James Madison University Commencement unspecified-12

On May 7th I had the honor of giving the graduation commencement address at James Madison University in Harrisonburg Virginia.  It was raining but we kept going and everyone had a wonderful time. The students were terrific.  Below is the speech I gave to the students.


Thank you President Alger.  It is an honor being here to celebrate this important event with you, your graduates, their families and friends, and your superb faculty.  First, let me say congratulations. Congratulations to our graduates and also congratulations to our graduates’ loved ones.

I grew up in a modest home in an industrial park in Rhode Island.  Behind our home was a four-lane turnpike.  The front of our house faced the loading docks of a brewery.  I am here today in large part because of the dedication and sacrifices my parents made.  They are no longer with us, but I am forever grateful for what they did for me.

Today is a perfect time for you to thank those who helped you achieve this milestone — your college degree. Few meaningful accomplishments are achieved alone. Make sure you thank all those who supported you — your parents, family, friends, professors, and mentors—everyone who believed in you and helped you get to this important day.

And please tell them that you love them and give them a really big hug.  Your appreciation is the best gift you can give them today.  And, in the future, make sure you return the favor.  Help others achieve their dream, too.

Until 18 months ago I was CEO of SRI international in Silicon Valley.  Now I run my own new company there.  Silicon Valley is a vital part of America.  You are judged there on your skills, values, and passion to make a contribution.

What matters is what you can do — not where you came from, not your religion, not your finances, and not your politics.  What matters is whether you can work productively with others to solve important problems.  As an example, more than fifty percent of our company CEOs are immigrants from around the world.

SRI is in the heart of Silicon Valley, down the street from Stanford University.  Among its world-changing innovations, SRI gave the world the computer mouse, high-definition TV, robotic surgery, and Siri on the iPhone.

In 2006 we opened a new center here in Harrisonburg with the support of your great university and Senator Tim Kaine, who was then governor.  My wife is from North Carolina and, as you know, southerners are famous for their warm hospitality and love of the mountains.

We have laboratories in other lovely places, like on the coast of Florida, but when I told my wife we would be here and our facility would be on top of a hill overlooking the Shenandoah Mountains she said, “Curt, you hit a grand slam this time.” I agree.  It has been a wonderful experience being here with you.

The news is full of dire predictions, from global warming, to terrorism, and to artificial intelligence and robots that will put us all out of work. Don’t let that discourage you.

When I graduated in the 1970’s, the big worry was that America would be in endless decline because Japan and others were outcompeting us.  Books were written about the “end of the American era.”  Doom and gloom were everywhere.  But that didn’t happen.  America continued to grow and thrive.

Something stops these dire predictions from happening. That something is people — or today I should say you.  It is so because people create new ideas and solutions. There are no limits to creativity – there is an endless supply.  When smart people see problems they don’t just sit there.  They get up and fix them.

At the same time the world moves extremely fast today.  Many technologies improve by 100% every 2 years.  In just seventeen years our mobile phones went from being expensive toys for the rich to being supercomputers that can beat the world’s best chess champions. Over the next seventeen years your phone may go faster than the human brain.

These rapidly moving forces open up one huge opportunity after another. This is the best time ever for creating major innovations. The next generation of biotechnology will add decades to your life.  Green energy will become economic.  3-D printing will allow you to design some of your own products and have them delivered within hours to your home, perhaps by a drone.  Autonomous electric cars will transform transportation and congestion in our cities.  You will be able to see and talk to people around the world in vivid 3-D with a computer doing simultaneous translation in any language.

Because of these rapid changes, some of you may have 10 or even 30 different jobs before you retire.  You are off to a great start with your excellent degree from JMU. But the skills you have today are just the start.

You must continuously learn so that you can work for as long as you want to work, not as long as someone else wants you to work.  More than at any time in history, you must take control of your career because your career is going to change rapidly.

Let me give you an example of how some are adapting to our world and getting the skills required.  In Silicon Valley there is the Girls Middle School for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. It was started by a businesswoman who believed that young women weren’t getting the education they needed to flourish in our world.

The school has a unique innovation and entrepreneurial program during the 7th grade. Over the year the girls create and run their own companies.  They go through a two-day boot camp to learn how to form a company.  They write a business plan and then present it to Silicon Valley venture capitalists to get funded – a few hundred dollars.

I visited the school to better understand what they had learned.  I asked one of the girls, “What has your experience been like?”  She said, “Dr. Carlson, have you ever noticed that it is hard to put a team together?”   “As a matter of fact,” I said, “I have.”  She continued, “But have you noticed that when you do, different people generally want to do different things?  For example, I like to talk, so I became the Vice President of Sales.  Judy is very creative and likes to build things, so she became our Vice President of Design and Manufacturing.  And Sally is good at math, so she became our Chief Financial Officer.”

“And by the way Dr. Carlson, I don’t know if you have noticed this, but although this was a lot of hard work, it was also a lot of fun.  Have you ever noticed that?”  I said, “Yes I have, but unfortunately not as early as you in the 7th grade.”

These young women have learned how to work in teams, address important problems, and create new innovations that people want.  In today’s world you need these innovation and entrepreneurial skills too. Rote, repetitive jobs will mostly be automated away.

That conclusion is true whether you work in a company, the government, the Peace Corps, whether as a teacher, writer, artist, lawyer, entrepreneur starting a new company, or a basic researcher.  Your job will be to create new solutions that address people’s needs.

You must deeply understand innovation and entrepreneurship. That requires skills and values that let you look at a problem and then figure out how to solve it.  Acquiring these skills can make you one of the most valuable people over your career, whatever you end up doing.

To get the experience you need, never turn down an opportunity.  Even if it scares you to death, do it. That has happened to all of us.  Step up and welcome new opportunities.  You are going to need that additional experience.  Seek out the most important opportunities that have meaning for you. Aspire, as Steve Jobs said, to “make a dent in the universe.”

Second, learn eagerly from others. None of us knows enough.  As we say in Silicon Valley, no matter how smart you are, most of the smartest people are somewhere else.  Find the best people and engage with them. Don’t let an opportunity pass by.

Third, always team with people with excellent human values. In our fast moving world, we can only work productively when we trust each other.  People who don’t treat others with respect and integrity are losers – run away from them as fast as possible.  Your integrity is your most valuable property.  Guard it.

Finally, in my experience the biggest success factor is grit.  People with grit find something they care about and persevere. They don’t make excuses.  Grit is more important than what you studied, where you came from, and what your SAT scores were.  Find something you care about, don’t give up, and succeed.

I want to close by describing a problem that I consider to be among the most serious in America today.  I tell you about it because it shows what you can do when you have these skills.  It is also an example of the rewards you get when you make a meaningful contribution. As you know, a meaningful life is much more than making money.

In our inner cities many children fail to graduate.  In parts of Detroit 75% of African-American boys fail to pass algebra and don’t graduate. This is both immoral and a disaster for America. It is profoundly unjust to have so many of our fellow citizens without the skills needed to fully participate.

People have tried all kinds of approaches to address this problem and the results have always been disappointing.  But a few of my colleagues at SRI, with the skills I just described, have committed to addressing this critical need. They created a new computer-based curriculum to teach 1st year algebra. It is based on the fundamentals of effective learning, such as allowing continuous feedback to measure a student’s progress.

The team is now conducting trials in Florida with almost 100,000 students.  The results to date have been excellent, showing a greater than 50% improvement in educational outcomes.  I believe that this achievement may be the most important SRI has ever made.

At the end of each class the SRI team meets with the teachers to learn from their experiences in order to improve the program.  At one session an African-American teacher from Florida stood up to describe her experience.  I have learned from my wife that you never want to give a speech after a Southerner.  It is usually impossible to match their eloquence and humanity.  That was certainly true this time.

She started by saying that she deeply loved her children, but every year, for 20 years, she had failed them.  She had tried everything she could, but they had not learned.     She said she hated computers but because she loved her children so much she had to try.  To her surprise she discovered that her students were learning and she became more engaged too.

Everything was going perfectly until one day she looked around and one of her boys was missing.  She ran around the school but little Billy was nowhere to be found.  She then ran into the principal’s office to call the police.  As she ran through the door, sitting in the corner of the room was Billy, working on his algebra.  It was the only quiet place in the school.

She ended by saying that we had changed her life forever.  She now realized that she could successfully teach the children she loves so much.  There wasn’t a dry eye in that room when she finished.  We may have helped change her life, but she had also changed our lives forever too.  That moment was priceless.

I hope you will have experiences like that in your career too.  In today’s world there are endless opportunities in all fields. Keep looking until you find work that has meaning for you.  There is magic in that.

You now have a superb education from JMU.  Tackle important problems you care about.  Seek out the best people with the best values, keep on learning, and persevere.  Remember, grit wins.

I have worked all over the world, and America is, by far, the best place for you to make your hopes and dreams come true.

With these skills and values, years from now when you look back I am confident that you will have made a positive and lasting contribution to the world. You will have worked with many great colleagues.  And you will have had a lot of fun.

Congratulations on achieving this major milestone.  And again, please, thank your family and supporters, and give them that great big hug.

I wish you all the very best. Thank you.


PS The algebra program I mentioned is called Cornerstone Math.  Just recently Broward County Florida, with the 6th largest school district in the US, has adopted it for use in all of its middle schools.