3,000 people came to see me deliver this commencement keynote.
…actually, they came because it was their graduation day and they wanted to collect their diplomas but it sounds much cooler when I say they came because they wanted to hear me Speak.
It was also a nice little surprise that Greg Ballard, the Mayor of Indianapolis, was in the audience. Watch below (or read the transcript if you prefer). xo
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Commencement Keynote Address Transcript
When people hear that I’ve done my own laundry and finances since the age of nine, they are instantly curious.
They want to hear all sorts of heroic tales of how life was hard when I was in Africa. They want to know how I overcame tragedy. They wonder what happened to my parents. They wonder why I was burdened with so much responsibility at a very young age.
But then there’s a special subset of the population that doesn’t care about all of that. They just want to know why am African and I don’t really sound like their African friends. ((laughter))
I wish I had a really deep heroic story to tell you but I don’t.
In fact my family was quite well-off. I had only one nice pair of shoes. I had only three changes of clothes that were decent enough to wear out of the house. No cellphone, no internet, no cable. Generally didn’t have electricity or water. But my family was very well off.
My dad is a medical Dr. and a retired politician. My mom is a serial entrepreneur and she runs number of successful businesses in Nigeria and certain parts of West Africa.
If you think that this sounds like a paradox, you’re right. It is a paradox. Just like the rest of my life.
The reason I was doing my own laundry and finances at the age of nine is the same reason that I was on a plane and on my way to America at the age of 16 to start my freshman year of college.
I still remember my very first summer vacation in America.
It was the end of my freshman year and I was going to school at Illinois Wesleyan University. My dorm at the time was called Munsell Hall. Since it was the end of the school year, all the students were excited and getting ready to go home.
I wasn’t going anywhere because I didn’t have enough money to fly all the way back to Africa just for a few months. So I just kind of stood around and watched the other students get excited about going home.
I wasn’t sad or depressed or feeling left out though. I was actually quite fascinated by what I was seeing in front of me.
I saw my friends throwing away things that looked brand new to me.
Curling irons, storage boxes, lamps, chairs, refrigerators, and all sorts of cool things. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I immediately ran to the phone in Munsell hall and called my mom in Nigeria.
The conversation went something like this
I said mom, you’re not going to believe what I’m seeing.
She said, what are you seeing (in Nigerian accent).
I said people are throwing away good things.
She said. People are throwing their things away? (in Nigerian accent)
I said. Yes, mom. Right in front of me.
My mom said: are the things in good condition? (in Nigerian accent)
I said yes mom. Most of it looks brand new.
My mom paused for a second and said. Sooo people are throwing away good things in good condition and you’re on the phone with me?
Boy, I’m really glad you laughed because that’s the only joke I came prepared with. Like I said, my mom is a serial entrepreneur and very successful. I got off the phone and got to work gathering my stuff for the following semester.
Just three years after that conversation with my mom, I had my 4.0 GPA in one pocket. ((applause))
My college degree in another pocket. A full-time job offer from a Fortune 100 company in one hand. A tall dark and handsome boyfriend on the other hand. On top of all of that, I had a nice little car to drive. At the age of 20, I couldn’t possibly have asked for more.
I had it going on and I knew it.
Like many of you, I was optimistic about the next phase in my life but fate had a different plan. In hindsight, I realize that nothing could have prepared me for what was coming. And I’m grateful for the brief period of optimism that I felt on my graduation day.
Within a few months of my graduation, I’d lost my job. My tall dark and handsome boyfriend was gone. My car had burst into flames on the highway, and the blind faith that had carried me from childhood was nowhere to be found.
You see, it was this blind faith that caused me to think that at the age of nine, I was capable of handling my finances and my laundry. And just to be clear when I talk about managing my money at the age of nine, I’m not talking about putting a few quarters in a piggy bank. I’m saying that if I didn’t manage my money correctly, I would go hungry for several days.
When I talk about doing my own laundry, I’m not talking about putting things in the washer or helping with folding socks. I’m saying that I was washing denim by hand under the sun at the age of 9.
It was also blind faith that allowed me to get on a plane by myself at the age of 16 with nothing but two suitcases, a backpack, and a dream to get an American education.
At that stage in my life, there was nobody that could tell me that I was incapable of being anything that I wanted to be. There was nobody that could tell me that I was incapable of doing anything that I wanted to do.
So even though it was was sad that I’d lost my dream job, dream boy, dream car, and dream life, what was really unfortunate, was the loss of this blind faith.
It had been the secret weapon that just seemed to make everything in life seem possible no matter what.
What I want to share with you today is a simple statement that saved me when I lost my child-like blind faith.
Whatever you do, you cannot forget this statement.
If you forget this day and forget your professors
If you forget my story and forget my name, you cannot. you must not, you will not forget this simple statement.
In this life, you have two choices. To change the world. Or let the world change you.
Okay that was really good so I’m going to wait for you to clap for me. ((laughter and applause))
Thank you for playing along. I think somebody is recording this. ((laughter))
Please don’t get carried away by how nice that statement sounds.
And don’t be deceived by how easy it appears at face value. This isn’t just a nice sound bite to make everybody feel good. An understanding of this statement is one of the most powerful things you can ever place in your heart.
When you take this statement to heart, you will begin to notice something interesting about the world.
You will notice that there is a mysterious transformation that a lot of people seem to go through. It’s a subtle transition that transforms youthful energy into complacent cynicism. It converts dreams into resignation and replaces possibility with fear and self-doubt.
This mysterious transformation is like a virus that seems to get stronger as time passes.
My hypothesis is that, for some people, this transformation is inevitable. It is inevitable because nobody ever presented them with the opportunity to answer this simple question:
Will you change the world or will you let the world change you?
Every single person here is different. And every single one of us has a different path in life.
Some of you are graduating with a job offer…maybe two.
Some of you are graduating with no idea of what you want to do next.
Some of you have big dreams big goals and big ambitions.
Some of you want to travel and see the world.
Some of you just want to live a life that you can wake up everyday feeling excited about.
Yet all of us must face the same choice.
Will you change the world or will you let the world change you?
As you know, I come from humble beginnings but When it comes to poverty vs. wealth, or plenty vs. lack – few things compare to education in closing the gap. ((applause))
You all are here because you have received a quality education. It may not feel like it at the moment, what you literally have the world at your feet.
You’re standing at the grand entrance to a brand-new chapter of your lives.
Just like me on my graduation day, though, you have no idea what fate has in store for you. And you will never know what fate has in store for you until its right in front of your face.
At that point, you will have no time to make idealistic decisions and little protection against the virus of cynicism, complacency, and resignation.
The only way I know that you can protect yourself is to make up your mind while you still stand a chance. Make a conscious decision about how you want to live your life. Life is far too precious to live in default mode. Accepting what is without ever wondering what could be.
And so in closing, let me ask you just one more time.
Class of 2014, Will you change the world or will you let the world change you?