Read reflections from the MBA students of the Class of 2021 given for the Stanford GSB Commencement Celebration.
Tribute to the Class of 2021: “Radical Hope”
By Areeba Kamal, MBA Class of 2021
On March 6, 2020, I was in Sweetgreen getting my nutrient-optimized dinner like any respectable GSBer when I got the email. All classes would be moved online indefinitely due to the spread of COVID-19.
I remember reading it in disbelief. Surely it’s an overreaction to shutter the entire GSB, I thought. Surely this cannot last beyond a few days.
Well. I was very wrong.
Fast forward to June 2021. And we are graduating as the band of four hundred students who woke up one morning in 2020 and confronted the end of the world as we knew it — our classrooms reduced to grid view on Zoom, our skies crimson with wildfires, our cities roiling in pain after the murder of George Floyd, our newspapers brimming with shock after the insurrection in Washington, D.C.
For me, the realization I was inhabiting an unfamiliar reality dawned a month before COVID-19 stormed our world.
In January 2020, I got a call that my mom was in the ER struggling to breathe. I spent 20 hours on a plane from San Francisco to Pakistan searching for a ventilator, discovered my mom was already dead upon landing, then drove from the airport to the morgue to the graveyard. Then I flew back to the GSB in a bubble of grief that expanded, and engorged, and engulfed everyone and everything around me, until everyone else was also searching for a ventilator. Everyone else was also struggling to go on.
What does it take to survive the end of your life as you know it? What does it take to survive a pandemic that wreaks havoc on lives and livelihoods and your beloved MBA?
Well, it takes what philosopher Jonathan Lear calls “radical hope.”
Radical hope means identifying something worth fighting for, and someone who will fight with you, then taking a million small steps forward against the current of adversity.
Radical hope means looking past the darkness you have been plunged into, towards a future so radiant that it transcends your ability to fully understand it, a future so joyful that you are compelled to bring it to life.
Radical hope is our weapon against despair, even when despair is justified. It is something we practice, not something we have. It is the only way, as James Baldwin puts it, to cease fleeing reality and begin changing it.
I see radical hope in the projects our GSB classmates led in response to COVID-19 — projects that could deliver groceries to at-risk seniors or unused gift cards to distressed families, direct crowdfunded pay checks towards furloughed Stanford staff or private sector resources towards emergency PP&E.
I see radical hope in the fearlessness with which our BBSA demanded measurable targets for increasing Black students and professors on campus, or pointed out that racial justice means dismantling our own everyday status quo — whether its hiring processes at our startups or housing access in our neighborhoods.
I see radical hope in how we all reimagined every facet of our GSB experience — from jabbing Q-tips into our nostrils twice a week and praying for negative COVID results to inventing social traditions ranging from rollerblading to outdoor potlucks, Team Positivity Contagion to Zoom TALK.
I see radical hope as the force that brought you and me out of the jowls of fear and into this room, ensconced in the unimaginable strength that only stems from unimaginable strife, the shared bonds that only stem from shared struggle.
The world we reenter today might feel darker, after how the last two years threw income inequality, racial injustice, and climate change into sharp relief. But as Amanda Gorman would say: There is always light if we are brave enough to see it. There is always light if we are brave enough to be it.
Starting today, you and I get to leave this magical place with more power, more privilege, more practice in radical hope.
You and I get to face every challenge from here on now fortified with this diploma and cushioned by this community.
You and I get to ask ourselves, every day, for the rest of our lives: How will I use my radical hope? Which injustice will I tackle? Which opportunity will I bring to life?
Class of 2021 MBA Student Speaker: “Yet”
By Emily Calkins, MBA Class of 2021
In the two years we’ve called the GSB our home, perhaps there was not a single phrase used more commonly than this one … wait for it … “unprecedented times.”
It was the subject line of every disappointing email. The headline of every horrifying news article. It was the opening of every speech.
To be honest, at many junctures, I thought of this little phrase as encapsulating all the ways in which we were wronged — constant fear of our health, worry for the safety of our classmates, anxiety about the wellbeing of our families, loss of in-person classes, the crass and sudden destruction of the experience we dreamt of.
But I’ve come to regard it now as the single-best piece of evidence for the idea that we may actually have gotten so much more out of this place than we could have dreamed. And here’s why.
The cornerstone of Knight Management Center is emblazoned with the following phrase: “Dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet, and the people who are about to dream them up.” In other words — this place is for learning, and then catalyzing unprecedented things.
Take a second. Imagine that. The GSB is literally all about what is unprecedented. And if we take this to be true, then I can think of two major and pretty darn special lessons:
And the First One Is This
Ironically enough, there may have been no better way to prepare for a career and a life of “haven’t happened yet” things than by living through one together.
It’s one thing to imagine who you’ll be in the wake of the unimaginable. It’s another to spend two years finding out for sure. Watching yourself pioneer new ways of working, and learning, and loving.
To try and summarize the hurt and anxiety and fear we all felt in the past two years would be reductive; so I won’t. But what I will say is that the world changed while we were busy learning how to change the world. And I couldn’t think of a better education in crisis and empathy and disruption and leadership.
It’s unsurprising that the word unprecedented leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Because, for the past year, it has been irrevocably intertwined with bad news and fear and disappointment. But the spirit of our cornerstone is, in fact, a reminder of one important — but often forgotten fact: unprecedented can mean good. It can mean powerful and beautiful and important and overdue. Yes, in the time we’ve been at GSB, COVID has been an unprecedented global pandemic. But let’s take a second to revel in what else was unprecedented before this year:
The scale and scope of calls for racial justice around this country and at this school. The election of a Vice President who identifies as female, black, and Asian-American. The speed of developing a new life-saving vaccine. The seven GSB-founded startups that stepped up to provide COVID relief, food access, and protective gear around the country and the world.
The Second Big Lesson Is about One Tiny Word
The most important word in the whole cornerstone. And that word is “yet”. This, to me, is the cornerstone of the cornerstone. My favorite part. Because it’s a tiny word with a humongous amount of courage and optimism and self-belief embedded within its three-lettered walls.
“No” isn’t on the menu. It’s only “yes” or “soon”.
The cornerstone doesn’t say “to crazy dreams” or “to things that haven’t happened.” It says “to things that haven’t happened yet.” As if it were a fortune-teller, sitting at the corner of campus, basking in the quiet knowing that we just might accomplish what we came here to do.
If ever you find yourself anchored in what things look like now, let “yet” be your floatation device. If ever you can’t see your power clearly, let “yet” be your mirror. If ever you lose faith in your dream or company or self, let “yet” reset you.
Let’s practice. At the end of each of the sentences I’m about to say, I’d like for you all to shout out “yet!!”. This includes students, faculty, admin, staff, families, friends.
- I haven’t started my company or gotten my dream job … YET
- The world doesn’t look the way I want it to in terms of racial justice, equal pay, or civil rights … YET
- The world doesn’t know my name or the names of my classmates … YET
- I am not the person, partner, sibling, or leader I want to be … YET
Congratulations on surviving the unprecedented. Preemptive congratulations on turning today’s dreamy rough drafts of unprecedented ideas into the precedent-setting companies of tomorrow.
Most importantly, remember: it’s never “I haven’t.” It’s always just “I haven’t … yet.”
Congratulations, Class of 2021!
Reflections from Other Students
Here are excerpts from the reflections of other selected members of the Class of 2021.
It’s easy to forget how privileged we are to be in these seats. Thousands applied to the GSB and didn’t get in. Tens of thousands never even got the chance to apply — they didn’t know they could, didn’t believe they could, couldn’t afford it, or weren’t supported in it.
It’s easy to forget that $275, the GSB admission fee, less than a FOAM membership, is an inconceivable amount of money for billions of people.
Change is faith: have faith in yourself and in the world around you. I have faith that the world is in good hands with leaders that come from this MBA. Believe in yourself and in your skills — as we learned in Touchy Feely, believe in the goodness of others and believe in best intentions. The world is a beautiful and complicated place; we must believe that we can change it and help it reach its full potential.
Yet our noble goals are often accompanied by statements that, at best, pause our plans to drastically improve society, and at worst, quell those ambitions completely: “I want to make enough money to feel comfortable,” or “I want to develop some more skills first.”
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with these statements; we must fill our own cups before we can give to others. And we must challenge ourselves to answer a simple, but difficult question: When is enough, enough?
Because if we don’t reflect on this question, we’ll perpetually yearn for more for ourselves — perhaps at the cost of serving others.
For all the ways this pandemic has impacted us as individuals and as a community, it’s easy to dwell on the experiences we lost, the friends we didn’t get to make, and the things we didn’t get to do. But what I have borne witness to this year is the infinite capacity my classmates have for resilience, creativity, and determination to make their mark on this world and each other. We are well on our way on the road previously untravelled, and let me tell you, it’s pretty great out here. We’ve managed to stay together, even when apart, forged an unbreakable bond born of shared experience, and made real meaning out of the word leadership.
Here, conversations on mental health are like the soy sauce to our sushi; the sushi’s just not right without it. Wednesday night TALK and Touchy Feely allowed the space for many people to reflect, to learn the power of vulnerability, to express gratitude, and to have the space to invite others to be lifted from the heaviness of burden that lingers over the years.
Here, grief and challenges are shared not with embarrassment but with compassion, like the spicy jalapeño to our tacos; yes, it can tear our eyes but it makes our day brighter. The inspiration gained in conversations with friends, mentors and faculties allowed us to learn the fullness of humanity: to triumph and fail, to love and anguish, to work hard and relax, to empathize and make tough decisions.
For many of us, our time at Stanford GSB was as much about personal growth as it was about professional growth, if not more so. Touchy Feely gave us the tools to be more empathetic and effective managers, but those same tools will also empower us to be more empathetic towards our friends, family, and loved ones. The intentionality we learned in Paths to Power is not limited to being powerful in professional organizations; instead, we are now equipped to effect powerful change in all aspects of our lives. And although we can now much more effectively navigate challenging business issues thanks to our training in Managing Growing Enterprises, we can generalize our application of those learnings not merely to become inspirational business leaders but — far more importantly — to self-actualize as inspirational human beings.
For most of my life, I experienced crippling imposter syndrome, and no achievement seemed to cure it. Coming to the GSB, an environment that allowed space for candid and intimate disclosures, I learned that I was far from alone in feeling this way. There always seemed to be a next achievement, a next milestone, that promised to cure the feeling of not being enough. Now in those moments when I feel down, I hear Graham Weaver in my ear: “You are enough. You are exactly where you need to be. You could just declare victory, right now.”
Even with 300 adverbs, the Ways to Change could not predict some of the important ways we had to adapt over this past year. Extraordinarily and unprecedentedly were the ways in which we wrote our emails and conducted business while quarantining during the pandemic. Virtually was how we learned in Zoom classrooms and connected with family. Angrily and resiliently were how we processed the injustice and senseless murders reflective of our country’s painfully slow progress toward racial equity.