On Sunday, May 14, 2017, Ashesi President Patrick Awuah served as commencement speaker at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. Below is the video and transcription of his speech.
Note: Patrick’s speech begins at 39:20.
President Miller, Members of the Board, family and friends, and dear Class of 2017, I am so thrilled to be speaking here at Olin. Thank you for the invitation to join you as we celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2017 and see them enter a new and exciting chapter in their lives. And Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms!
I have always been fascinated by Olin College. Like Olin, the institution that I founded, Ashesi University, began instruction in 2002. Our pioneer class, like Olin’s “Partners”, consisted of just 30 students. Like Olin, we dreamed of creating a new educational experience and becoming an exemplar for others.
I marveled at the audacity of Olin’s mission to redefine undergraduate engineering education in the United States, in a higher education system that I already considered one of the best in the world. I was inspired by Olin’s decision to engage its pioneer students in co-designing this institution. It was such a courageous and clever approach.
But the thing that I find most inspiring about the education you have received here at Olin, is the singular focus on engineering as a means to solve problems for people. This paradigm of putting humanity at the center of your work makes you a real treasure for the world.
Whenever I speak at commencement ceremonies, I like to talk about something topical – something current that has captured my attention and caused me to reflect on what the future holds for all of us. It hasn’t been easy deciding what to talk about this year. Brexit and the recent US presidential elections certainly captured the attention of the planet. We see conflicts around the world, income disparities, and nationalistic rhetoric, all of which have led many to believe that perhaps globalization will not succeed. Yet, there are other phenomena occurring in the world, that ought to command our attention too.
Thanks to a global effort to reduce childhood death rates across the world, 122 million lives have been saved since 1990. In Africa, malaria deaths have been cut in half since 2000; and thanks to recent advances in vaccine development, we expect to see even more progress in the coming years. Thanks to globalization, it is estimated that the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. 700 million of these people live in China alone, as that country has increasingly become the world’s manufacturing capital. According to the US Federal Reserve, the US economy is on its way to full employment.
The world is making progress.
What this means for those of you graduating today, is that you face good prospects for beginning successful careers. This is especially true, given your background in engineering from such an excellent institution.
But of course, this also means that everyone has high expectations of you. Some people expect you to become the next Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; or the next Elon Musk. Some expect you to build the next company that designs the latest groundbreaking, world changing, lifesaving technology. In a way, that is a difficult burden. When I was in your shoes back in 1989, a foreign student from Ghana, what I was really worried about was going back home to a country that was just emerging from an economic crisis. All I could think was, “Thank God I found a well-paying job before my US visa expired!” I was not in the mood to hear any of the “Go forth and change the world” stuff that is the bread and butter of graduation speeches. But here I am, giving you precisely that. I do so because it remains as important today as it was when I was graduating.
I know the difficulties of balancing altruism with personal ambition, especially at this point in your life. Yet, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t use this opportunity to remind you of the responsibility you owe not just to the world, but yourself.
My journey towards “changing the world” has taken a few different paths. I did not graduate from college with a plan to influence higher education in Africa. My focus was rather different on my Commencement Day. After college, I joined a software company that was well on its way to achieving what was, at that time, a very ambitious mission to put a computer on every desk and in every home. At Microsoft, I learned how to really make a difference in the world, working in a diverse team with that singular focus. I developed professional relationships and a network that would later serve me well in my current work. I saved financial resources that would enable my current enterprise. I got great advice from people far more experienced than I was.
But even after that fantastic apprenticeship, when I decided to leave the company to get involved in educating Africa’s leaders, I felt a measure of fear. The goal that I had set for myself seemed as difficult as climbing Mount Everest. What would you do if you planned to climb Everest? You would probably try to learn as much as you could about the mountain. You would try to find partners – buddies – to come on the journey with you. You would train your body and your mind for the task at hand. You would gather the financial and technical resources necessary for the climb. And when you finally got to the mountain, you would find a Sherpa to guide you up.
That is what I did. After I left Microsoft, I went to business school at UC Berkeley to prepare for the task I had set for myself. But occasionally, I would wake up thinking, “Patrick, what are you doing? This is crazy. This is too risky!” And then one day, I chanced upon the words of Goethe:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, Begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Begin it now.
I typed up those words and taped them to my mirror, so I would read them every day. I found two buddies for the climb – the first being my wife, and the second, a classmate who agreed to join as co-founder. When we had completed our planning for this project; when I felt a sense of peace that we were going to start this university that I dreamed of, I thought, “Wow, this is the beginning.” So it is that our new university came to be called Ashesi, which means beginning in Fante (a Ghanaian language).
My message to you, Class of 2017, is that the most arduous journeys require careful preparation. You have received some of that preparation here at Olin, but you will need to continue preparing for the tasks at hand. Apprentice with someone. Nurture your professional and personal relationships. Find a buddy (or buddies) for this trek.
The world that you will be operating in, is going to be a world full of wonders and evolving threats. You will be living and working in a world that is experiencing exponential growth in scientific and engineering breakthroughs, with profound consequences for humanity.
The age of artificial intelligence will multiply economic output in a way that will likely eclipse what came during the age of artificial power —the steam engine, electricity, nuclear power— or even the information age. The age of additive fabrication, of 3D printing, promises to democratize manufacturing around the world and even to change the output of manufacturing from just inert products to include biological material. The age of gene editing and synthetic biology will transform healthcare and agriculture. These technologies will strengthen our ability to deal with pressing problems such as the impact of climate change, and they hold real promise for improving human life.
But these technologies will also present grave ethical questions and challenges for our world. The matter of human employment and connection will be made more urgent. Economists estimate that approximately 50% of jobs in the United States are at risk of competition from machine intelligence and robots. Think, for example, about what self-driving vehicles will mean for taxi drivers and truck drivers.
Matters of war and peace will assume a new urgency as these new technologies augment the capabilities of warring factions. Diplomacy and intercultural understanding and respect will be more important than ever before.
Although generations have brought us to this point, your generation will be at the helm during this point of inflection. How exciting to be here as the world approaches a shift more profound than the discovery of electricity. Although you probably don’t see yourselves as leaders yet, believe me, you already are. The coming challenges of the world, and the possibilities available for overcoming them, will require great leadership of you.
And it seems to me that to be great leaders, we must first be good citizens. We must first have empathy; a sense of neighborliness; a concern for the common good. It will matter too, who we consider to be our neighbors, worthy of consideration in determining the common good. Finally, it seems to me that leadership in this rapidly changing world will require a life–long commitment to scholarship, to learning from, and proactively sharing our knowledge with others.
I leave you with these thoughts to ponder on your Commencement Day, and I wish you Godspeed in the days and years ahead. Congratulations, Olin Class of 2017.
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