Why Business Matters

Why Business Matters

Good morning. Before I begin, I would like to thank my classmates for allowing me to speak on their behalf, my professors for putting up with all of my questions, and my family for being my biggest fans. Thank you all, sincerely.

If you knew me a decade ago, you might be surprised to see me here today. Back then, I thought business just meant “making money.” I was never interested in devoting my life to money, so I was never really interested in business. In fact, by the time I got to college, I had become one of its biggest critics.

My freshman year, 8 million people around the world died of cancer, and one of them was my father. Yet, instead of working on a cure, all of the smartest people I knew were running to work on Wall Street. I had heard all about “the invisible hand of capitalism,” which supposedly leads us through our own self-interest to do what is naturally best for society. As far as I could tell, the invisible hand was broken. That was one of my lines.

So, I spent my weekdays doing science research, my weekends quoting German philosophers and ruining everyone’s dinner conversation. But then I noticed something interesting: while the heads of my lab went begging for funding, investors were begging to fund entrepreneurs – some of whom were working on cures for cancer. And some of these investors, it turned out, were those smart friends of mine from college.

Evidently, I had gotten the story wrong: money wasn’t the goal of business; it was the reward. The reward for taking risk and, ultimately, improving lives. If you needed people to give you their resources – for example, money to pay researchers – then you needed to reward them for their risk. And unless you actually improve lives – at Wharton, we call them your “customers” – then you don’t get any reward at all. Of course, the system isn’t perfect, but it also built the modern world. Before we invented financial markets, we each grew our own food and lived on average to age 35. My father made it to age 59.

So, I realized that if I wanted to maximize my impact, I would have to pivot: I left the lab, joined an early stage startup, and began my conversion to a Wharton MBA. 

Not long ago, over a drink in Rittenhouse Square, I was cornered into a familiar debate – except this time taking the opposite side. She was a nurse from West Philadelphia, who woke up every morning at 5am to help sick members of the community – and for much less than the average Wharton salary. “Sure, I get it,” she said, “cancer drugs are important. But why do we need more investment bankers? Can’t we just have more nurses?”

It was a respectable question – and, frankly, I thought she deserved a raise. But I tried my best to explain. How else should we decide which biotech companies to fund? That is, who should we trust with society’s resources? And what if we pick the wrong ones? I guess what I’m trying to say, I told her, is that investment bankers help us cure cancer. Unfortunately, I don’t think she was convinced.

To many Americans like her, Wharton graduates are a misunderstood bunch. Most of us don’t go on to join the front lines – out in the open, fighting fires or performing surgeries. We tend to operate behind the scenes, in the control room, flipping complicated switches. And it’s not easy to see what those switches actually do unless you study the long chain of events that follow – from an Excel spreadsheet, to a factory, to a happier, healthier human being. 

Wharton graduates of 2019: the potential consequences of flipping the wrong switch are greater today than ever before in history, and humanity needs your expertise. You are the operators of this economic machine – the same one that has given us electricity, antibiotics, computers, and cars.

As you consider the challenges of the 21st century, I ask you: what will you give us next?

Thank you.

About Zach Gray, WG'19

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