Commencement Address by Administrator Rajiv Shah at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thank you, Dean Krishnan.   

It is my deepest honor to congratulate the newest class of Heinzers, your professors, friends, and—most importantly—your family.

I had the opportunity to meet with a small group of students earlier today and hear about your incredible accomplishments and experiences.

You have spent the last two years applying the principles you have been taught in the classroom out in the world: helping improve patient flow at a pediatric clinic; assessing the effectiveness of development projects in South Africa; and designing new software to improve data collection for my own Agency—the U.S. Agency for International Development.

And I don’t even pay you guys.

So let me say thank you and how much I appreciate the honor of speaking to you today.

With Heinz College programs in Australia, Italy, and Mexico, I’m actually very glad you’re holding your commencement in Pittsburgh. Nothing measures up to a Jumbo and Cheese Sandwich from Primanti Brothers or a cold one at The Porch.

It is also my honor to be here today because your education represents something unique in our world. Even since the giants of industry—Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon—first established their footprints here in Pittsburgh, this city has served at the frontier of American innovation and philanthropy—proving what is possible when you apply both your heart and your mind.

With backgrounds as diverse as engineering and history, Heinz scholars learn to apply these principles to their own work—bringing analytic rigor to public policy and compassion to analytics.

It is here—at what Steve Jobs called the intersection of technology and liberal arts—that ideas gain influence and action has real meaning.

I often think about the importance of these qualities in my own life and the skill it takes to balance them.

As a student, I was drawn to medicine—to the way that scientific principles could be applied to alleviate suffering and save lives.

As an adult, I began to realize that the same analytically rigorous approach that shaped modern medicine could be harnessed to achieve great human aspirations, like ending the scourge of hunger.

It was those interests that brought me first to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and then to USAID, where every day, more than 9,600 people strive to apply these principles on the ground in over 80 countries around the world.

We don’t do it because it’s easy or because it’s a path to fame and fortune.

We do it because we believe passionately and profoundly in our mission to answer calls for help and support those in need. And we do it because we know that by fighting hunger, disease, and poverty, we help keep our country safe and continue to maintain our leadership as the world’s greatest force for good.

But even so, it isn’t enough to ask people to believe our work is inherently effective because our intentions are good.

We have to prove it.

In the last three years, we have rebuilt our Agency with a dynamic team of experts from all walks of life.

We’ve made sure that all our major programs are independently evaluated—and those evaluations are available right now on an iphone app.

And we have cut programs in order to focus our resources where we can deliver the greatest results.

This evidence-based approach works, and it has allowed us to build a broad base of support on both sides of the aisle.

Today, over 7 million small scale farmers are using new technologies to produce more food—moving from a dependence on food aid to self-reliance and dignity.

Today, fewer children are dying than at any other point in history—because kids everywhere are getting new vaccines and sleeping under bednets.

And today, more people are voting and fewer elections are rigged because mobile phone based efforts enlist all people in the fight against violence and corruption.

As we focus on taking these results to greater scale, we continue to look to the private sector for new ideas and innovations.

So last year, when I had the chance to meet with some experts on private sector management and leadership, I eagerly set out to take notes and learn what lessons we could adapt for our work.

Each of these CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies—and have plenty of experience between them delivering strong shareholder results.

I don’t know what I expected, but it probably involved a round of scotch and a discussion about ruthlessly eliminating inefficiencies and taking bold high-risk, high-reward strategic action. But boy was I surprised.

Instead of discussing hard analyses, the group extoled the power of soft ideas. They spoke of common purpose; meaningful work; and a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. For each of them, these issues were make or break.

I suddenly remembered a book I had read called American Icon: Alan Mullaly and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. My dad worked at Ford for about 30 years, and I was eager to learn how Mullaly used data-driven insights to turn his company around.

It turned out he did it by making his employees stand before car dealers and say, “We love you,” out loud and in unison while simultaneously reminding his senior executives to smile more and remember that—and I quote—“the purpose in life is to love and be loved.”

Now, I really should ask you to stand up and give each other hugs. But instead I’m just going to ask you to stop and think.

In everything we do—in everything we do—there is a place for both human compassion and scientific rigor.

In fact, in just the last year, I’ve seen the power of these principles translate into profoundly meaningful results for some of the most vulnerable people around the world.

In Nairobi, Kenya, I met young leaders in a grassroots movement called “Yes Youth Can.” These were the kids who had witnessed an explosion of violence around their homes and in their communities after the 2007 election. These were the kids who had lost a father or a sister or had born the brutality of the attacks themselves.

But instead of becoming victims of that tragedy, they became leaders of hope. As the 2013 elections approached, they stood together—one million strong—and helped carry their nation forward in peace.

In Rangoon, Burma, I met hundreds of computer science students who had grown up in isolation and oppression and were brimming with excitement. Inspired by the Googles and Microsofts of the world, they were eager for opportunities to connect with these innovation highways to change their country. While media coverage of Burma’s transition has focused on the decisions of the leaders at the top, the real engine of change is coming from these students at the grassroots.

And in Mogadishu, Somalia—a city once synonymous with the word “war”—I saw a nation alive with new possibilities. Only a year earlier, I had visited the region in the grips of a devastating famine—one of the hardest trips I’ve ever taken. I saw starving children days away from death—some of whom we were able to save, but many of whom we could not. I saw their small bodies wrapped in blankets lying on cots next to their siblings who were still fighting for life.

From this devastating past, we are helping build a better future. Today, we’re partnering with communities to create new jobs, plant more resilient crops, and turn on the lights—enabling the population to celebrate peace and stability for the first time in decades.

Miles apart, these examples reflect an approach to accelerating human progress that is not only changing the way we work, but actually putting us within reach of goals that were simply unimaginable in the past.

Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, President Obama gave voice to this vision when he called upon us to join the world in ending extreme poverty in the next two decades. The President’s challenge reflects the exciting new realities of our time.

In the last 20 years alone, child mortality rates have fallen by 42 percent and poverty rates by 50 percent. In fact, hardly anyone noticed in 2005 when—for the first time in human history—poverty began falling in every region in the world, including Africa. Quietly, steadily, this path of progress has put us within sight of remarkable goals.

By bringing new technologies, high-impact partnerships, and a relentless focus on results, we can lift one billion people from the most gut-wrenching, dehumanizing conditions of absolute deprivation, and we can do this within the next two decades.

But we can’t do it alone.

We have to move from a traditional model of top-down development to a new model that engages talent and innovation everywhere.

The problems we face—from extreme poverty to extreme climate to extreme ideology—are solvable, but solving them requires meaningful contributions from all parts of society.

In a world where large institutions once guarded the doors to social advancement and dictated the policies that determined individual contributions, this shift represents a profound change. In our field, I call this “open-source development,” and it reflects our desire to literally open development challenges to problem-solvers everywhere—from students on campus to CEOs of major corporations.

In the last three years, we’ve launched a series of Grand Challenges that have encouraged more than 1,500 innovators—half of them from developing countries—to submit groundbreaking proposals to problems like child death and clean energy.

We’ve established a Development Innovation Ventures Fund, so we can help entrepreneurs test and scale creative ideas—like monitoring ballot boxes with camera phones in Afghanistan.

And we recently founded a constellation of seven development innovation laboratories on college campuses—reaching from Berkeley, California to Kampala, Uganda.

Universities are actually one of my favorite places to talk about open-source development, because you guys instantly get it. You grew up in a world where real-time information and good ideas aren’t the privilege of an elite few, but actually belong to everyone with a phone in their pockets. Increasingly, the best ideas aren’t just coming from development professionals who have been in the field for three decades.

They’re coming from young people like yourselves—who know how to harness science and innovation in the pursuit of human progress.

That’s exactly what Tiffany Foster has done. Tiffany—who graduated in December—considered the challenge of human trafficking, an enduring injustice that robs thousands of people of their freedom and dignity around the world every day.

Instead of believing the problem was too big to overcome, Tiffany designed a simple web plugin that enables shoppers to instantly see how companies rate on human rights, the environment, and social justice.

The tool, which can reach 615 million consumers every year in the U.S. alone, won second place our Agency’s counter-trafficking campus challenge. That is exactly what open-source development is about.

And as Heinz graduates, you have a tremendous role to play in carrying it forward.

I’d like close with this note. You are graduating today with a rare appreciation for the qualities that define good leadership, especially a respect for human dignity and a commitment to meaningful results.

But as you go out into the world, you may find the greatest challenge is not just staying true to those principles in your profession, but also in your life.

In an effort to get better in this area myself, I recently started keeping a spreadsheet of my daily goals—not only as a manager of a global organization, but also as a husband and a father.

Have I listened to diverse viewpoints before making a decision? Have I said thank you to those have gone above and beyond? Have I found meaning in my work? Have I supported my children? My wife? My mother?

Each and every day, I am supposed rate myself—from zero to ten—on how I measure up to these goals.

And—I have to tell you—that simple act of measurement is the single hardest thing I do every day. Most of the time, that list of goals sits untouched in my desk drawer.

The truth is that it’s hard to be honest with yourself.

It’s hard to have a tough day and go home and realize that you didn’t even live up to your own expectations of leadership, friendship, or parenting. But the reality is that you are the only person who can hold yourself to account. And when you do, you reap not only the rewards of professional accomplishments, but also those of being a stronger, better friend… leader… or parent. 

With a fine education and legacy of achievement, you have an incredible path ahead of you. You are graduating into a world alive with opportunities. But even in this world, each of us must earn the right to lead.

As you write the next chapter of human history, stay true to the passion and focus that brought you to Heinz.

Lead with your heart and your mind—and harness the best of both to help answer President Obama’s call to end extreme poverty and overcome the greatest challenges of our time.

Congratulations Heinz Class of 2013 – for what you have already accomplished and the remarkable achievements you’ll bring to our future.  

Thank you. 

Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA

Last updated: May 20, 2013

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