2018 Coe College Commencement Address

Karim I. Budhwani  '93

May 6, 2018 


OK, I’ve got to do this first. [Takes picture using phone]. That looks good. Now let me do it again and take *your* picture! 

Thank you, President Dave, Dr. Carstens.

You have no idea. Words cannot describe my gratitude – and how I feel today. And I’ve heard at some small liberal arts college that a picture is worth a thousand words. But a thousand pictures wouldn’t be able to describe how I feel. Maybe Nathan can help me with some graphic design. And it is a shame that we are not indoors, where I could lock the exits and SING my gratitude to you. I wouldn’t take that risk in this setting!

It is always a pleasure to be back at Coe! But today is very special – not because of what just happened, but for what is about to happen – my speech!

Good morning Coe College!

Today is indeed very, very special. And it is my privilege – my pleasure – to say this in person to you: Congratulations Class of 2018!

I’m going to start with the speech now.

President Dave, [Provost] Princess Paula, Board of Trustees, Alumni Council Members, Distinguished Faculty and Staff, My dear Guests of Honor, Parents, Family, Friends, and Class of 2018!

I know it is customary, on such occasions, to share inspiring personal stories – to reflect on pivotal moments from my life. But I am going to buck that trend.

Instead, I am going to jump right into a question that Nathan alluded to earlier: “What’s next sweetie?”

Look, I remember – OK, I vaguely remember – 25 years ago, when I was in your shoes. I was very excited, but also concerned. I had wide-eyed aspirations mixed-in with the nearly impossible goal of keeping my bank account above the required minimum.

So, when Rod invited me to be your commencement speaker, my first thought was: how can I make these 15 minutes most valuable to you. OK, that wasn’t my first thought, my first thought was “Cool!” But, *your* future was a close second!

As you can guess, the answer to “what’s next sweetie?” will be unique for each one of you – and – it will change over time.

Soooo, I made you a little cheat-sheet that works today, is durable for the road ahead, and only has 4 items, making it really easy to remember, so no excuses, and to visit – regularly – in the time to come! 

#1. INK:

Let’s start with INK – Innovation and New Knowledge – INK. 

Until the 1900s, human knowledge was doubling every hundred-ish years. When I graduated from Coe, we were doubling it every 25 years. So, even a decade after I graduated, the basis of my UG education was still leading-edge.

However, the body of knowledge from just 4 years ago – when you started at Coe – amounts to less than a quarter today! And that’s not all: machines are co-writing pop songs, completing our Bing and Google searches, driving our cars, speaking at commencements – they’re not that good yet!

But every repetitive task that we can do, machines can do better.

Let’s run through a simple thought experiment:

Imagine the best place to work. Now imagine you are the CEO! Pretty cool huh, one minute you are graduating, the next you are CEO! Anyway, what if I told you that I have technology that can perform all job functions at your organization for half the cost of labor? Will you fire everyone? Replace them with automation? Or, will you let a competitor wipe you all out, using the same option that you chose not to accept? And you thought being CEO was all fun and games!

Fortunately, we don’t have to make that decision today. But to ignore this trend – or defer shaping its course – would be dangerous. Because what is hypothetical today is going to erode its way into the economy, with the tide of time.

Imagine driverless cars 5 years down the road. Now think about what that’ll do to truck drivers, bus drivers, even Uber and Lyft drivers.

So, does that mean we stop innovation? Make the future great again by shackling it to the past? Or is there a better way?

Obviously, there’s a better way!

And, *you* – my fellow Kohawks – have an advantage!

In preparing for the new knowledge economy, just about everyone is singularly focused on STEM – science, tech, engineering, and math. But, even though that’s a sound strategy, in my opinion, it is inadequate

Let me explain.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella recently recalled that before the printing press, the world had about 30,000 books; 50 years after the press: 12 million books!

I think a much bigger transformation lies ahead in the next 50 years. And using the printing press analogy, by only focusing on STEM, we are limiting ourselves to only building a better printing press. What about the capacity to go from 30,000 to 12 million books? After all, what good is the best press without content that is worthy of print?

This is why my focus has been on STEAM – integrating the [liberal] Arts into STEM. And this is where your Coe education will play a key role – regardless of your major – because in our liberal arts tradition, the emphasis is not on what we learn, but on the process of learning. 

So, the first point that I wish to make today, is that INK – Innovation, New, Knowledge – will dramatically alter your tomorrow; but, in that transformation, lies a tremendous opportunity for you: an opportunity to shape, and lead, the new knowledge society!

However, for this, you will have to be proactive. For instance, pre-med and nursing grads, stay on top of advances in medical science – obviously. But don’t stop there: think about what can transform medical care. Keep an eye on informatics, telehealth, AI, IA – and then, open your eyes even wider – to ethics, economics, engineering, geopolitics, and even the environment.

Basically, follow trends in and around your fields of endeavor. Transform that data into knowledge, and then, that knowledge into wisdom to help you shape the landscape.

Again, the road to success will not be paved for you; *you* will have to build those bridges – but your education has prepared you very well for it. So, don’t be afraid – think big and engage!

#2. The Other:

Which brings me to my next point. When I say engage, I don’t mean engage only across sectors, but also across geographies, cultures, and ideologies.

Less than 5% of the world lives in the USA. And only 1% of that – so a teeny tiny fraction – lives in Iowa!

So, engaging across geographies would seem logical. But, as we’ve seen recently with Brexit, the close races in France and Germany, and also sadly in our own country – there is a penchant for scapegoating; to simply blame the “other” for all our problems: the “other” arrives too early at Starbucks, the “other” is taking our jobs, the “other” is taking over our bathrooms, the “other” is drinking all the beer, eating all the pizza, whatever. 

And social networks that we hoped would enrich the human experience, have instead made things worse. To the extent that we now define our own identity in ways that we differ from the “other.” So that we are together, but isolated. Together, but alone. Together, but afraid.

It doesn’t take a Coe education – or perhaps it does – to see that this is not sustainable. We have to tear down walls and get back in the business of building bridges. But that does not mean we go to the other extreme: of erasing our differences. 

Because differences enrich life, like the multitude of threads that make up beautiful tapestries, the range of instruments in a Coe symphony, the elements across the periodic table as shown on the Peterson Hall.

We simply have to remind ourselves that human beings are not one-dimensional.

Let me give you an example. My wife, Henna, has a PhD in medical sociology, is a professor of public health, and a fierce champion of improving health outcomes around the world. But, she also loves junk food!

And there is no conflict in this! The trick is to find common ground and build on it.

So, as we look to the future, what better way to engage with the “other” – across geographies – than to find common interest in applying new knowledge in local contexts around the world!

Last year, in a joint initiative of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the East African campuses of the Aga Khan University, we developed a program for training clinical practitioners in clinical research.

Building knowledge upon knowledge, within local contexts, to create new opportunities.

Another example: Steve Kranz, class of ‘92. He was terrible at picking flunk day – so if you think you had it bad, we had it really bad – but remarkably talented in economics. Steve was born and raised in Iowa but chose to teach economics halfway around the world, in Abu Dhabi! He also led the UAE team to the Buckingham Palace in a global entrepreneurship challenge!

So, instead of building walls to isolate us, seek to open new windows; windows of economic opportunity around INK. Instead of worrying about the “other” stealing your job, partner with the “other” to create a whole slew of sustainable new jobs! Turn problems into opportunities and weaponize opportunity against despair.

So, the second point I wish to make is: engage across geographies and cultures to create new economic opportunity. But, in so doing, seek to ensure that no one is left behind.

Look, automation will continue to replace us in jobs that are dangerous or repetitive – especially in high-income countries like ours. By creating economic opportunity – around INK – you will build strong global foundations that undergird human society for decades to come.

And don’t worry about failing. Pioneering often involves failures. I could list my failures for hours and be nowhere near the end. But, don’t simply stack up failures from the buffet of mediocrity. Or abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. That’s not for us – sorry Cal – that’s for Cornell and Wartburg.

Engage fully. Engage fiercely. And then if you fail, learn from it, dust-off, celebrate any small wins along the way – cause there will be small wins, and prepare better for the next adventure! Of course, all this, is so much better in good company.

#3. Come Together:

Which brings me to my third point: the days of going at it alone, are history. Everything else aside, just the pace of knowledge, makes it impossible for any one person – except maybe Doc Feller – to keep up let alone lead.

So, on one hand, I’m asking you to engage in INK, engage across geographies and cultures, to create hope and economic opportunity. And on the other, I’m saying that it is going to be impossible for you to do that. So, have I set you up for a cruel, frustrating and fruitless pursuit?

Of course not! What I’m saying is that it will be impossible for you to do this alone but, it is within reach if you come together.

You may have heard that the key to success is surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. Well, look around you – you are already surrounded! This remarkable network is your asset. An asset that you have built over the last 4 years. 

Don’t disconnect this network today. Au contraire, strengthen it. Connect it to the broader Coe Alumni network – and then engage with it. Lean on it. Work together to build capacity that is larger than you. Capacity that will enable you to boldly engage with INK, bridge knowledge deficits, and create economic opportunity.

If that sounds far-fetched, just ask Collin Wilkinson – Class of 2018. Collin tested this strategy with fellow Coe students David Hynek and Aaron Potter. The trio successfully brought together faculty, staff, and alumni in developing a startup concept for reselling idle compute capacity in the cloud. How do I know this? Because I was the alum working with them!

So, the third point I wish to make is: Come together. Build together. Make this network your strength – and become its strength.

#4. Balance:

My fourth and final point – in the tradition of eyerolls – is: balance. Before you roll your eyes, this is not about work-life but about 2 important balancing acts.

The first is the Passion-Pragmatism Tango. When I graduated from Coe, I was accepted to the grad school and program of my choice – with full tuition and stipend. But I was also aware of the significant opportunity in addressing the “Year 2000” crisis.

So, I put grad school on hold and went into industry to capitalize on this time-sensitive opportunity for beefing up my bank account. Look, money isn’t everything, but as our CFO, Chris, often jokes, it leaves you free to deal with the remaining 5% of life’s problems.

Now, did I give up on grad school? No, because if you are truly passionate, you will find a way – not right away perhaps, but surely in time. So, follow your passion but don’t abdicate your responsibilities to yourself, to your families, and to society.

Yes, society.

Even as I was weighing grad school vs. industry, hawkish about every penny in my near-zero bank account, I made it a point to donate. Regularly. $5, $10, whatever.

And it wasn’t just money. I also gave of my time and knowledge; to Coe for sure but also to other organizations including multinational NGOs such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which is the largest non-denominational development agency in the world.

This is the Income-Impact Balance: Build a great quality of life for you and for your future generations, but then, be generous with that which is in excess. And the funny thing about service: you are not just the benefactor but also a beneficiary.

My first experience in multinational leadership, for instance, came from my service engagements, which complemented my professional development. Service and leadership go hand in hand. And so, must income and impact.

My dear Class of 2018, your future is not a spectator sport. It is not a show that you simply Netflix and then chill. You will have to shape your future. You will have to make it happen!

And I am excited about this future; the future that you will build. Having been in your shoes – knowing what you have already achieved and are capable of achieving – I have faith in you. The faculty, alumni, the entire Coe community – we are all rooting for you. And I hope this little cheat-sheet helps you, as you build that future. As you build our future.

So, I repeat. Engage. (1) Engage with INK. (2) Engage with the “Other” across geographies and cultures. (3) Engage with your network. And Engage while (4) balancing passion with pragmatism and income with impact!

My dear Class of 2018, congratulations and good luck!

2018 Coe College Senior Speaker

Nathan Kibler '18


Thank you, President McInally. Good morning to the faculty and staff. Good morning to all the friends and family here today. And good morning my fellow classmates from the class of 2018! I cannot express to you want an honor it is to be here speaking to you. And because you have given me this honor I feel it is necessary that I preface this speech with an apology.

An apology for the copious amounts of eye rolling that will occur for every time I utter the phrase, “Coe makes it possible, you make it happen.”

I know. I know the phase evokes. No. Demands just a little bit of eye rolling every time it is said and not because of the phrase itself or the message it provides… No, The eye rolling is triggered due to all the times we have been exposed to this phrase these past few years. From our first letter from Coe, to the 352nd letter from Coe, we saw this phrase. From all the posters plastered across campus with this expression branded upon it, to those professors that love to try and cram the phrase into every single class, we see it everywhere… It’s impossible to escape. Despite this, it holds one hundred percent validity.

The phrase is built in two parts, the first being “ Coe makes it possible.”

Coe has made it possible to each and everyone of us in a plethora of ways, taking shape in a number of unique forms. This possibility took the form of an open door every time our professors would keep true to their office hours in order to help us out with that lecture we just couldn’t quite understand. It was made possible when our advisor didn’t strangle us after the 7th time we went in wanting to change our major. Coe made it possible when that same advisor sat down with us for a full hour and a half to ensure we were able to study abroad because it is what we really wanted to do. Coe made it possible when creating that friendly environment that every that dreamy eyed prospective student talks about during their visit to campus.

This part of the phrase is nice but it is only the second most important piece of a two-part phrase. The most important part being, “you make it happen.” And we did…

We made it happen countless amounts of times through out these last four years… We made it happen when we were in the library at 1am completing the 10-page essay we totally started 3 weeks ago when it was assigned. We made it happen when we discovered what exactly was causing the supply curve to shift. We made it happen when after 30 minutes, sapling finally accepted our answer it’s 4.399 and not 4.4 by the way. We made it happen when we nailed that last note on our solo and we made it happen when we put that last stroke on our canvas. We made it happen when we found that awkward group of strangers that we ended up calling our squad, hash-tag squad, and we made it happen when we pulled together as a community to help put down over 400,000 sandbags in 2016. We made it happen when we survived not one, not two, not three… But four flunk days, even when it seemed like that last one would never come.

And like that last point proves, making it happen hasn’t always been easy… Despite this we always pushed through. We pushed through and made it happen despite all those times we were homesick. We still made it happen when our souls were crushed after our first test freshmen year. After a long night’s practice when all we wanted to do was rest our sore muscles, we made it happen when we still finished that problem set. We made it happen though everything, no matter who told us we couldn’t do it, told us we were too childish, too dumb, too unrealistic… we proved all of those misconceptions wrong and made it happen. By sitting here today, we made it happen.

And it doesn’t end here… We don’t die the second these graduation caps leave the top of our heads… it would be impossible because that happened last week during finals.

Throughout this last year, we have all felt that cold shiver down our spines every time Aunt Jessi asks us what was next.. There was a sense of relief in all of us when we didn’t have to worry about housing selection for next year but this relief was almost instantly extinguished once we realized that housing selection now meant looking for an apartment. The idea of moving on can be frightening, but we must remember, that we are ready.

Malcolm X once said “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Well we have earned that passport and it is time for us to make it happen in the real world. Through all those struggles and hardships, we have been prepared and made ready. No matter where we go and no matter what we do, we will be able to succeed.

Class of 2018, Coe has made it possible… We have made it happen and we will continue to make it happen!