Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande, DeanWalker School of Business & Technology, Webster University Full text of keynote address at NAFSA - May 29, 2013
As a child growing up in Africa, I must have heard my father tell the story a hundred times. And so it was inevitable that I would hear the story one last time on the evening of august 23, 1979, the day before my departure to the United States of America. The story began on a rainy night, in a far away place called America. It's about 11:30 p.m., an older African-American woman was stranded on the side of an Alabama highway in a driving rainstorm. Her car had broken down and she desperately needed a ride home. Soaking wet, she tried to flag down the cars as they passed by, but nobody stopped to help. After what must have seemed like eternity, a young white man stopped to help. At this juncture my dad reminded me that this act of kindness demonstrated by this young man was rare in those conflict-filled, racially tense civil rights days. But this man was gracious and took her to safety, got her a taxicab. Although she was in a hurry to get home, she asked the Good Samaritan for his address just before he drove off. A few weeks later, the young man received an unexpected surprise in the mail. It was a giant console black and white TV with a special note attached. The note read:
"Thank you so much for helping me on the highway the other night." "the rain drenched not only my clothes but also my spirits. But, because of you, i was able to make it to my dying husband's bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and serving others unselfishly. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole"
As a young lad, my first and only impression of America was based on this story. I saw America as a nation of helpers, a place of courage filled with encouragers, a country where everybody got along with each other and leaned on one another.
My American journey began on a rainy Thursday night, August 24, 1979. As the pan am Boeing 747 approached the john f. Kennedy airport, pictures tumbled through my mind - New York City, the Big Apple, the United States of America. I saw skyscrapers pushed up like mushrooms, stretching their heads toward the sky. I could hear playing in my head Frank Sinatra's song New York, New York.
Start spreading the news I'm leaving today I want to be a part of it.......... New York, New York I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep I'm gonna make a brand new start of it.... If I can make it here, I'll make it any where It's up to you, New York, New York
My perception of America was formed in part from watching American television: The Love Boat, The Jeffersons, Sesame Street. I could smell the good ol' American hamburgers with everything on it, French fries, and that ever addictive, American libation - chocolate milkshake!
It's been 34 years since my American journey began, I must confess that I still have many unanswered questions. For instance, why does the fat lady have to sing before it's over? And, will somebody, please, explain to me why it isn't over 'til it's over?
In America, you get the sense that everybody is in a hurry. It's as if they are running out of time. The centrality of movement makes one wonder whether such hustle and bustle ultimately does affect the psychological stability of the people. I wonder if this constant motion impacts the people's sense of place. You find this "hurry up and go" attitude almost everywhere you go in America. Legendary Indy car driver, Mario Andretti, confirms my concern when he said, "most Americans believe that if everything is under control, then they're not going fast enough." So many people are more focused on moving on to the next task and how fast they can reach the next intersection. Too many people are running through life without taking time to live life.
My understanding of America has come in different formats and stories. I recall one of the greatest tales ever told, a story of risk, failure, and perseverance....and, all revolves around an egg that was bent on defying the odds and met with an interesting result. It is the story of Humpty Dumpty. I'm sure you recall the rhyme. I ask that you please join me in reciting the rhyme just one more time.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty together again.
The key word here is the very last word of the rhyme - "again." What this confirms is that this was not the first time that Humpty had fallen. Humpty was a serial risk-taker. It was bold, fearless, unrelenting, and entrepreneurial. Humpty was all about setting stretch goals and was very familiar with the reality called failure. But, Humpty refused to allow failure to define it. Failure for Humpty was real-time feedback. Failure was an opportunity to regroup, to reassess, and to try again until success was eventually achieved.
The wall in this story is a simple metaphor that speaks to the singular act of overcoming challenges. Climbing a wall is moving beyond where you are. Climbing a wall is overcoming adversity, challenging convention, pursuing goals that are not easily achievable, and refusing to give up. Indeed, so many people the world over continue to climb the proverbial wall, and even when we fall, we find the way to get back up again.
This is an American story about the courage to seek challenges, to gratefully accept help when needed, and to persevere even when there is no apparent reason to do so. It's a vivid reminder that even when we do everything right - when we remain loyal to our employer, invest our money in "fool proof" funds, pursue the so-called American dream-that we may still fall short. This story affirms that somewhere in our life's journey, we will face adversity. Some we will overcome and some will overcome us, yet we will never be deterred, we will continue to persevere.
Humpty's story is a story about courage. Eddie Rickenbacker said it better that "courage is doing what we are afraid to do." And so, there can be no courage unless we are scared. We all have fallen, yes. We have been broken, certainly. But behind the doom, beyond the gloom, we should never take our eyes off that wall and should be ready to climb it over and over again, cracks and all, as impossible as it may seem.
I am particularly impressed with Humpty's support group, you know, his family and friends, all the king's horses and all the king's men, who provide the ultimate safety net for Humpty. If it wasn't for our "king's men and king's horses," getting back up when we fall would be impossible. They are the ones who encourage us to keep on going. They are there to pick us up when we are down. In my American journey, I have met so many king's men and king's horses who have made this journey a remarkable experience. I am grateful to the friends in West Texas, Oklahoma, D.C., NYC, New Mexico, and many more.
In my American journey, I met ordinary people who are battling against unimaginable odds, young men and women fighting incurable medical conditions, friends facing physical and mental adversity, and many more dealing with unbelievable economic challenges; yet they refuse to give in, they persevere, unwilling to relent and determined to succeed against all odds. It's a consistency that I see.
It's been a fulfilling journey, a meaningful experience that has made me a better person, more understanding and appreciative of people from diverse backgrounds, but my American journey also exposed me to so many other things I didn't expect to find in America. My journey has taken me to forty-six states in my quest to gain an appreciation of America. The visitor in me saw the awesome and overwhelming beauty and power of America. The student in me saw a nation of contradictions, a nation still grappling with the power of and a reluctant appreciation for the greatest heritage it possesses - diversity.
I took a look at the American constitution and read some of the memorable thoughts on the ideals of freedom and equality and compared all these great writings with today's current political rhetoric. And I wonder how the richest, most powerful nation on earth could have so much misery around without feeling something is wrong.
In my American journey, I found racial and ethnic harmony in the most unexpected place. On this street lives a world of respectful puppets and kind friends, where everyone owns a piece of the street-Sesame Street. Kermit the Frog teaches the value of friendship and reminds us that we were all born original, and yet so many people spend the rest of their lives trying to be copies.
Big Bird shows us that we are all birds of different feathers and that life is not about how different we are but the difference we can make. Big Bird challenges us to continue to strive towards building relationships with one another. I am impressed with Oscar who has consistently demonstrated the value of respect and tolerance for different ideas and different people. And it was the Count who introduced us to the intricate value of money and warns against the tendency of putting too much value on material things.
I cannot forget the connoisseur of continental cookies, the Cookie Monster whose behavior is a reflection of the consequences of addictive behavior and shows us that too much of anything is not good for us. Sesame Street means much more than alphabets and numbers to me. It's a real colorblind community, where diversity is valued, the very best of America because it shows our follies, reveals our strengths, and reminds us that we all belong on the same street called humanity.
My quest to know more about the technological and engineering accomplishments of America took me to Orlando, Florida, where I witnessed mind-boggling scientific and technological achievements at Disney World and got a rare opportunity to meet the greatest, biggest, the most celebrated rodent in the world. This worm, fuzzy, sensitive, always smiling rodent, they call Mickey Mouse, was indeed larger than life!
I was impressed with the vision and creativity of the man called Walt Disney, who took a pest, a nuisance to so many people around the world and turned it into a lovable, respectable, kid-loving, billion-dollar icon. And when you inquire from the folks at Disney what business they are in, their response is equally impressive: "we are in the happiness business."
At the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida, the visitor witnesses the conception of a dream, its lofty delivery from a simple but delicate physics of a bird in flight to the extra-terrestrial marvel of Neil Armstrong, who took one small step for himself and a giant leap for mankind. I gained a new appreciation for the creativity that is unique to America, yet I wonder why the same minds who conceived these engineering achievements have been unable to resolve the economic and social divide that continues to plague this nation.
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to connect with a St. Louis native, Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, who created a concept of immediacy and transparency that is enabling people to rise above their circumstance; he's become a new voice for over half a billion people the world over that has empowered the voiceless and enabled revolutions. Jack told me that immediacy is one of the biggest gifts you can give people because immediacy allows people to create and consume, to participate and observe. In twitter, there are no barriers or walls, only ownership. Twittering is a very freeing abstract notion that makes it easy to express what you want to say in 140 characters or less. Every idea is transparent, and when people update their family, friends, and the world, they are inspiring approachability.
Yet this begs the question: how can we sum up the courage to use this kind of creativity and utter brilliance to solve those elusive challenges in business and in life? How can we take this technology to enable competitive advantages that create jobs, improve our living standards, and ensure that our environment is sustainable? I don't claim to know the answer, perhaps you do. But I hope that whatever answer we come up with is immediate, transparent, and makes us all accountable to our fellow global citizens.
One of the most unforgettable experiences in my American journey was my visit to the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Upon arrival at the majestic Reagan Airport, I took a taxi cab to my hotel. And on the way to the hotel, we drove by the national archives building, where I noticed the bold inscription on the building, "The Past Is Prologue." And so, I inquired from the cab driver, "what do these words mean?" The cab driver replied, it means "you ain't seen nothing yet." This is the essence of America in its quest to continue to break its own record over and over again and to enable its own transformation.
In 1989, I had a brush with greatness. I challenged my microeconomics class at the University of Oklahoma to go on a search and find a mission for a successful local entrepreneur who built a business from scratch and had succeeded in creating something empowering, something good. My students took the challenge and went beyond the call of duty. They made a phone call to Bentonville, Arkansas, and succeeded in securing a Saturday morning breakfast with Sam Walton, the 74-year-old billionaire, founder of Wal-Mart. I was astounded by the sheer tenacity of six young men and women who were bold enough to dream with their eyes wide open and strong-willed enough to make those dreams come true.
And so, we headed to Bentonville, Arkansas, in the wee hours that Saturday morning. Upon arrival at the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, you wonder how something great could come out of a place so simple. Mr. Walton was waiting for us at the gate. And as we approached the gate, what we saw was a slender, gray haired gentleman wearing a worn out baseball cap, faded wrangler blue jeans, no-name tennis shoes and a casual short sleeve cowboy shirt.
The old man introduced himself as Sam as we passed him by, but we kept walking because the person we saw did not meet our expectations as America's wealthiest man. We were in the midst of greatness, and we didn't even know it. Over breakfast, Sam shared with us his personal philosophy of putting people before profit and the possibilities that come when we dare to set bold goals-goals that have significance to make it possible for poorer folks to buy the same things as richer folks. His remarkable audacity to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots is an inspiration.
My family arrived in St. Louis in the summer of 2000; we discovered a remarkable city on the shores of the mighty Mississippi river, a city known for its inclusive excellence because its ethnicity, geography, and attitudes all places it uniquely in the middle of America. This is the city that in 1904 did the impossible by hosting the World's Fair and the Olympics simultaneously. St. Louis showed the world then that it is a creative, innovative place. Today our city is known for many things, including the world champion Cardinals and culinary delicacies like Ted Drewes' concretes, toasted ravioli, and Provel cheese. St. Louis is also renowned for something else, a bridge, the Eads Bridge, which at one time was the largest suspension bridge in the United States.
The construction and design of the Eads Bridge set precedent in many ways. It was the first large bridge to span the Mississippi River, the first to carry railroad tracks. This visionary spirit that brought the Eads Bridge into fruition embodied what was demonstrated dramatically nearly 90 years later with the iconic design and improbable construction of the Gateway Arch which till this day remains the tallest man-made monument in the United States. The concept of building on a curve presented engineering challenges that were met with marvelous ingenuity.
On the east side of St. Louis runs the Mississippi River. Over a 100 years ago, the river was considered an obstacle to progress, yet rather than using it as an excuse, it inspired the city to think big and act boldly by building a bridge that crosses both physical and mental divides. It became, in essence, a powerful motivating force made of metal.
But there is a link here-allow me to suggest what I consider to be the most important work of all-that of building bridges, a connection between our past and a promising future. A bridge enables us to go from where we are now to where we want to be. Because bridges are not just made of steel, or bricks, or mortar, they are built from the foundation of the strongest substance of all: humanity. Building a bridge is taking responsibility for others. Building a bridge is doing something that others consider impossible. Building a bridge is one of the most meaningful, impactful exercise that we are called to do.
My institution, Webster University, has chosen to be a bridge-builder by being bold, by measuring our success not by those we exclude, but by those we include. We've done so by providing access to an affordable high-quality education to all those who seek the empowering strength of knowledge anywhere in the world. We are convinced that our mission will never have an expiration date. And to show this continued commitment, this fall, Webster University will open our first campus in Africa, in Accra, Ghana.
My friends, our choices in life are difficult but clear. How then can we choose to remain safely on our own shores, knowing that we could change the lives of those on the other side, simply reaching across and building human bridges?
Simon and Garfunkel's classic song, Bridge Over Troubled Waters reaffirms my belief in the intrinsic value of bridges and my sense of conviction in helping others. As I recall the lyrics, "Sail on Silver Girl sail on. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way. And if you need a friend, I'm sailing right behind you. Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will ease your mind."
All of us must come to grips with the fact that it's not so much where we are that matters, but in what direction we are going. And that is why I remain hopelessly optimistic, because I believe that what our world needs now is an army of believers dedicated to ensure that our future remains in good hands.
Our world is ripe for a revolution of ideas, ready to embrace causes that are greater than all of us. Oh, yes, I know that it will demand courage. I know it's going to take a good size helping of commitment, I understand that it will take a ton of self-discipline. Because if it were easy, we wouldn't need those attributes to succeed. It if were easy, everybody would do it all the time. But our crusade must begin right here, right now, right away. It must begin with individuals like you and you, people who understand the meaning of commitment, sacrifice, and resilience. I'm talking about folks who recognize the value of finishing what they start and people who are not deterred by challenges and the notion that it's never been done before.
My American journey has showed me the resounding energy of people to overcome, to persevere, to make a difference.
I leave you with five takeaways from my American journey: The difference between success and failure is really a matter of time. The future is not a place you are going, it's a place you create. If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door. Learn from other people's mistakes because you can't live long enough to make them all yourself. We were all born originals, yet so many of us spend our entire lives trying to be copies - stay original! And, so, my friends, as you leave this place this afternoon and your life becomes visible once more in the floodlights of our world, please don't allow the rain of discontent to wash your hopes and dreams away. Don't allow the unexpected showers of life to rain on your spirit of enthusiasm, and your compassion for others.
I leave you with an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together."May we go far together, for together, we can do more than we can ever do apart.
I thank you.