BOSTON—On May 28, for the first time in its 112 years, Harvard Business School (HBS) held its Class Day celebrations and 110th Commencement exercises online via livestream.
The livestream featured Class Day speakers, Harvard University’s Degree Conferral Ceremony, and Dean Nitin Nohria’s Commencement address. After Dean Nohria’s address, 932 graduates and their families and guests joined separate livestreams for their section’s diploma ceremony.
The morning’s student-led Class Day Celebration, hosted by the Class of 2020 Student Association (SA) Class Day Committee Co-chairs Robbie Dixon and Melanie Sperling, featured speeches by MBA SA Class Presidents Connor Cash and Gaby Goldstein, 2020 Class Day Student Speaker Claire Wagner, and Distinguished Alumni Speakers Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli (MBA 1999) and Mezuo O. Nwuneli (MBA 2003), and honored four Faculty Teaching Awards recipients.
“We know none of us envisioned celebrating this day from a distance,” said SA co-president Cash. “We feel lucky that so many of our loved ones are able to join us today from all over the world.” Cash and fellow co-president Gaby Goldstein offered their classmates final words of wisdom in this unprecedented time, reflecting on their personal journeys as well as what the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed about the HBS community.
Acknowledging the difficulties of hasty goodbyes and the shift to online classes, Goldstein noted the “tireless” dedication of faculty and staff, the remarkable relief efforts of fellow students, and the hard work of the custodial and restaurant teams to ensure the community’s sanitation, sustenance, and safety. With a nod to her own personal milestone in the pandemic, the birth of her first child, Theo, she drew upon the words of HBS Professor Clay Christensen, who passed away earlier this year, to urge her fellow classmates to use this challenge to “choose and pursue our purpose.”
“I believe we should pursue a purpose of fostering the strength in our future communities that resembles the determination and kindness exhibited by our community these last few months. As HBS graduates, we possess the training and opportunity, as Professor Christensen states, to make a lasting impact on the many lives we will touch,” said Goldstein.
Class Day student speaker Claire Wagner told a personal story of Rwandan pediatrician Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, to illustrate her optimism that the class of 2020 will react, adapt, and respond during this crisis as leaders of positive change. Following Rwanda’s devastating 1994 genocide, Wagner worked with Dr. Binagwaho, who was serving as the country’s Minister of Health. Against all expectations, Dr. Binagwaho helped Rwanda achieve the steepest ever decline in childhood mortality, worldwide. The country’s GDP then made a stunning comeback; more than one million people have been lifted out of poverty in the past decade.
“This isn’t magic. This isn’t luck. This is realizing that blazing a path forward means not being afraid to challenge what was handed to you. To reset normal,” said Wagner. Wagner then asked her class to reimagine normal, to have the courage to make it so, and to know that they are not alone. Referencing her son Leon, who was born at the beginning of the fall semester, Wagner concluded her talk with the following words of hope: “We are going to find normal on the other side of all of this. And soon I will return to worrying about the little things, like whether my son’s first word will be ‘BATNA.’ And when Leon is a young man, I will tell him stories about this time in quarantine. I’ll tell him how hard it was, and how brave people had to be all over the world. And I’ll get to tell him about you. I’ll tell him what a class I got to be part of, and the extraordinary journeys that you’re all on. I’ll tell him the story of how a global pandemic taught us how deeply we need one another.”
Class Day ceremonies concluded with remarks from Distinguished Alumni Speakers Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli (MBA 1999) and Mezuo O. Nwuneli (MBA 2003), who met at the 1993 HBS AASU conference as college students and are the first couple to speak at Class Day. From their home in Lagos, Nigeria, they shared reflections on their relationship as well as those of their parents, and on unforeseen crises throughout history. “Uncertainty is and will be part of our foreseeable future,” said Mezuo Nwuneli. “When faced with a crisis, the immediate tendency is to be overwhelmed with fear and to focus on self-preservation at all costs. However, a crisis can also present new opportunities for growth and innovation.”
He went on to describe his own life-altering crisis, in which he nearly died from a gunshot wound sustained when unwittingly witnessing a car theft. “It hit me then, as I lay on the ground with a man standing over me with a gun, that my title, degrees, and whatever was in my bank account did not matter. I could not take my accomplishments with me.” After multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, he, Ndidi, and their two young children relocated from Chicago to Senegal, later settling in Nigeria. The couple has dedicated themselves, and their work, to transforming the agricultural sector in Africa.
“800 million people worldwide are food insecure. And this was the case before COVID-19. These numbers are expected to dramatically increase over the next few weeks. In fact, this pandemic has revealed that food security is a critical component of any health intervention required for human survival. Food is medicine,” said Ndidi Nwuneli.
The couple imparted five principles to the graduating class:
1. Build your courage and tenacity muscles: Have confidence that there are lessons in this experience and that you have the tenacity and capacity to surmount all obstacles and emerge stronger and more aligned with your life’s purpose.
Find your life’s purpose
- : Given the health, economic, and social crises that all our countries face, we need you to walk in your purpose and generate innovative solutions to climate change, poverty, gender inequity, the global burden of disease, the education crisis, malnutrition, and many other pressing issues. Perhaps building companies or engaging in policymaking as you do so. Always consider the generational impact of the decisions you take today.3.
Define your values and stick to them
- : Your success early in life can be destructive if you have not clearly defined your values rooted in integrity and humility.4.
Build a dedicated support network
- : Invest in deepening your relationships with your family members and friends. Forgive more easily. Show gratitude lavishly.5.
Live your life with open hands
- : When you open your hands you position yourself to give and also receive. Be prepared to give your time, insights, knowledge, and resources to others. Giving opens your hearts to the needs of the world, and also takes your eyes off your own luck. Use your talents, time, and treasure to improve the lives of other people.
In conclusion, they recited an Igbo proverb, “Mbelede ke eji ama Dike,” which loosely translates to, “Disasters help to sift out the resilient, resourceful, and the brave.” “Class of 2020, you are resilient, resourceful, and brave. Your tenacity, courage, purpose, values, relationships, and heart of service will set you apart,” said Ndidi Nwuneli. “We need you to push boundaries, ask tough questions, innovate, disrupt, redesign, rebuild, and transform companies, communities, and countries,” said Mezuo Nwuneli. “Congratulations once again, class of 2020. Your university of life starts today, and we are rooting for you to soar and leave a legacy,” concluded Ndidi Nwuneli.
Class Day Committee Co-chairs Robbie Dixon and Melanie Sperling concluded Class Day celebrations with the announcement of the Faculty Teaching Awards, in recognition of first- and second-year professors who have “most impacted the class of 2020’s student experience”: Kristin Mugford, Sophus Reinert, Joshua Margolis, and Ting Zhang.
After an all-University virtual celebration featuring remarks by Harvard University President Larry Bacow and student speakers and a special address by Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, 928 HBS students received their MBA degrees in 10 separate Zoom breakout rooms.
The top five percent of the MBA Class of 2020 (50 students) graduated with high distinction as Baker Scholars (named after the School’s initial benefactor, George Fisher Baker); 69 earned their diplomas with distinction; 185 earned second-year honors; four MBA degrees were awarded this past March.
In addition, nine students in the Doctoral Programs were awarded doctorates in business administration (DBA); 14 earned PhD degrees offered jointly with the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the fields of business administration, business economics, health policy, and organizational behavior. In November 2019, two students received their DBAs. In March 2020 two students received a DBA jointly with the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; in November 2019 one student earned a PhD in organizational behavior, also jointly with the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
In his Commencement remarks today—his last as Dean—Dean Nitin Nohria recalled a very different commencement ceremony. “Seventy-three years ago, at Harvard’s Commencement ceremony, General George Marshall announced a plan to rebuild the world economy after the devastation wrought by World War II—what became known as the Marshall Plan. Today we face a global economy that has to be rebuilt, companies that need to be restarted, revitalized, and restructured, supply chains that need to be redesigned, and markets that need to be reinvented. We need something that is equivalent to a new Marshall Plan. The world is counting on people like you to do this vital work. This work will take imagination and innovation. As much change as we have had the good fortune to witness this last decade at Harvard Business School and in the world beyond, the next decade will require us to be yet more creative, more resourceful, more resilient, more adaptive. We will need to come up with ideas that will save our planet, create more opportunities for those who see none, foster unity instead of discord, rebuild society’s trust in capitalism, and increase prosperity and the quality of life for people all across the world. The generation that met the challenge of World War II and the Marshall Plan came to be known as the Greatest Generation. You, the class of 2020, are as prepared as anyone to meet the challenges the world is facing now. Go become our next greatest generation!”