Commencement Speech: Work Hard, Because We Have Hard Work To Do

(Stuart Barnes-Israel was selected by his classmates as the student speaker for the 2018 MBA Commencement ceremonies; the transcript of his speech is below)

I remember the first time I told anyone I wanted to come to Wharton.  I was sitting in a little wooden hut in the mountains of Paktika Province, Afghanistan typing an email to my wife, Maureen.  The subject line was two words:  Dream School.  Maureen’s response was also two words:  looks expensive.

You do a lot of dreaming in a warzone and as I stand here before you today six years after writing that email, I feel as if I’m still dreaming.  Now, I won’t ask you to dream big today.  I mean, when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut – and when I leave Wharton I’m going to be a management consultant, so who am I to tell anyone to dream big?

But I am going to ask you to work hard.  Work hard because we have hard work to do.

I spent a year of my life in those mountains in Afghanistan.  I was leading a US Army infantry platoon made up of 27 of America’s finest soldiers.  That year molded much of who I am today – it taught me about purpose.  Those 27 soldiers remain some of the most important people in my life today – they taught me about sacrifice.  And just weeks ago, I had a stark reminder of purpose and of sacrifice.

It was spring break and I was off in some far flung, exotic destination.  If you know Wharton students, during spring break your Instagram feed looks like a National Geographic magazine.  I was in Patagonia on a once-in-a-lifetime trip about to hike and camp my way through some of the world’s most iconic scenery.

Then, on the first day of the trip, I got the message that Matt, one of my 27 soldiers with whom I had served in Afghanistan, had passed away.  So, I was faced with the decision – do I stay in Patagonia or do I fly half-way around the world last minute to make the funeral?  We decided to come home.

After a couple days of layovers, we reached the town where Matt was from.  It’s a small, modest town – much like the one that produced me.  It’s the kind of town where when a young combat veteran dies, the entire community comes out to pay their respect.  It was snowing that day and when I arrived at the funeral home, the line was out the door.

When I reached the front, I met Matt’s father.  I didn’t know him, but he knew me.  He told me that Matt didn’t have any brothers, but that he thought of the 27 soldiers in our platoon as his brothers – and that he spoke of us often.  He then asked me if I’d be willing to speak at the funeral in the morning – to tell Matt’s story, a story of purpose and of sacrifice.  Over the next 24 hours as I stayed up all night to write Matt’s eulogy and in the morning as I stood in front of a crowded room to deliver it – things started to become extraordinarily clear to me.

In that moment, I knew there was no other place in the world I should be.  I was re-grounded in my sense of purpose in a world with real and urgent problems.  I was reminded of why I had even come to Wharton and just maybe why it is worth if for any of us to be here.  Wharton is an opportunity to work on ourselves, but amid the exotic travel and exuberance of this place I had forgotten that self-betterment isn’t solely for our own enrichment; but rather so we have more abilities to give.

I believe the purpose of Wharton is to gain knowledge and skills and empowerment from the world’s best professors and peers and then take that knowledge out into the world to solve the unsolvable.  To challenge the status quo.  To comfort the afflicted and sometimes to afflict the comfortable.

In fact, in the last decade as our generation has entered the workforce, we’ve pushed businesses to step up and start solving some of the most complex problems of our day.  We’ve seen businesses stepping up to address global climate change.  We’ve seen businesses stepping up to solve veterans’ issues.  And we’ve seen businesses stepping up to attack inequality.  And so as we leave this place, the burdens we carry are far heavier than our P&Ls and our IRR hurdles.  It’s the fate of the planet.  It’s the closing of the military-civilian divide.  It’s the hope for equality.

Long before I wrote that email to Maureen, I was a kid growing up in a cornfield who never dreamed he’d be able to go an Ivy League school.  But, at Wharton I’ve been inspired by a community that is curious and kind and overwhelmingly accepting.  A community that is eager to get in a room to ask the hard questions and to challenge each other’s current way of thinking.  You may have to lure us there with Shake Shack burgers and we’re probably running a few minutes late, but we’ll show up with humble hearts and open minds.

In my hut in Afghanistan, there was a quote etched on a wall – Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.  It’s a truth I think about often.  We’re not at our best sipping mimosas on a beach.  We’re at our best when we’re fighting for our lives.  We’re at our finest in the passionate pursuit of a cause that is righteous and just and bigger than we are.

And so my wish for us today is not prosperity, but adversity.  Not comfort, but sacrifice.  Not an easy life, but a purposeful one.  Because we need your genius now.

Now, because our grandchildren will someday want to live on a planet that is not falling apart.  Now, because there’s a generation of veterans in this country who are suffering in the shadows and need to know we haven’t forgotten them.  Now, because there are millions of children coming behind us who someday want to join a workforce that is fair and full of opportunity despite their gender, despite the color of their skin, despite how much money their parents have.

So, work hard, Wharton, because we have hard work to do.  After two years – if not a lifetime – of extraordinary growth and opportunity, the world deserves your genius, not just our prosperity.  And so, Wharton Class of 2018, I leave you with a congratulations – and the ask that we celebrate today because tomorrow we go to work.

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