Love, Truth and Impact: My Address to DePauw's Class of 2022
I had the honor of delivering the commencement address to DePauw University’s Class of 2022 on May 22, 2022. (I graduated from DePauw 24 years ago.) This is what I said:
President White, Chair Vrabeck, distinguished guests; faculty, the heart of this cherished institution; family and friends of the assembled graduates; and DePauw's Class of 2022 …
I bring you greetings from DePauw’s great class of 1998. I don’t know, but I bet we’re the only class ever to score three commencement speakers in a single decade. My friend Elisa Villanueva Beard, Teach for America’s CEO, in 2013. My friend, Hollywood actor Drew Powell in 2019. Now you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel with me, President White. But on behalf of ’98, thanks for the hat trick.
I also want to thank my wonderful wife, Gina; and our two boys, Nathan and Benjamin, for coming out to Greencastle with me again. The boys are excited to get another taste of what DePauw is about — and maybe a GCB.
I especially appreciate being back at DePauw, in person, at a place where I spent four transformative years a quarter century ago. Here, on a morning in May, I sat, relieved to have finished my course of study and frankly sad to be leaving the only place outside of my parents' house that had ever become my home.
I was sad because I'd miss the work: In a red box in my closet today I still have my essay on Ephesians 6 from Leslie James’s New Testament class freshman year. And I have almost every paper from Andrea Sununu's British Writers II and English Renaissance classes, with her tiny, meticulous, pencil-written critiques and suggestions filling the margins and the back pages. I'd miss the PCCM offices of The DePauw, Indiana's oldest and coolest college newspaper, where I spent many late nights and too many early mornings. I’d miss the stairwells of Humbert and Longden, where I’d break out my guitar and sing a few songs, meet a few girls … and guys. A few people. But most of all, I would miss my community. It was storming that day in May, so our ceremony was forced inside. It felt chaotic, hard to find my friends. I feared we'd drift apart, miss each other forever.
You might have similar concerns, given what you've been through. Class of 2022, you have had a unique and fractured journey at DePauw. You were from this campus untimely ripped two years ago. Since then, many of you have suffered losses — of loved ones, of expectations, of time — that make this day bittersweet. As you peer now into the horizon, with surging inflation and a suddenly less certain economy, you have our support, and our confidence. You've persevered through four hard years and triumphed, and you will do it again.
I'm here today because DePauw has stayed with me. One concrete example: My good friend Neal Allen, known in our time at DePauw for his kind heart, salty tongue, bushy beard, and love of pickles, is now chair of the Political Science department at Wichita State University. I had the honor of standing in his wedding, he stood in mine. He's with us here today.
My point is that you are leaving DePauw today. But the best of DePauw does not have to leave you. Like the liberal arts education you've received here, there’s part of DePauw you can take with you as a living thing.
Its value has become clearer to me with time. So, if you'll indulge me, I want to share three treasures this morning. Three ideas DePauw planted in me in my time here that have blossomed into uncommon gifts in my journey so far. Three themes that have emerged again and again, even in this latest phase of my career as a business journalist.
My challenge to you today, Class of 2022, is to build on love, truth and impact. As you leave Greencastle, bring the best of DePauw with you.
Let's start with love.
I had lunch in Manhattan a few days ago with the cofounder and CEO of DoorDash, Tony Xu. Even after the recent stock market swoon, his company's worth a cool $23 billion. He had the rigatoni; I had the chicken sandwich. We started talking about the new realities of work — not for the drivers, who are mainly looking for a few hours part-time to make extra cash — but for the corporate staff, and engineers who are building the underlying technology. Tony told me that over the past couple of years, especially during the pandemic, he's seen a new trend developing in employee mindset. A lot of them don't want to love the work. Some young people intend to stay at a job for only a year or two before trying to leave for a better offer. They're not just open to leaving for something better. They're planning on it.
Class of 2022: Don't do this.
Don't give in to a corrosive culture of the moment that preaches that everything is a commodity, fungible, a data point to be traded or leveraged for advantage. I know you didn't create or ask for this — we can blame Gen X and Millennials for that. You're used to a world where cookies stalk you across smartphone apps and webpages, reducing you to a target for ads. Dating apps see you as a digital asset to be swiped left or right. Political movements tailor incendiary rhetoric and lob it through the windows of your consciousness, using social feeds to incite you to do something, vote some way, hate someone.
I get it. The response that makes sense is to say, you're going to treat me like a commodity? Fine, I can do that, too. I can see why you might be tempted to treat every relationship, job, social position like a poker hand.
But here's an alternative. You'll hear people tell you to do what you love. You know, find a job you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life. I'm going to add something to that. Sure, do what you love. But also give of yourself to people you love. Communities you love. Coworkers you love. The country you love. You can't do this if you're constantly trying to trade up for your own advantage.
I learned a good deal about love for community here, at DePauw. I didn't always think I'd love this place. When I first got to Greencastle — Black kid from the East Coast, Washington, D.C. — I quickly got into social trouble, breaking unspoken rules. I didn't do rush and pledge a fraternity like the majority freshmen were supposed to. And I didn't hang out at the AAAS — Association of African-American Students — house as often as Black freshmen were supposed to.
Making matters worse, I was a muckraking student journalist antagonizing just about every campus faction in the pages of the newspaper. During Black History Month I assigned a story about how Black and Latinx students on campus weren’t collaborating like they could for progress on social issues. I got chewed out in a public forum for printing that in February. And when it came to the greek system, I broke two stories about … we’ll call them unsanctioned pledge activities … that nearly got two powerful houses kicked off campus. I was a pain in the … I was.
But. However. Over time, DePauw taught me an important lesson about loving a community. Here I learned that to love a place deeply, you don't have to agree with everyone in it and everything about it. The fact that we have serious differences doesn't mean we have to avoid each other … or rip each other apart.
Today, in this country, we need that from your generation. From you. Especially when you don't agree with everyone, operate on principles. Live in hope. Work to build the communities, the country you love.
Love, Truth and Impact.
Next, truth. For a journalist, this one is key.
I was 24 years old when Steve Jobs first sent me a personal email. It was a Saturday morning, spring of 2001, 21 years ago almost to the day. And the Silicon Valley legend had taken the time to send me a note. I remember clicking it open on my laptop, in my apartment in San Jose, California. The subject line: You made a big mistake. On a weekend, so, you know it was serious. And I'm sorry to say, Steve was right.
Here’s how I screwed up: Apple was about to open its first retail stores, and I was the beat reporter for Apple's hometown paper, the San Jose Mercury News. So, I went sleuthing. I found out which mall in Virginia would contain one of the first stores, and I called up the corporate office to find out how much retail space cost. They gave me the price per square foot. I wrote a story. What I didn't know as a cub reporter was that unlike residential lease prices, which are quoted monthly, commercial leases are quoted yearly. So, when I estimated what Apple would have to pay for the space, my number was 12 times too high. I learned this in a Saturday morning email. From Steve Jobs.
Of course, I apologized repeatedly, ran a correction in the paper. And Steve was cool about it when I saw him a few days later at the store opening. But that was an important moment. Because truth matters. Class of 2022, pursuing truth matters. Especially when the truth is uncomfortable.
OK, you might be thinking, isn't this a cable news guy? Talking about truth? Which version of the truth does he mean, exactly? Because it looks different on different channels.
That's fair. First, here's what I don't mean by truth. I don't mean the official press release and talking points issued by the people in power. That's not truth. I don't mean the consensus perspective of the most-watched news channels. That's not truth. I don't mean the entertaining monologue of the evening cable news pundit or comedian whose opinions most match our own.
Pursuing truth can't mean being right every time. I'm certainly not right every time, as Steve Jobs could have told you. But it does mean acting in good faith to elevate information that the people around you need to make good decisions.
That's essential whether your next stop is graduate school, the workplace or something else.
I have a weekly segment I created on CNBC called On the Other Hand. I argue one side of a contentious business issue for a minute, then I say, "on the other hand," and argue the complete opposite, just as passionately. What I enjoy most about On the Other Hand is what it teaches me as I'm researching and writing it. Every week I start out pretty sure I know what I think about a given issue. Every week by the time I'm finished writing, I'm less sure. Sometimes I've changed my mind completely. Because I’m trying to have an honest debate with myself in search of truth.
For me, that's a continuation of the liberal arts tradition. It's a continuation of what I love about DePauw. I left here changed from how I arrived. Not because I learned the basics of a vocation — though I did. At DePauw I learned to more effectively pursue truth. Truth about myself, about my community. Even when embracing truth means admitting that I was weak. That I was wrong.
Love, Truth, Impact.
Last year, I met a woman named Hardika Shah. She was born in India, graduated from Knox College, a liberal arts school a little less than four hours from here. (Let’s hear it for international students! In fact, graduates, if you came to DePauw from another country, please stand so we can celebrate you. It’s my hope that you’ll always feel at home here, especially if you choose to make your home here.) Hardika Shah ended up in management consulting, based out of Silicon Valley, working for what's Accenture today. She traveled the world, helping global tech companies better calibrate their businesses. She was good at it. But I didn't meet her because of her management consulting work.
I met Hardika because today she's based in Bengaluru, India, where she's started a company called Kinara Capital. Her mission is to provide small business loans, without collateral, to local entrepreneurs. In India, no matter how much potential or momentum your small business has, how good your cash flow is, it's really tough to get a loan from a traditional bank without putting your house up as collateral. And most people don't own a house. So too many entrepreneurs end up having to take out the equivalent of payday loans. Kinara helps these businesses digitize their bookkeeping and uses that data to help promising ventures grow.
I like to interview diverse founders and CEOs of companies of all sizes and stages. It's part of my personal mission. So, I wanted to understand how Hardika's business works, and her impact. And why. Why is she making risky bets on mom & pops in India when she had it made in Silicon Valley advising the titans of industry?
Turns out Hardika wasn't the first one in her family to make a risky bet. Her father is blind, and her mother decided to marry him even though her family disowned her for it. Hardika’s father became a Political Science professor in India, working around his disability. Hardika has childhood memories of reading his students' tests to him so he could tell her what grades they deserved … going with him to the American library and reading books to him so that he could use the material to write papers. At the American library there in India, Hardika also discovered the Barron's Guide to colleges. And she decided she had to go to one of those liberal arts schools in America.
Frankly, that was insanity. This was the 1980s. Sending daughters to college at all was pretty new where she was from. Sending a daughter to an expensive college in America? Well, they couldn't afford it. So, what did Hardika's parents do? They sold their house and sent her anyway.
The same parents who made a risky bet to get married and be together in the first place made another risky bet on their daughter, selling their most valuable asset to send her to a little Midwestern liberal arts school in America. Decades later for Hardika, after succeeding in school, making it in corporate America — moving her parents and sister to the U.S. for better opportunity — her mission became clear. She decided she would make an impact by returning to India as a technology and management expert, and betting on dreamers the system undervalues.
What I love about Hardika’s story — what it stirs in me — is this: The best thing we can do — the best thing — is use whatever we have, to help other people. And you didn't get here — we didn't get to this moment alone. The very people and communities we love, the truths they’ve taught us as we’ve pursued knowledge — when we’re at our best, that’s what drives our impact. And that, more than the money, more than the degrees, the “success” — that’s what we’re really after.
Impact. Love, truth.
So here we are, Class of 2022, on the threshold of your next adventure. The good news is, you join the ranks of alumni today, where DePauw will never ask for money from your parents again! They just voted me onto the board of trustees. Am I allowed to make that joke? I'm still in?
But I do want to bring us back to the question of impact. That is DePauw's secret ingredient. That's the spark behind the slogans. We can claim uncommon success because of the impact. We can claim to generate leaders the world needs because of the impact DePauw dares you to make — prepares you to make — from the day you set up residence in Greencastle, to the moment you walk across this stage, to the many days beyond.
Congratulations, graduates. From here, with love … pursue truth … and make an impact. It’s your time.