David Bohnett Speeches

Remarks upon Conferral of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Whittier College

Watch a streaming video of these remarks.

Thank you to President Herzberger, the faculty of Whittier and the honorary doctorate faculty committee, students, and those who serve in the administration, this is a great honor and I am humbled and inspired to join the Whittier College family. I am very moved and most appreciative to those who have joined us this evening, some having traveled far under very uncertain conditions due to the Hurricane disruption, and others who postponed and changed plans in order to be here. Quite unexpectedly, I was informed of the intention to confer the honorary degree though an e-mail and telephone call from Whittier Trustee and very close friend, Chris Caldwell. Chris and his husband, Rick Llewellyn, and their two children, Robbie and Rosie Caldwell-Llewellyn, are a family to be greatly admired for their individual achievements and commitment to community service. Robbie and Rosie are in their junior year here at Whittier, and it’s so heartwarming to see them flourish in the stimulating environment here at college. Rich and Chris’ activism, community service, professional achievements, and parenting accomplishments are well known and nationally respected. Thank you to the Caldwell-Llewellyn family including Aunt Jan for your steadfast love and support.

What an interesting day I’ve been treated to here at the college, including lunch with students and faculty, a visit to an international business class, conversation with student leaders of TOBGLAD and the Gender Justice Coalition, and finally a performance by the Brazilian Drum Circle. Whittier is a place that lives up to its Quaker traditions that faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead. Or, put another way, the Whittier experience is grounded in the Quaker quest for knowledge and personal growth, fostering in students an appreciation for the complexities of the modern world and workplace while never losing sight of the importance of social responsibility.

I quite enjoy learning about how others have fulfilled their responsibility to their community and country and the background to their story. There was an article recently in the Los Angeles Times titled; ‘Hawaii: A royal who lived a life of service’. The article talks about one of the most influential Hawaiians of royal blood who never reigned, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, known as Princess Pauahi. She was born in 1831, the great-granddaughter of Kamehemaha I, and was schooled at the Royal School, run by missionaries. It was expected she would marry Lot Kemehemaha, who ultimately took the Hawaiian throne. She was released from her promise to marry when it was learned that she was smitten with a young businessman names Charles Reed Bishop, whom she married in 1850.

Upon her death in 1884, Princess Pauahi owned more than 350,000 acres of land and controlled what was said to be about 9% of all of Hawaii’s territory. The provisions of her will provided the funding for the Kamehemaha Schools, the amazing college prep schools for children of Hawaiian blood. The school’s endowment had grown to more than $9 billion by June of 2011.

In the final sermon honoring the Princess, Rev. J.A. Cruzan said; “The last and best of the Kamehemahas lies in her last long sleep…. Refusing a crown, she lived that which she was – crowned. Refusing to rule her people, she did what was better: She served them and in no way so grandly as by her example. And her death brings home the truth uttered years ago……: ‘The world can do without its masters better than it can do without its servants.’”

And that, therein, lies the opportunity and responsibility we all face, to be of service to our community and our fellow man throughout our lives. President Herzberger wrote in her recent letter to Whittier families; “Whittier College’s education continues to be forward looking, relevant, and innovative…. Whittier is a distinctive and venerable institution with a rigorous and practical curriculum that educates graduates for lives of leadership and service, character and quality.” Whittier pushes students to question the world around them and figure out their place in it.

I’ve learned from reading about and studying the Whittier curriculum and in my other research, (1) that a liberal arts education is conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization. It heightens students' awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit. It makes them more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self-conscious and critical of their presuppositions and motivations, more creative in their problem-solving, more perceptive of the world around them, and more able to inform themselves about the issues that arise in their lives, personally, professionally, and socially. College is an opportunity to learn and reflect in an environment free from most of the constraints on time and energy that operate on a daily basis.

A liberal education is also a preparation for the rest of life. The subjects that undergraduates study and, as importantly, the skills and habits of mind they acquire in the process, shape the lives they will lead after they leave the campus. Some students will go on to become academics; others will become physicians, lawyers, and businesspeople. All of them will be citizens, whether of the United States or elsewhere, and as such will be helping to make decisions that will affect the lives of others. Liberal arts graduates will join the rest of us in society to engage with the forces of change — cultural, religious, political, demographic, technological, and environmental. We all have to distinguish fact from opinion, interpret cultural expressions, and confront ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives. A liberal education gives students the tools to face these challenges in an informed and thoughtful way.

In looking back, my educational background was rigorous but less interdisciplinary than what I’ve come to appreciate about the study of liberal arts. I received an undergraduate degree in business from USC, then followed by an MBA from the University of Michigan. I had to pick up experience and exposure to various disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities before I had the skills and tools in order to fully achieve my goals and potential.

A Bachelor of Science degree in business from USC says a lot about someone. It says that you can read a financial statement, develop a marketing and promotional plan for a new business or product, create spreadsheets, analyze the competition, and design an e-commerce Web site. But I learned very early in my career that having those skills alone doesn't guarantee success in the business world. Furthermore, if you do master the art of business, climb the ladder of responsibility, and reap financial rewards, none of that necessarily leads to happiness, or to personal growth and satisfaction.

I'm proud of what I’ve accomplished in my professional career. In particular, in the early days of the internet, I founded a company called GeoCities, which was a social networking site and an early incarnation of what was to come in the current Facebook era. GeoCities was my vision and my dream, and I was completely devoted to it, despite many invitations, and just as many urges, to quit while I still had a dime to my name.

But, just as proud as I am of GeoCities itself, I am equally proud of the fact that I built the GeoCities team and company without hiding who I was or what I believed in. By the time I created GeoCities, I didn't want to just succeed in business. I wanted to do what I think we all want to do. I wanted to stand up and make a difference, follow my passion and pursue my dream.

I am grateful for the success of GeoCities and for having the financial wherewithal to make a concrete difference in the world. But we all continue face the same challenge I faced when I first started GeoCities: To maintain faith in ourselves when everything around us suggests that we should do otherwise. And even more, to tell the truth about who you are and to stand up for what you believe in, even when many around us would prefer that we remain quiet.

I was 38 years old when I started GeoCities. I had had a career in the software business prior to that, having held a variety of positions in finance and accounting, as well as in operations and marketing. I'd worked for a number of companies, large and small, and had been exposed to a wide variety of industries and individuals.

As I mentioned earlier, I sought out opportunities and experiences that I was hopeful would help round out my background, and, outlook on the world. Although I didn’t know it at the time, through the pursuit of knowledge, experience and responsibility outside my comfort zone, I was practicing the liberal arts in my personal and professional life.

There are but a few business colleagues who stand out in my mind as having made a real impact on my thinking and on my approach to business. The common theme among these individuals was not necessarily their skills or expertise, although each was an expert in his or her field. The attributes each of these folks had in common was a true passion and commitment in what they were doing, and an incredible vision and drive to pursue what they believed in. What these people taught me was that true success in business is not learning how to read a financial statement or develop an e-commerce Web site, real and tangible success comes to those who follow their hearts as well as their minds. Finding that thing which you are passionate about above all else, and pursuing that activity which you love to do, these are the keys that unlock every door.

I've succeeded in business by my own definition and on my own terms, because I focused on three things. I had a really good idea, and the discipline and strength to pursue my vision. I had faith – in God and in myself. And I had a commitment to tell the truth about who I am and what I feel.

My idea for GeoCities was all about my passion for empowering others, giving everybody a voice, and the chance to contribute and participate in the new medium of the Internet. Through my own personal experience in business and in my lifelong commitment to civil rights and lesbian and gay equality, I saw how powerful it was to stand up and have a voice, to be able to meet other people of similar interest, and share my thoughts and ideas in an open and welcoming environment.

GeoCities provided the tools and utilities that made it easy for anyone to create their own free personal home page on the Web. We gave everyone the opportunity to meet other people and join a community of interest, be it about sports or music or politics or finance. This strategy tapped into the unique strengths of the Web, and generated a tremendous amount of traffic to our Web site.

GeoCities went public four years after I founded the company, and we were acquired by Yahoo! a year after that. As so often happens in business, technological advances and the passion and zeal of young start-ups ultimately eclipsed the success of GeoCities. What’s left is the legacy of a company that enshrined and validated the concepts of user generated content and the power of community and social networking.

The study of communities is an often written about subject. Some of you may have seen an article recently in the New York Times Magazine titled; The Island Where People Forget to Die. It’s a fascinating account of the long lived residents of the Greek Isle Ikaria, and an analysis of the factors in their lifestyle and diet that contribute to their unusual longevity. A sense of community is a central theme throughout the article, and one quote in particular struck me as particularly relevant to illuminate the point and to our discussion today; “In Samos, a neighboring island, they care about money. Here, we don’t. For many religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. If there is money left over, they give it to the poor. It’s not a ‘me’ place, it’s an ‘us’ place.”

And doesn’t that just say it all. The study of liberal arts and the pursuit of liberal arts in daily life is about creating an ‘us’ place, and fighting against the forces that lead us into a ‘me’ society. The recent devastation of hurricane Sandy and the innumerable examples of neighbors reaching out to help each other is the best example of how the better side of our nature comes out in times of need and distress. But it doesn’t take a hurricane to recognize the need to help the underserved populations in our country, and the opportunity and responsibility that each of have to share of our time and money and effort in service to others.

The Whittier experience teaches students that community service is not something to do to check off on your resume, community involvement and commitment to serve your fellow citizen is a lifelong commitment rooted in the traditions of the liberal arts.

There is no one recipe for the pursuit of a life that is meaningful and productive, but I would suggest there are three things that set apart those who make a real difference in the world. First, choose the harder path. Seek out jobs and friends and experiences that challenge your beliefs as well as your mental and physical limits. As the old saying goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and I’d add to that, anything worth accomplishing is never easy. You know you will have succeeded in this world if you can look back at a job or task and say; “It wasn’t easy, but it was fun.”

Second, recognize that it’s an asset to be different from other people, it’s OK and actually preferable in many cases to see things differently than others, and to pursue goals that only you can accomplish because of your unique experience and perspective. Great things get done because people think and behave differently from everyone else and different from how they are expected to act.

And finally, adapt a lifestyle and personal philosophy to take a genuine interest in other people. GeoCities was about giving people the opportunity to meet others of similar interest and share their knowledge with others. The study of the liberal arts and the interdisciplinary philosophy at Whittier prepares its graduates to engage in a very wide variety of topics across cultural and social boundaries. Paradoxically, recognizing that you are not the most interesting person in the room, and engaging others in reflective and thoughtful conversation makes you in fact the one most sought after. Great knowledge and wisdom is derived from genuinely listening to other people. Those of you who are studying the liberal arts and practicing your knowledge everyday are the ones who embrace the philosophy of lifelong challenge and learning.

My appreciation again to Whittier College for this honorary degree, it’s been a great learning experience for me to study the spirit and philosophy of Whittier and the study of liberal arts. Our celebration today provides abundant inspiration to continue my work for the pursuit of progressive values and social justice through philanthropic, political, and commercial endeavors. Let us all go forth to help build a community and elect leaders who want to tear down the ‘me’ philosophy and build the strong foundation for the ‘us’ society. Thank you and Go Poets !

Sources include; www.Whittier.edu, (1)www.Harvard.edu, www.Wikipedia.org