Uncertain financial times remain, but Wharton’s newest graduates seem set on changing the world for the better.
By Kelly Andrews
Wharton observed its 126th graduation on May 16, conferring degrees to 606 undergraduates and 950 MBAs, including 150 graduates of the MBA Program for Executives.
It was a joyous event held during an uncertain time. As Vice Dean Georgette Chapman Phillips noted while greeting undergraduates during the morning ceremony at Franklin Field, this new generation of Wharton graduates will enter the business world at a time of great turmoil.
But with that turmoil, Phillips said, there also comes opportunity.
“Let’s go back to 2006,” Phillips said, the David B. Ford Professor of Real Estate. “Remember when the dollar was strong, the housing market peaked, and you began your time at Wharton? Now how we view business and business leaders is fundamentally different. The value system of corporate America continues to be reshaped. The great news is that with change comes opportunity.”
Freed from the expectations of the past, Phillips said, Wharton students are increasingly choosing less traditional paths. They are starting their own businesses, teaching or working for government and nonprofits. “Focus on what you can contribute to society,” Phillips said, “rather than the narrow lens of monetary gain.”
The graduates seemed excited to do so, as the Franklin Field mood was celebratory. Besides, after four years of discussing the developing financial crisis, “today is not the day for that,” said Shannon Dwyer, W’10, who was selected to speak on behalf of her class.
Dwyer, who had a concentration in finance and was named Wharton Woman of the Year for her involvement as Head Team Advisor for Management 100, among other activities, applied to speak at graduation at the urging of her friends. Her selection capped a remarkable four-year journey, Dwyer said. “When I decided to come to Wharton, I was told I was going from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond,” she said. “I’ve been amazed at how quickly this pond got smaller.”
As the first Wharton undergraduate class to be organized by cohort, the Class of 2010 displayed a strong sense of community throughout their time at Wharton. “We get each other,” Dwyer said. “We work hard and we’re passionate about something. That’s what brings us swimming in this pond together.”
In a new Commencement tradition, Wharton undergraduates honored a faculty member as speaker for the first time. Philip Nichols, Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, who got to know many students as faculty master of Stouffer College House, was chosen for the honor. Nichols repeatedly described the graduates before him as “amazing,” pointing out that 10 applicants vied for the seat in which each graduate was sitting. Experiencing Wharton was a gift, he said. “Use your gift to be as amazing in the world as you’ve been at Penn. Lead where you live, in ways that really matter, even if no one notices.”
Beth Kaplan, W’80, WG’81, a member of the Wharton Board of Overseers and the former Chair of the School’s Undergraduate Executive Board, addressed the audience on behalf of alumni. Alumni marshal Alvin Shoemaker, W’60, HON’95, a Wharton Overseer and Emeritus Penn Trustee, passed the Wharton 2010 flag to Dwyer.
MARKING KEY MOMENTS
When the morning cloud-quilted skies cleared to a sunny blue, MBA students turned up the festivity; the 1 p.m. ceremony was energetic and celebratory. As the new graduates filed in, the sight was that of an expanse of black robes dotted with bright mylar balloons and flower leis.
Said Dean Thomas S. Robertson: “You’ve reached a key moment in life, and it’s terribly important to get key moments right. What you end up facing will be a lot of routine, punctuated every so often by these key moments.”
To make his point, Robertson recounted the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who lived through 27,000 hours of mostly routine flight time before the six minutes that tested him—and ultimately defined his career—in 2009. Everything that could go wrong went wrong when US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of birds over New York, but Sullenberger and his crew did everything right to avert disaster. With both engines disabled, Sullenberger successfully ditched the plane in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers survived.
“The key to effective leadership is the ability to accurately assess the nature of a crisis—and then do something about it,” Robertson said. “That’s what key moments are about.”
Robertson closed by recalling Joseph Wharton’s guiding exhortation to create “pillars of the state, whether in public or private life.”
“Go forth and do great things,” he said.
THE COIN OF THE REALM
Akihisa Shiozaki, WG’10, speaking as the 2009-2010 Wharton Graduate Association president, told the story of an early graduate who answered Wharton’s call—Shiro Shiba, a displaced and defeated Japanese samurai who, at the age of 32, became a member of Wharton’s first class back in 1884. Shiba went to enjoy a career in Japanese parliament.
“When we walk out the gates at Franklin Field, let’s remember that we’re not the first to take the stony path,” he said. “The world has been waiting for us long enough. Let’s start writing our stories.”
The keynote speech was given by Robert S. Kapito, W’79, co-founder, president and director of BlackRock, Inc. Robertson observed that BlackRock is one of the few companies in its sector to emerge from the financial cyclone bigger and stronger than ever. “That’s what happens when you get the key moments right,” Robertson said.
“You desire more than just a job,” Kapito told the graduates. “That’s why you came here from every state in America, from Asia, from Europe, from Latin America, and around the world. You want to create something meaningful, develop products and services, help create jobs, reinvent stagnant businesses, translate technology to manufacturing, create clean energy and focus on global needs. Most importantly, [you must] eliminate unethical practices.”
Integrity, he said, “was the coin of the realm in the midst of unpredictability—a guiding principle.”
“The secret ingredient in your career plan is to trust more than your brain,” Kapito continued. “Trust your heart. Leading with your heart will make everything around you fall into place. The rest will become natural.”
LESSONS IN SELFLESSNESS
Salim Kassam, WG’10, who spoke on behalf of the full-time MBAs, recounted how Wharton had taught them all valuable lessons in selflessness.
“We succeeded in these two years because we believed that someone else’s success was just as important as our own,” he said, noting that the all-for-one ethos reached far off campus.
“Think about how much we’ve accomplished in two years,” Hassam continued. “After the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, we did more than give money. We rallied students, alumni, faculty and administrators to create a course which not only deployed talented students to the disaster zone, but will shape the way the world will respond to disasters and crises in the future. We did this while we were starting families, finding jobs in an economic crisis, and handling the challenging coursework at the best business school in the world.”
Todd Gensler, WG’10, representing the graduates of the MBA Program for Executives, touched on a similar theme. “The most valued aspects of our experience are also the least expected,” he said. “We expected Wharton to make us better professionals. We didn’t know it would make us better people.”
Gensler, who also served as co-chair for the 2010 Class Gift, raised the issue of giving back. “The responsibility for the stewardship of the Wharton brand is now ours,” he said. “We applied to the Wharton school because of its reputation for excellence. Now we have responsibility for that reputation.”