Class of 2017: Will You Have The Audacity to Make The Future?

Graduates of the Class of 2017,

Contrary to what our loved ones may think, we’ve spent the last two years working. Maybe not work in the traditional sense, but work that I personally consider much more valuable. Work on ourselves. Because to identify the impact you want to make in this world, you must first begin to understand who you are.

Personally, the pieces to the puzzle of how I intend to make a difference in the world came together only a few months ago. It came to me during my most powerful learning experience over the last two years.  During this experience, the edges of my puzzle emerged. It occurred during the fall semester in Professor Scott Snooks Authentic Leadership Development class, better known as ALD.  The purpose of ALD is to help second-year MBA students become more effective, authentic individuals and leaders.

In our third session, in September, the level of reflection and interpersonal openness reached its zenith. That morning, Professor Snook handed everyone a small sheet of colored paper. On this sheet of paper, he instructed us to write down our greatest fear over the next five to ten years. Next, everyone passed the sheets with their answer, nothing else to the end of their row. Professor Snook then collected the responses, shuffled them up and asked each of us to randomly select one of the sheets of paper. What followed was truly an eye opening experience. The room had a stillness and a muteness about it that I will never forget. Next, the classroom of over 90 second year MBA students, read the words on the sheet of paper they had randomly selected. The fears of my classmates were stirring.

The fear of not being able to have kids.

The fear of ending up in some of our current relationships.

The fear of caring too much about money, at the expense of marriage and relationships that matter.

There was one response however, that was read over, and over again. The one fear that loomed over the heads of my classmates like a wave at its peak before it breaks, was the fear, the fear of ending up alone. By themselves. Void of the connection and relationships that are as essential to human life as air itself.

The experience brought back memories of my own. I have vivid memories of being dropped off and picked up from Cary Academy, a private middle school experience that no one else in the lower-class neighborhood I grew up in was privy to.  The car my hard working parents drove at the time was a 1985 Oldsmobile Tornado. It had a long, wide body covered with varying shades of steel and pearl gray paint. There was a comet-sized dent above the right rear wheel that caused it to make a thunderous sound. As we arrived and departed, I would sink in my seat, in an effort to remain invisible to my peers. Why? I was embarrassed. I didn’t believe I belonged. I believed that my socio-economic status and the neighborhood I lived in defined me. I felt alone as one of only three black students in the school.  Alone as the kid that didn’t have a big backyard. Alone as the kid whose parents weren’t doctors or lawyers. I felt alone – a feeling that I fear is becoming all too familiar in the 21st century.

The experience in Professors Snook’s class also brought to mind the social and political events that have roiled and ruptured individuals and relationships across our country over the last two years:

Kendra James. Sean Bell. Michael Brown. Just a few, of the many black men or women that died at the hands of the police over the last two years. “Black lives matter” – three simple words, packed with a deep yearning to belong. A yearning to feel a part of the whole. To feel connected. You see, the fear that many of us share, a fear of being alone, is a reality for a growing portion of our population.

And lastly, in the business context that we will be re-entering, is the growing alienation between corporate America and main street. Plunging trust in business, diminished confidence in the fairness of the economic system, and a loss of faith in capitalism itself pose a crippling threat to our economic future.

All of this is unsettling, as over the last few decades the narrative of prosperity has shifted, to one in which a commitment to steadily increasing openness and the destruction of boundaries was supposed to result in an economic tide that would lift all boats.

However, as many of us know deep down inside and as the stories over the last two years illustrate, the promise of a more open and connected world has fallen short of expectations in many ways. However, that’s not to say that Globalization and technology haven’t created prosperity. Because they undeniably have. The challenge is the distribution of this wealth and the impact it has had on the ties that connect the local communities of our country and the global community.

This is not, however, a condemnation of globalization itself. Or a reason to turn inward and close ourselves off from one another or the rest of our global community. The problem is, our actions as leaders and humans have lagged the open and accepting narrative of globalization.

Globalization is like a house. A house with infinite rooms to accommodate the citizens of the world. The economic engine has done a pretty decent job of allowing us to build new rooms and add new extensions to the house. The problem; however, is that those of us in the house have failed to reach out, failed to connect and failed to invite others inside.

So here we are, the class of 2017, walking into this large compound with access to resources and ideas. Each of us with some desire deep down inside to reach out and to share these ideas and utilize our resources to let others in. However, what stands in our way is fear. The little voice in our head that says it’s too soon. That we should wait to establish ourselves before we take the leap. Wait until we pay off our student loans, or make partner – then, we tell ourselves, the time will be right.

However, graduates of the class of 2017 it will always be too soon. Over 500 years ago Johannes Gutenberg launched the printing press. 96% of the population in Europe was illiterate at the time. When Karl Benz introduced the car to Germany it was against the law to drive a car. No one knew how to drive a car. And there were no roads and no gas stations.

You see, it will always be too soon.

Class of 2017, it is our task for the rest of our lives to work towards filling the house that globalization has built. However, the only way we can do that is to do something that the little voice in our head will tell us that we aren’t ready to do. Something that is too hard. Something that takes a different kind of labor – emotional labor.

Class of 2017, we must have the audacity to be Artists.

Artists have the audacity to do work that is personal.

Artists have the audacity to do work that is creative.

Artists have the audacity to work that changes the receiver.

What I am proposing is not the narrow and mainstream definition of an artist: “a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.”

Instead, that we are more generous, empathetic, gracious, and open.

That we are artist.

The writers of the declaration of independence were artists. They had the audacity to articulate a vision that would change how individuals viewed the world and their place in it.

Martin Luther King, Jr was an artist. He had the audacity to be creative and champion a movement of non-violence that was a catalyst in shaping how blacks and whites viewed one another.

Lastly, Henry Tsai, a fellow graduate of the HBS class of 2017, exemplifies the work of an artist. He had the audacity to create “Hi from the other side” (  a personal work of art that matches people who supported different candidates in the most recent election – with the aim of  not only bringing people together but, more importantly, bringing them together in a way that’s productive or civil

Class of 2017, we can do more than being bankers, consultants, startup founders, or hedge fund managers. We can restore the balance that our culture and the business community so desperately needs. The opportunity to do work that encourages people to seek to relate, to listen, to become themselves. Work that connects people so that they can experience the belongingness that over 90 second year MBA’s in Professor Snooks classroom expressed a yearning for the past September.

Our culture, and the business community, in particular, has an artist deficit. We need more people that aspire to provide products and services that are personal, creative, and passionate. Products and services that change the receiver.

We need more artists, not more managers.

In our current culture, too many leaders pretend that nobody can change anything. That we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field.

But the truth is, every day, individuals, change their world over and over. They do this because they are artists.

Artists make the future. Class of 2017 I challenge you to have the audacity to make the future by imagining that things can be different.


Training Fleas: Will You Jump Out of The Jar?

Fleas: In The Beginning The Future is Bright

At birth, fleas are incredibly resilient. The sky is the limit.  Specifically, fleas are born with a built-in mechanism that allows them to survive and propagate its species against all odds. The flea reproduces small eggs that require a warm-blooded mammal to hatch and then when it does, it can be nourished from biting and sucking the blood of the host. This darwin like survival instinct is aided by the fleas great “athletic prowess” –   they are able to jump very high – several feet in order to land on a new “host” to feed and breed. When you consider their body size, they can jump the human equivalent of 100 yards into the air. That is pretty amazing.

How do you put a lid on the aspiration of fleas? You train them.

Training Fleas

To train them, you put the fleas in a jar. Screw the lid on, and observe. In the beginning, the fleas use their innate skill and talent to jump as high as they can, determined to get out. However, the flea keeps hitting the lid. The lid hurts and gradually the fleas stop jumping as high, jumping just high enough to fall short of the lid. When you take the lid off the jar, the flea continues to only jump high enough not to hit the lid, as it’s forever tainted by the conditioning and pain of prior limitation, the lid on the jar.

For most us, our response to life is no different.

Each and every one of us is born with the opportunity and a desire to make a difference. The scale and scope of the opportunity may differ, but that’s not the point as if each of us lived up to our individual potential the accumulated impact would be profound. So, what stops us? The lid.

The lid is the teacher that tells us we will never amount to anything.

The lid is not making the team.

The lid is not getting into the school that you just “had to get into”.

The lid is not getting an interview for your “dream job”.

The lid is that voice in our head that tells us that we aren’t good enough.

The lid is our decision to wait until we are a bit more “established” to take a leap and create the change we want to see in the world.

The lid is failure, it hurts.

The lid is fear.

The lid is the self-narrative and life experience that condition us to give up when things are hard and to stop trying to jump as high as we can.

However, for all of us, just as with the fleas, there is no lid. The lid is merely a figment of our imiganiation.  A psychological barrier that we invented.

With that as truth, the question that remains is simple:

Are you willing to try to jump out of the jar?



A Dream Deficit

We need more dreamers.

More people that believe in the impossible.

More people that refuse to accept the status quo.

More people that ignore the propaganda of the media, who’s aim is to splinter our communities. To make us believe that we are in this alone. To indoctrinate us into believing that all we should worry about is ourselves. To indoctrinate us into believing that only seemingly “powerful” individuals and institutions can make a change in our world and that we should stick to watching cat videos and reading buzzfeed “news” articles.

We need more dreamers.

People that dream to create the new institutions that will lead us to prosperity in the post-industrialization age.

People willing to dream of a different way to educate and prepare children for the connection economy. People that recognize that the current model of education was built to cultivate obedience. Built to efficiently produce individuals that work in factories, follow orders, and never think to question authority. People willing to dream of an education system that fosters difference, is project based and cultivates creativity.

People willing to dream of a world in which all corporations actually care about their consumers. A world in which the health of the individual is prioritized before profits. Do we really need another can of soda? Do we really need another package of cigarettes? The answer is no. However, the incentives of the current system put profits before the well-being of the individual.

We need more people willing to question the incentives of the current system.

More people willing to change the incentives.

Dreams, by their nature,  are evanescent. They flicker long before they shine brightly. We, as a culture, must embrace the individuals that dare to dream.

Accomplishment: The Result of Good Fortune.

In a few weeks, I will be graduating from business school and as the day’s countdown I’ve been asked one question time and again –  “how does it feel?”. Interestingly, each time, the first answer that comes to mind is that I feel fortunate.

I feel fortunate to have won the ovarian lottery and to be born to James and Leslie Campbell, where it all started.

Fortunate to have two parents that were willing to make sacrifices to make sure that I had activities to be involved in after-school. Parents that made sure that I read books and wrote book reports during the summer. Parents that set unforgivingly high standards and convinced me that I could do whatever I put my mind to, as long as I worked hard.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend Cary Academy, a private middle school.

Fortunate that the day my father went to Cary Academy they had recently hired an African-American woman that was committed to increasing diversity in the school. A woman that was willing to take a risk and put me into the application pool. A woman that was willing to make sure that I was eligible for full financial aid, as that was the only way I could attend.

I feel fortunate to have broken my ankle playing football during my sophomore year of high school.

Fortunate to have doctors that insisted that I would never play football again after requiring surgery, a metal plate, and six metal screws to repair my ankle. Prior to my injury, I took pride in my self-reliance. However, as a result of my injury, I was forced to ask for and depend on help from others. I learned how to trust. I learned how to contend with and transcend fear.

I feel fortunate to have met Jeff Scott, Chad Barnes, and Derrick Thompson at Davidson College.

Fortunate that these three individuals would become mentors, role models, and most importantly great friends.  Great friends that showed me the ropes at Davidson College. Great friends that kept me focused, taught me what classes to take to “protect” my GPA. Great friends that inspire me to this day. Friendships that have truly been a privilege.

I feel fortunate that Wells Fargo Securities took a chance on a liberal arts major that had only taken one math course.

Fortunate to be placed in the Leveraged Finance Investment Banking group. The group where I would meet Alicia Wnorowski, who would introduce me to her sister, Janina.

I feel fortunate that I meet Janina, my beautiful wife.

Fortunate that she has been willing to uproot her life on multiple occasions to support me. Fortunate that she has taught me how to live. To live for experiences, not material objects. To work to live, not live to work.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in Private Equity at HarbourVest.

Fortunate to have learned what great leadership looks like and the beginnings of what it takes to build a great culture from Jeff Keay and the guys at HarbourVest. Fortunate that the experience helped me realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my professional career in financial services. That I instead wanted to work on things that were tangible, things that changed people. That I wanted to be an artist.

I feel fortunate that Harvard Business School took a chance on a young man from the south.

Fortunate that they didn’t hold my “tier 2” investment banking and private equity experience against me. Instead, seeing a young man that was resilient, hard working, getting comfortable with his own story, and passionate about making a difference.

The follow-up question to my response typically is – “Well, don’t you feel accomplished?”, which causes me to pause, as yes, I recognize that it is an “accomplishment”, or “something that has been achieved successfully”. However, I can’t bring myself to take any significant level of credit for the outcome, sure, I played a role – I worked hard, I listened, I took chances.

However, it’s the people and the institutions that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and be a part of that deserve the credit. They should feel accomplished as if you remove them the results could have been different.

Ultimately, our lives are shaped by an inescapable confluence of choice and chance.

I’ve been fortunate enough to make the right choices and fortunate enough to be given a chance.