Graduates, we need you to invent the future — again

610 200 Lenny Mendonca

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Co-chair of California Forward, Lenny Mendonca, delivered the following address excerpt at the 2018 Commencement for UC Merced's School of Engineering:

Not to put any pressure on you, but we’re all counting on your leadership. The world has advanced amazingly since I graduated from college.

Today, we take technology for granted that didn’t exist a quarter century ago. My iPhone has more computing power than the computers used to put a man on the moon. And, heaven forbid, my speech is being live-streamed to anyone in the world who has a smartphone – all 2 billion of them. Over a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the world since 1990. You’re welcome.

Enormous progress, for sure, but my generation also did a great job making a mess of the place; it’s up to you to clean up after us. For all the progress, we’ve left you with a warming planet, a dysfunctional democracy and a wall of debt. Again, you’re welcome.

Guess what: the Valley, California, the US, indeed the world needs your leadership.

Knowledge is doubling every year, unfortunately, the problems that need to be solved are increasing almost as fast. Almost, but not quite. The key is applying your knowledge to help solve them.

I’ll give you one problem I’m particularly looking forward to you solving. I grew up in Turlock, 15 miles from here; today, I live in Half Moon Bay, 150 miles from here. Economist Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley starts his great book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” with a story from the 1960s, when I grew up, about an engineer from Menlo Park considering a move to Visalia, just south of Fresno.

Three hours apart, the two cities at the time were very similar: in job prospects, income levels and mix, school quality and crime rates. Not so today.

If California were split into different states, I’d live in the richest state in the country in the Bay Area. Today, we’re in the poorest state in the nation. That is not OK.

The two cities in the United States with the largest portion of their population living in extreme poverty are in the Central Valley. That is not OK.

Oxfam says the eight richest people in the world, six of them Americans, own as much wealth as the combined wealth of half the human race. That is not OK.

When I graduated from college, Stanford Professor Raj Chetty said there was a 92 percent chance I was earning more than my parents. For the typical 30-year-old today, that probability is a coin flip.

Depending on where one lives, their parents’ education, and, unfortunately, their ethnicity, it is more likely than not that a child born today will grow up worse off economically than their parents. That is not OK.

Communities, society and democracy don’t function without progress or with deep inequality. Please, please help us fix this. It can be done.

The key is knowledge, innovation and leadership. Just what you are in a position to provide.

We need you to invent the future, again. We also need you to fix the problems, not just build great iPhone apps. We need new ways to connect the Central Valley to Silicon Valley and to Southern California, and I don’t just mean high-speed rail (or if Elon Musk has his way, a Hyperloop). I mean connecting humans and their knowledge.

The state of California put its only new UC campus in 50 years here for a reason. We need your knowledge, your passion, your energy, your leadership to make this region and the state an example for the world. No pressure, but…the keys are in the car, step in and drive it. Thank you in advance.

Lenny Mendonca is co-chair of California Forward Leadership Council and director emeritus (retired senior partner) of McKinsey & Company.


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