“One of the very most important things in our school’s history is something that’s not in the motto” — “mens et manus,” or “mind and hand” — Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, now the chief technology officer of the United States, said today in her Commencement speech at MIT. “It’s heart,” she said.
“What I mean by heart,” Smith said, “is not just love and kindness. I mean wonder and discovery, it’s openness, it’s inclusivity, creativity, passion, obsession, service.”
Smith delivered her remarks as the keynote speaker at MIT’s Commencement, where 1,054 undergraduates and 1,719 graduate students received their MIT degrees under clear blue skies in MIT’s Killian Court.
As Robert Millard ’73, chairman of the MIT Corporation, pointed out in introducing Smith as this year’s Commencement speaker, she was named to MIT’s board just two years after earning her undergraduate degree. “We think of Megan as pure MIT,” he said, “not just because she majored in mechanical engineering, but because she feels the pulse here, and has been one of the best ambassadors for the institute.”
Expanding on the importance of heart, Smith cited four key elements. First, she said, is the role of teamwork. She quoted a former mentor at the MIT Media Lab, Alan Kay, who taught her the importance of knowing her own strengths and weaknesses. While many might then stress the need to improve on those weaknesses, Smith said that Kay had a different approach: “Focus on your strengths, and team up with people who are really good at the stuff that are your weaknesses.”
Kindness as important as knowledge
Smith said a second aspect of heart is kindness, which she described as being “as important as knowledge.” Speaking of the importance of listening to ideas with an open mind, she said, “It isn’t just a moral point, it’s a practical point.” What if, she asked, the half-formed idea shot down in a meeting was “the first half of the cure for cancer?”
Third, Smith cited the importance of openness and inclusivity — noting Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager and activist who last year became the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize, and in whose name Smith has established a foundation. Yousafzai, despite her limited education, has a passion for physics, Smith said. She also cited examples of crucial but overlooked innovators in science and technology, including women who were pioneers in the development of the first computers and software.
“Diversity isn’t just some nice thing,” Smith said. “It makes for better products, better businesses, and better bottom lines.” And, she added — citing examples from free evening classes at MIT’s founding in the 1860s to the MIT OpenCourseWare and MITx of today — “It’s in our DNA to be open and to share.”
Finally, Smith said, another aspect of heart is service. While it’s important to work together in labs and corporations with like-minded people, “It’s also critically important to show up where we’re more rare, where the greatest problems live,” she said — such as her own decision to leave the corporate world to serve in Washington.
“My hope for you,” Smith said, “is that you bring your technical skills to the things you love.” Citing a UN program that aims to address 17 global challenges in the next 15 years, she said, “If you bring not only your ideas, but also your networks of the technical people that are out here, I think we’ll solve many of these challenges faster than 15 years.”
Leveraging back to the world
In his address, Kendall Nowocin, head of MIT’s Graduate Student Council, told his fellow students, “Each pathway to this point has been filled with experiences of struggle, perseverance, and achievement, but we were supported by those around us here today and close to us.”
Nowocin added: “In your future achievements — when finding the next cancer treatment, providing access to clean water, being CTO of the country, or, in my case, helping to start a company to bring 1.1 billion people electricity — we realize that the gift we received as MIT students has been leveraged back to the world.”
Senior class president Joanne Zhou spoke to her classmates about some of the difficult times they’ve faced, as well as the support that helped them through. “It’s during these times that we’ve learned to base our identities not just on our performance, but on our core values,” Zhou said. “We made it here because of our discipline, humility, and resilience. But most importantly, we made it here because of each other.”
Zhou presented President L. Rafael Reif with the Class of 2015’s senior gift of $16,341, representing an 87.44 percent participation rate — an all-time record. This was supplemented by a $50,000 challenge grant from Nasser Ahmad ’90, SM ’92.
Hacking the world
Reif, in his charge to the students, said, “The MIT worldview combines a profound humility with the confidence that no problem is too big, with the right people on the job — whether you aim to launch a game-changing company, or cure Alzheimer’s, or educate a billion people, or invent a way to provide fresh water for the world.”
He added that characteristics of MIT include “intense curiosity and a commitment to excellence. The humility — and the confidence — to face hard problems. And a bold willingness to disrupt the status quo, to make the world a better place. It is this MIT worldview that gives me the confidence to deliver my charge to you. Because after you leave us today, I want to ask you to hack the world, until you make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More humble, more respectful, more generous and more kind. More rigorous, inventive, and ambitious.”
As the Institute’s latest graduates leave MIT, Reif urged them: “Go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.”