It is graduation season in Boston, a city that could rightfully claim the title of MBA Mecca because of its large number of good business schools. It is noteworthy this year that two of the best in Boston – Harvard Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management – selected women executives as their commencement and Class Day speakers. (Harvard went with Kathy Giusti, founder and chief executive of the Multiple Myeloma Foundation and the Multiple Myeloma Research Consortium, while MIT’s speaker was Ursula Burns, chairman and chief executive of Xerox.)
Graduation speeches tend to be full of predictable platitudes: Be bold! Dream big! Find your passion! and so on, and Giusti and Burns’ speeches delivered on that count. (Their audience needed the turbo-charged optimism considering these new MBAs are entering the worst job market since the Great Depression.) But interestingly, both women took the opportunity to speak of the importance of having a life outside of a hard-charging career; the meaning of parenthood, and family; and the value of setting a good example.
Burns urged grads to “have fun, and enjoy life”.
“Surround yourselves with people who make you laugh. People you love and people who are good. I have a great [quote] that hangs on the wall of my office: ‘Don’t do anything that wouldn’t make your Mom proud!’”
Meanwhile Guisti, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer that her oncologist told her was “100 per cent fatal”, 15 years ago, she told her audience:
“I wake up every day normal, and then it always hits me. I have cancer. It is fatal….During those moments of intense uncertainty, the same two questions emerge. Have I made a difference? Have I been a great mom, a great role model? I can answer both with a resounding yes.”
Would the tone and substance of these speeches been different had the speakers been men? Hard to say. And it’s almost irrelevant. Here are two women who have risen to the top of their professions reminding the next generation of business leaders that it is not all about work.
Rebecca Knight is a regular contributor to the Financial Times