Keynote Address: Aligning Skills with Vision to Change the World

Henry A. Fernandez gave the keynote address to the graduating Class of 2023 at their graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

Dean Jonathan Levin: Today’s graduation speaker Henry Fernandez has been walking into uncertainty for decades, with purpose and success.

Henry was born in Mexico, and grew up in Nicaragua. After coming to the U.S. for college, and considering a PhD in economics, he came to the GSB to prepare for a career in business.

Today, Henry is Chairman and CEO at the global finance firm MSCI. He has been recognized as one of the world’s best CEOs, and in recent years has put MSCI at the forefront of climate finance.

I especially admire Henry for his original ideas, his boundless energy, his big heart — and, his passionate support for GSB students and faculty.

Please join me in welcoming Henry Fernandez!

Henry Fernandez: Good afternoon! I want to thank Dean Levin for his warm introduction. I also want to welcome: my fellow trustees, faculty and staff, parents, relatives, and distinguished guests, and last, but certainly not least, all graduating students!

It is a tremendous honor and privilege to join you today. As you just heard, I am a proud member of the GSB Class of ’83.

Just to confirm, even though I am not a young man anymore, that was 1983, not 1883. Forty years ago this month, I was sitting exactly where you are today. I was pleased with my graduation, excited but anxious about my next chapter, and wondering what my life would look like in the decades to come.

I certainly had gained significant knowledge and experience at the GSB. But I surely wish I had learned much more of what I will share with you today. In my remarks, I would like to impart my lifelong learnings in a few areas:

  • the miracle of optimism, confidence, and resilience;
  • the surprising benefits of failure;
  • the unexpected virtues of grunt work; and
  • the magic of aligning skills with vision.

But first, a quick, important word about long-term perspective in life. Perspective is the perfect remedy for both irrational exuberance and undue despair. It is also essential to developing a vision of the future. We need long-term perspective now more than ever. Watching the news in 2023 can make anyone feel pessimistic about the future. Take it from me: Every GSB class thinks they are graduating at a uniquely difficult moment in history. In a way, they are all correct.

As you go out in the world, you will face many challenges that did not exist in 1983. At the same time, you will also enjoy many new opportunities. Geopolitically, 1983 represented a high point of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. Domestically, America’s violent-crime rate was 35 percent higher in 1983 than it was in 2020.

Economically, the month I graduated from the GSB, America’s unemployment rate was over 10 percent. We were also emerging from the worst inflation since World War II. That same month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average never got above 1,250, which is less than 4 percent of its level today. My point here is not to diminish our current problems, but rather to put them in a longer-term perspective. Snapshots in time, when not taken in context, can be misleading and demoralizing, and can perpetuate short-termism.

Taking a longer view allows us to observe a wider arc of human progress, and the tremendous opportunities that progress brings. My own perspective was heavily shaped by the obstacles and struggles I endured in my late teens and 20s. As you can tell from my accent, I grew up in the Deep South. The very Deep South of Central America. When I first came to America from Nicaragua at age 16, I did not speak English. Even as I learned the language, many of my professors at Georgetown could not understand me. At age 21, my home country was shaken by a violent, Communist revolution. Suddenly, I was a political refugee in America. Every six months, as the U.S. government reviewed my case, I received a new deportation letter. When the second letter arrived, I told my lawyer: “This is a big country. Let them come and find me.”

After a while, when it became clear that I could not return to Nicaragua, I felt totally lost. I had no answers to the most basic questions of life. Where would I live? What would I do? Would I ever feel a true sense of identity and belonging? I was not able to conquer these demons until I got to Stanford.

In that way, the GSB was a godsend to me and helped me regain perspective and reimagine my future. During my time here, I discovered my first learning: the miracle of optimism, confidence, and resilience. I realized that the most successful people in life all have an unshakeable belief in the future, and an unwavering confidence that they will find a path forward.

I will never forget, during my first days on campus, watching a “View from the Top” lecture by Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell has created more than 20 companies, including the video-game company Atari and the entertainment-and-dining company Chuck E. Cheese. When he came to Stanford in 1981, he focused his speech on all of his failed ventures. This seemed strange to me. Even stranger was the fact that everyone applauded him. What was that about?

It took me a while to grasp that the students were not applauding failure. They were applauding risk-taking. Bushnell’s point was that genuine innovation requires us to take chances. And that failure can have surprising benefits. Since then, I have always tried to embrace that learning. And believe me: I have the scars to prove it.

Before MSCI, I failed in business not once, not twice, but three times. First I tried to take over a savings bank in Buffalo, New York. That failed. Then I established a private-equity firm in Mexico. That failed. Then a GSB friend and I set up a media-focused private-equity firm in the U.S. That failed too.

When I finally rejoined Morgan Stanley — where my career had started — I was almost broke. Still, I decided to take another big chance. At that time, MSCI was a failing joint venture between Morgan Stanley and the Capital Group, a large investment firm. Most people would not have considered this joint venture a good place to relaunch their career.

And yet, over the past three decades, we have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. And we still believe the best is yet to come. When you describe it that way, the MSCI story sounds like a Hollywood movie. But I can assure you that it was filled with countless setbacks and uncertainties.

We only achieve success because of our willingness to risk failure. I have learned far, far more from my failures than I have ever learned from my successes. I have discovered the surprising benefits of failure — my second learning.

You would not be here today unless you had a strong internal drive to succeed. As you continue on your path, you should expect to do plenty of grunt work, no matter what your job is or what your title is.

Indeed, grunt work is the foundation of all successful businesses. It is what teaches us the discipline of execution. Without it, even the most brilliant strategy is nothing more than words on a page. It can be hard for many smart, ambitious people to accept the unexpected virtues of grunt work — my third learning.

To paraphrase the great American humorist P.J. O’Rourke: Everybody wants to save the world. Nobody wants to help do the dishes. If you want to change lives, change organizations, and change the world, you need to do the dishes. Every day.

To accomplish really big things, you first have to accomplish a lot of really small things. Most of those small things may be tedious or thankless. Even supposedly glamorous jobs are usually not that glamorous. Your road will be filled with grunt work and execution. This applies to Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and everywhere in between.

Let me now return to where your GSB experience first began — the admissions application essay. I hope this does not evoke any bad memories. All of you had to explain what matters most to you and why. The point of the exercise was to bring out your authentic self.

Stanford was not looking for a grandiose statement about the destiny of humankind, or radical solutions to climate change and sustainable growth, or the next technological revolution. Instead, they wanted to know what gives your life meaning. Not someone else’s life. Your life.

The GSB wanted you to focus on what really matters to you. They wanted to know what the purpose and vision of your life is. Whatever path you choose, please do not let your ambition stand in the way of your purpose. Each of you has a different set of priorities, a different set of skills, and a different sense of purpose.

Your ultimate goal should be to bring all of it into proper alignment. To achieve great feats in life, it is not enough just to develop separate skills. You also have to discover the magic of aligning those skills, and connecting them with your purpose and your vision of the future. That represents my biggest and most important learning.

I have tried to apply all of these learnings throughout my life. This has meant:

  • Maintaining optimism about the future and gaining confidence that I will always find a path forward.
  • Using the lessons of my failures as building blocks for success.
  • Focusing on relentless execution and attention to detail.
  • And finally, making the whole of my skills greater than the sum of their parts, while connecting it to my purpose and my vision of the future.

The outcome of this magic has been the tremendous success of MSCI. I recognize that everyone here wants to be a unicorn. But, before I conclude, let me remind you that we all need a higher mission in life. There are more than 8 billion people on this planet, and GSB graduates are among the extremely privileged.

You have a responsibility to the privilege bestowed upon you. Use it to change the world and live a purposeful life. And yes: Amid everything else, please remember to do the dishes. Godspeed! Thank you.

2023 Speaker