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Paul Polman remarks as prepared for delivery for Spring 2018 Commencement

May 18, 2018

Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman gives the Commencement Address during Commencement 2018. Photo by Ron Aira.

Thank you, President Carbera, for that kind introduction.

Moreover, thank you for inviting me to join you on such a special occasion.

First, my congratulations to all those graduating today – and to the parents and staff, without whose guidance and support it would not have been possible.  You are truly, the unsung heroes.

Many years ago, I was sitting in your seats for my own commencement ceremony, probably less nervous and more relieved than I am now.

I was fortunate enough to attend two first-rate Universities – Groningen in the Netherlands; and Cincinnati in the US.

Those years were a key part of my life and gave me so much - although I possibly didn’t realise it at the time.  They helped shape who I am today, enabled me to establish important networks, and of course led me to my first job opportunities.

Even more importantly - I met my wife Kim at the University of Cincinnati, 40 years ago, while studying for my MBA.  She is with me today. 

We met in a class called Collective Bargaining - perhaps one of the most useful courses I ever took! 

It is a great honour to receive this special recognition.

As graduates, you can all be very proud of your achievements….

… not least because you are graduating from a remarkable institution, one that in representing…

-  all 50 states of the United States;

-  130 countries around the world;

-  and with students from all ethnic, race and socio-economic backgrounds

… is a symbol of the qualities and characteristics on which this wonderful nation was built.

Diversity.  Tolerance.  Inclusion.  Respect.

Qualities that are needed today more than ever.

And ones that I am sure you will carry forward with you into the next stage of your lives.

Another reason why I know this is a great institution is because you have global leaders of the quality Tom Lovejoy on the Faculty - a man who has selflessly given his life’s work to extending our understanding of the natural environment.

It’s been a privilege to get to know him and – like many of you – we will continue to learn from him and benefit from his work. 

In many ways, you are graduating at one of the most exciting – and important – times in human history…

And one of the best times – certainly – to be a young person.

The chance to live longer, healthier and more varied lives – full of opportunities - has never been greater.

Yet at the same time, this is a world of many challenges. 

We see…

Deepening Inequality.  The devastating effects of Climate Change.  Growing evidence of conflict and geopolitical instability.  Populism on the rise.

Even the huge advances in technology – which have done so much to enrich our lives – are coming with unintended consequences, ones that raise many social and ethical dilemmas.

For all this, the opportunities for young people like yourselves to make a positive difference in the world have never been greater. 

And not only the opportunity to make a difference, but also – I would suggest - the responsibility to make a personal impact as well.

You are, after all, part of the lucky 2% in this world to be educated to higher levels and to have the freedom to chart your own path. 

Having won that ticket in the lottery of life, it’s your duty to help others who have been less fortunate…and in doing so…

…. to always follow the principle of the  "Golden Rule" of treating others – and the planet, I may add - as you would want to be treated - with dignity, tolerance and compassion.

We lost sight of those qualities for a while.  As a result, trust in many institutions has collapsed.  Cynicism has become widespread.

Business has to take its share of the responsibility.  Too often it was part of the problem, not the solution.

Why else – even in the United States – do less than one in five young people think of themselves today as "capitalists."

The fact is we need new models based on more sustainable and equitable forms of growth.

Any system where too many get left behind, will ultimately reject itself.

It was Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, who wrote that when they built a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, they forgot to build a statue of Responsibility of the West Coast.

You can be part of a generation that helps to restore trust.  To indeed create a better world for all.

You will have the chance to do that in a world that is changing at a rapid pace…

…certainly faster than at any time I can remember.

Whole industry sectors are being ‘disrupted’ and in some cases obsoleted.

The average lifespan of a publicly-traded company today is only around 15 years.  For CEOs, it’s less than 4 years!

I am often asked, what are the skills and qualities that will be needed to thrive and prosper in this rapidly changing environment.

It’s a good question.  The right question.

It’s one we think about a lot at Unilever. 

After all, nearly 2 million people apply to join Unilever every year.  We need to be very clear about the qualities needed.

It’s also a question I think about personally.  I have three sons of my own, not much older than many of you, making their way in the world.

I also spend a lot of time with the young people in our company, and with movements of the young who are trying to bring about change – like One Young World, Enactus, Ashoka Fellows and others – so I see the qualities that help make people stand out.

Of course, having the right skills and capabilities is key.

But those will change, as the world around you changes.

Equally, the ability to learn and re-learn, constantly, will be increasingly vital in the future….

…which is why the training given to you by this wonderful University will be so important, and help to give you a head start in life.

But those who will really make a difference, in my view, will be those who possess deeper qualities:

It is clear that the world we want will only be achieved when we choose action over indifference, courage over comfort, and solidarity over division.

There are indeed still some great leaders around, but we do have a leadership deficit.  Belonging to the 2%, you are well placed to fill that gap.

What we need, more than ever, are…

-  The “energy-unleashers.”   Those able to motivate and inspire those around them.  More than giving energy, it’s about unleashing it in others.

-  The “systemic problem solvers” – those with a restless desire to find solutions to the many challenges we face and who are never satisfied with the status quo.

-  The “collaborators.”   The issues we face are simply too big and complex to solve alone.  At a time when some in the world are withdrawing, we need people who can bridge divides.  That’s why the ability to work collaboratively in new forms of partnership has never been greater, or more needed.  People who understand that alone you may be able to go faster, but together you can go farther.

-  And, finally, and most importantly, we need those who are driven by a strong sense of purpose - those who understand that self-interest and the common good go hand-in-hand.  Indeed, true leaders who put the interest of others ahead of their own. 

Remember, no one has ever become poor by giving.

As you set out on the next stage in your journey, don’t just be preoccupied with making a living.  It’s also about making a life - and life of purpose is always richer.

If you can marry these qualities with the training you have had here, then you will go far …. and you will have helped to make this a better world for all, especially if you do it with a sense of humanity and humility. 

So, thank you again for allowing me to join you today.  It is a particular honour, given – as I understand – it is 50 years this year since the University’s first graduation ceremony.

It is also 50 years since the passing of the great humanitarian and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.

It was just last month that the world marked the anniversary of his death.

He left us with a dream, but also many wise thoughts, including…and I quote:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”.

Half a century on that remains, I believe, our most persistent and urgent question.

As you go forward from here, I urge you to keep that question at the front of your mind, to put others first. 

If you can do that you will then have gained something every bit as great and rewarding as the significant achievement you are marking today.

And you will have helped to make this world a better place for all and for generations to come. 

You will be living a live full of purpose.

Thank you for listening.  I wish you every success.

Topics: Graduation