking these hard questions is daunting when we think that we’re in this alone. But this is the second piece of how we will optimize we’re impact. By realizing that we are not alone. We’ve had each other’s backs from the beginning, giving each other advice, encouragement, and just the knowledge that what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, is bigger than ourselves. Let’s not be afraid to ask if we can do more, but imagine if this question was not just about we each do, but about the legacy we create, together, by supporting each other on this journey. And let’s never underestimate the impact we have on those that come after us, who are just starting to ask themselves those same hard questions, and who look to us. Whatever Changing Lives, Changing Organizations, Changing the World means to each of you, I’m just so proud that these are questions that we can come together, as a class, to ask ourselves.