David Bohnett Speeches

Commencement Address – April 28 2018 Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Michigan

Thank you Vice President Harper, Dean Barr, and assembled faculty, students, parents, families, and staff, and most especially to you, the Ford School Class of 2018.

I recall with great fondness when I stood in your place to receive my Masters Degree in Business from The Ross School quite a few years ago. The sense of hope and anticipation you feel today is genuine and will play out in many ways; mostly positive, and mostly quite far from how you expect the future to turn out from today’s perspective.

With over a quarter century of experience since my own graduation here at Michigan, I know personally that no one job or experience lasts forever, not the positive ones and thankfully not the negative and challenging ones. You will be tested in ways you can’t even imagine and you leave this University well equipped to embrace the opportunities ahead and deal with the challenges you will face.

As Dean Barr mentioned, over the past 15 years my foundation has invested nearly $5 million dollars in scholarships and internships here at Ford and “sister” programs at New York University and UCLA. Philanthropists are forever looking for data to prove the value of their programs … and I know that subjective observation is not the same as hard data … but having spent time with these fellows I emerge with the knowledge that our grant program could not have been any wiser, more efficient, or more timely.

Of course we cannot really celebrate another graduating class from this esteemed institution … without acknowledging the “name above the door” … that of President Gerald R. Ford … and we are so lucky to have members of the Ford Family here with us today.

One of the great privileges in my life was becoming friends with Senator Edward Kennedy … and it was Teddy and Caroline Kennedy who presented the Profiles in Courage Award at President Kennedy’s Library to President Ford in 2001. In remarking on that day, Senator Kennedy said:

Gerry Ford understood that you can work with your opposition, you can stay true to your principles, and you can get something done, and the country wins, and the people who are involved in it win. He understood, I think, a very important concept of political life today that is rarely recognized. That isn’t something that we have seen in recent times. … There’s few times, I think, for those who are in public life, that they take the difficult, challenging decisions in the face of the wrath of the people. And in their time are vindicated so thoroughly as President Ford was.

A reporter at the time noted, of President Ford’s courage, that:

It reminds us that heroism doesn’t always win the on- looking crowd’s acclaim. It reminds us that the jury room of history tolerates no hurried verdicts. It reminds us, too, that columnists and commentators can often be wrong, especially when they agree, especially when there is a touch of self-righteousness to their consensus.

History can be funny that way … our ability to look back and appreciate it … perhaps revisit our judgments on those who have gone before … and on the decisions that they, or we, did … and didn’t … make.

But today is, of course, really about the future …

When I drove away from Ann Arbor that May day after graduation and headed back to Los Angeles where I had done my undergraduate work at USC … I had no idea that there was new technology on the horizon that would change the world … and most certainly change my life.

I spent the next decade or so in a career in software and tech, doing what so many of you will do … working my way up through a number of organizations … honing my skills and especially, most importantly, building relationships … not networking, not connections, but relationships. It was the power of relationships … and of community … that propelled me to create the internet company GeoCities.com, which became a very popular community based social networking site in the early days of the web.

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 life, in coming out as a gay man, 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.com went public in 1998, 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.

And while it is tough to believe almost 25 years have passed since I founded GeoCities, the challenges … enormous challenges … facing those who followed in our early social networking path were on full display a couple of weeks back … as those of you saw, who may have caught the congressional testimony of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg.

Most everyone in this audience today depends on Facebook and Instagram and other sites for keeping up with one another … from celebrating your relationships, touting your latest professional or academic achievement or simply posting moments-in-time of your common interests and shared passions.

But as I listened to the testimony that day, Mr. Zuckerburg and the Senators seemed to have very little in common. Indeed, they had a tough time communicating with one another, almost as if they were speaking different languages.

I don’t mean to make light of it … cyber privacy and security is a serious challenge and something we all must be vigilant about. But it is tough to do that … to take on the serious challenges of this world … when you spend so much of your energy not listening but simply waiting to speak.

If we are to succeed as a society – as a people – we must get better at hearing one another. Whether we are discussing policy or technology it is not acceptable or effective for us to speak PAST one another – or OVER one another. That can, as we have seen far too often, only lead to rancor and confusion and chaos.

You chose the Ford School for it’s curriculum and core values; community, integrity, service, action, and leadership to advance and improve our world.

I suggest adding ‘listening’ as one more critically important value on that list.

Throughout my career as a businessperson, philanthropist and civil rights activist, I’ve learned three things that have helped me be successful in achieving meaningful social change.

First, as I mentioned, is to shut up and listen. Really listen. Listen hard, ask questions, and then listen more. When you listen more you learn from others. Listening creates trust, and trust is the key factor in successful leadership.

As you identify where you want to make your mark, what social justice cause matters the most to you, the best way to make a difference is to become an expert in all facets of that field. The way to become that expert is learning and listening to everyone who has an interest in the process and outcome.

Someone once told me that the power of deep listening empowers others with their own voice. I can assure you this is true. So first, empower others by listening.

Second, I’ll share with you a phenomena that is real and powerful and one I wouldn’t have expected but happens too often not to recognize, and that’s the concept I call ‘thank you for telling me no’.

In my professional career running an early stage tech venture capital fund as well as my job as Chair of a non-profit grant making foundation, inquiries stream in daily from entrepreneurs looking for capital to help grow their business or from social service organizations looking for grants to help fund their important work.

Of course we’re unable to say yes to every funding request that comes our way, but what is part of our culture and what we can do is let someone know our response right away – especially if it’s no.

As a result, my approach is to respond right back to the ambitious entrepreneur or passionate non-profit leader and let them know their request does not fit within our current focus or priority and if we can, direct them to other potential investors and funders.

Almost invariably, we get the response back, ‘thank you for telling me no, we appreciate you letting us know where we stand’. Showing someone the courtesy of a timely and definitive answer, even if it’s a no, gives them the ability to move on to other prospects without spending further time and psychological energy wondering when and if you’ll give them an specific answer.

If someone feels like their request has been listened to and thoughtfully considered, then telling them no can be the most helpful contribution you can make.

This same concept applies to interpersonal relationships, by the way. Sometimes the hardest and most difficult thing we have to do is tell someone no, we’re not interested, or, no, I’m not able to help you with that. As hard as that is, you do yourself and the other person a tremendous service to be clear and unequivocal in your viewpoint.

I’m speaking of respectful and responsible behavior, and the perception thereof. As fellow missionaries for social justice, our effectiveness is directly in proportion to our honesty, candor, trustworthiness and personal accountability.

Third and lastly, you’ve all undoubtedly faced difficult personal and academic challenges along the path that brought you to this point. Some of those challenges you’ve conquered and learned from, and some of them left you with a feeling a frustration and despair.

The benefit a career in activism and philanthropy has taught me is the philosophy that there is no problem you can’t give your way out of. Put another way, commit to develop a problem solving lens that includes service to others.

What I mean by that is embodied in the legacy of President Ford, who led by embracing the spirit of public service and the pursuit of the common good. He truly gave of himself to others.

Not every problem has a solution but we can bring to the problems we face a true duty, commitment, and passion to look outside ourselves for a solution.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said’ “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others ?”

Graduates of The Ford School are taught the tools you need to apply rigorous scientific methods to the pressing social problems of our day and prepare you to answer the question posed by Dr. King.

As you tackle the inevitable challenges in your chosen field of endeavor, remember the three things that will help ensure your success; empower others through listening, develop a culture and personal philosophy of letting people know where you stand, and approach problems with a commitment to develop a solution through personal service to others and to society.

Now, more than ever, our great country needs your generation to lead us forward, to show us that lifting others up lifts us all, and to beat back the current culture of divisiveness and fear mongering.

I’m humbled and grateful for the opportunity to speak with you today, you have my sincerest wishes for future success, and very warm welcome to the wonderful network of alumni of our beloved University of Michigan.