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Sheryl Sandberg’s Commencement address

Facebook COO tells MIT grads: "It’s not enough to be technologists — we have to make sure that technology serves people."
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Facebook COO and best-selling author Sheryl Sandberg delivers the 2018 Commencement address
Facebook COO and best-selling author Sheryl Sandberg delivers the 2018 Commencement address
Photo: Dominick Reuter

Below is the text of the Commencement address delivered by Facebook COO and best-selling author Sheryl Sandberg for the Institute’s 2018 Commencement, held June 8, 2018.

President, esteemed faculty, proud parents, devoted friends, squirming siblings — but especially Class of 2018: Congratulations — you made it! It wasn’t always easy. You plowed through four years of problem sets. You conquered the snow of 2015. You survived way too many Weekly Wednesdays at the Muddy Charles and learned this important life lesson: There’s no such thing as a free chicken wing.

Today you are graduates of one of the most revered technical institutions in the world. The Harvard people tried to get me to say “most revered institution within a 2-mile radius.” I said no, but you’re soon going to find out just how persistent alumni associations can be. Just ask the class of ’68. They’ve been to more fundraisers than you’ve eaten chicken wings.  

One thing I remember from graduation is that feeling of turning one corner — and not being able to see clearly around the next. For someone like me who, yes, very annoyingly, started studying for finals the first day of the semester, that was unsettling. Graduation was the first time in my life where the steps were not clearly laid out. I remember the feeling of excitement and possibility, mixed in with just a teeny amount of crushing uncertainty.

If you know exactly what you’re going to do for your career, raise your hand. There are always some. That is impressive. I did not. I didn’t know where I would fit in best or contribute most. These days, when I need advice, I turn to Mark Zuckerberg, but back then, he was in elementary school.

I was sure of only one thing: I didn’t want to go into business. And it never even occurred to me to go into technology. I guess that’s a warning for those of you who put your hands up. Certainty is one of the great privileges of youth.

Things won’t always end up as you think. But you will gain such valuable lessons along life’s uncertain path. And the lesson I want to share with you today is one I learned in my very first job out of college — working on a leprosy treatment program in India.

Since biblical times, leprosy patients were ostracized from their community to prevent the disease from spreading. By the time I graduated from college, the technical challenges had been solved. Doctors could easily diagnose leprosy — it shows up as skin patches on your chest — and medicine could easily treat the disease. But the stigma remained — so patients hid their disease instead of seeking care. I will never forget meeting patients for the first time and extending my arm, and watching them recoil because they were not used to even being touched.

The real breakthrough didn’t come from technicians or doctors, but from local community leaders. They knew that they had to erase the stigma before they could erase the disease — so they wrote plays and songs in local languages and went around the community encouraging people to come forward without fear. They understood that the most difficult problems and the greatest opportunities we have are not technical. They are human. In other words, it’s not just about technology. It’s about people.

This is a lesson you’ve learned here at MIT — and not just those of you graduating with technical degrees, but those who studied anything from urban planning to management, or Course 11 or Course 15 in MIT speak. You know that it’s people who build technology — and people who use it to make their lives better. To get educated. To get health care. To share an infinite number of cat videos that are all unique and totally adorable. Unless you’re a dog person.

Today, anyone with an internet connection can inspire millions with a single sentence or a single image. That gives extraordinary power to those who use it to do good — to march for equality; to reignite the movement against sexual harassment; to rally around the things they care about and the people they want to be there for.

But it also empowers those who would seek to do harm. When everyone has a voice, some raise their voices in hatred. When everyone can share, some share lies. And when everyone can organize, some organize against the things we value the most.

Journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote about the impact of new technology. She said we had created the ultimate democracy, where anything said by anyone could be heard by everyone. But she worried. She worried whether it provoked partisanship or tolerance, whether it was time wasted or time well-spent. She wondered if it explained “all the furious fence-building, the fanned-up nationalisms, and the angers and neuroses of our time.” She wrote this in 1932 — about the radio. And by the way, she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

The fact that the challenges we face are not new does not make them less pressing. Like the generations before us, we have to solve the problems that our technology brings. I believe there are three ways we can deal with these challenges. We can retreat in fear. We can barrel ahead with a single-minded belief in our technology. Or we can fight like hell to do all the good we can, knowing that what we build will be used by people — and people are capable of great beauty and great cruelty.

I encourage you today to choose the third option — to be clear-eyed optimists. To see that building technology that supports equality, democracy, truth, and kindness means looking around corners and throwing up every possible roadblock against hate and violence and deception. You might be thinking, given some of the issues Facebook has had, isn’t what I’m saying hitting pretty close to home? Yes. It is.

I am proud of what Facebook has done around the world — proud of the connections that have been created. Proud of how people use Facebook to organize for democracy, for the Women’s March, for Black Lives Matter. Proud of how people use Facebook to start and grow businesses and create jobs all around the world.

But at Facebook, we didn’t see all the risks coming. And we didn’t do enough to stop them. It’s painful when you miss something — when you make the mistake of believing so much in the good you are seeing that you don’t see the bad. It’s hard when you know you let people down. 

In the middle of one of my toughest moments, Michael Miller, the former superintendent of the Naval Academy, kindly reached out to remind me that smooth seas never make good sailors. He’s right. The times in my life when I have learned the most have definitely been the hardest. That’s when you will learn the most about yourself. You can almost feel yourself growing — you can feel the growing pains. When you own your mistakes, you can work harder to correct them — and even harder to prevent the next ones. That’s my job now. It won’t be easy, and it’s not going to be fast. But we will see it through.

Yet the larger challenge is one all of us here must face. The role of technology in our lives is growing — and that means our relationship with technology is changing. We have to change too. We have to recognize the full weight of our responsibilities. It’s not enough to be technologists — we have to make sure that technology serves people.

It’s not enough or even possible to be neutral — tools are shaped by the minds that make them and by the hands that use them. And it’s not enough to have a good idea — you have to know when to stop a bad one.

This is hard because technology changes faster than society. When I was in college, no one had a cell phone. Today there are more cell phones than people on Earth. We are in one of the most remarkable moments in human history — and you will not just live through it, you will shape it. 

Many of you will work on technologies that will change the world. You will connect the rest of the world, create new jobs and disrupt old ones, give machines new powers to think, and give us the means to communicate in ways we haven’t even thought of.

We are not passive observers of these changes. We can’t be. Trends do not just happen — they are the result of choices people make. We are not indifferent creators — we have a duty of care. And even when with the best of intentions you go astray — as many of us have — you have the responsibility to course correct. We are accountable — to the people who use what we build, to our colleagues, to ourselves, and to our values.

So if you’re thinking about joining a team, an NGO, a startup or a company — ask if they are doing good for the world. Research at that other school down the river shows that we become more creative when we ask “Could we?” And we become more ethical when we ask “Should we?” So ask both. Know that you have an obligation to never shy away from doing the right thing, because the fight to ensure that tech is used for good is never over.

To make sure that technology reflects and upholds the right values, we have to build with awareness. And the best way to be more aware is to have more people in the room with different voices and different views. There are still skeptics out there when it comes to the value of diversity. They dismiss it as something we do to feel better, not to be better. They’re wrong. We cannot build technology for equality and democracy unless we have and we harness diversity in its creation. More people with more diverse backgrounds are working in technology than ever before — and graduating in your class than ever before. But our industry is still lagging MIT.

Even the newest technology can contain the oldest prejudices. Our lack of diversity is at the root of some of the things we fail to see and prevent. It is up to all of us to fix that — people like me, and people like you; everyone graduating today and all the graduates to come.

So continue the example you have lived at MIT. Continue to engage with people outside your discipline, your gender, your race. Talk with people who grew up in different places, who believe different things, who live and worship differently than you do. Talk with them, listen to them, get their perspectives, as you have done here — and encourage them to work in and with technology too.

To all the current and future educators here today, let’s reform our educational system so we give everyone the opportunity to learn to code. This is a basic language now that needs to be taught in all of our schools so that more people have a choice. When some kids learn it and some kids don’t, that creates an unequal playing field long before people go into the workforce. And to all the future leaders in tech —that’s you — know that you have a chance to right wrongs, not reinforce them. Tech institutions can be some of the strongest voices for progress in the workplace — but we can always do better.

Encourage your employers and policymakers to ensure that everyone — and that includes contractors — earns a living wage. Fight for paid family leave — with equal time for all genders — because equality in the workplace will not happen until we have equality in the home and because no one should be forced to choose between the job they need and the family they love. Give people bereavement leave — because when tragedy strikes, we need to be there for each other.

And build workplaces where everyone — everyone — is treated with respect. We need to stop harassment and hold both perpetrators and enablers accountable. And we need to make a personal commitment to stop racism and sexism, including the expressions of bias that become commonplace and accepted instead of rejected and fought.

I want you to know that you can impact the workplace from the very day you enter it. A few months ago, surveyed people to understand how the #metoo movement was influencing work. After so many brave women spoke out, we found evidence of an unintended backlash: Almost half of male managers in the U.S. are now uncomfortable having a work meeting alone with a woman — and more uncomfortable having a work dinner with a female colleague. These are the informal moments where men have long gotten more mentoring than women, and now it looks like it could get worse. For the men here: Someone might pull you aside your first week at work and say “never be alone with a woman.” You know they’re wrong. You know how to work respectfully with all people. So give them advice instead. Tell them that they have the responsibility to make access equal — and if they don’t feel comfortable having dinner with women, they shouldn’t have dinner with men. Group lunches for everyone.

In one of my early jobs, I had a boss who treated me quite differently from my two male team members — and not in a good way. He spoke to them with kindness and respect but belittled me very publicly. I tried to talk to him, but it made it worse. My two male teammates — right out of school themselves — stepped up and it stopped. Even if you’re the most junior person in the room, you have power. Use it. And use it well.

Class of 2018, it is not the technology you build that will define you. It is the teams you build — and what people do with your technology. We have to get this right because we need technology to solve our greatest challenges. When I sat where you are sitting today, I never thought I would work in technology. But somewhere along that uncertain path I learned new lessons and became a technologist. And technologists have always been optimists. We’re optimists because we have to be. If you want to do something that’s never been done before, so many people will tell you it can’t be done. Graduates of this amazing university have helped sequence the human genome, paved the way for the treatment of AIDS — and made an MIT balloon appear in the middle of the Harvard-Yale game. 

We’re optimists because we run the numbers. Our world can feel polarized and dangerous — but in many critical ways, we are so much better off. A century ago, global life expectancy was 35 — for 2 billion people. Today it is 70 — for 7 billion.  When I graduated from college, one in three people lived in extreme poverty. Today it is one in 10. It’s still way too high, but we have made more progress in our lifetimes than in the rest of human history.

Our challenge now is to be clear-eyed optimists, or to paraphrase President Kennedy, optimists without illusions. To build technology that improves lives and gives voice to those who often have none while preventing misuse. To build teams that better reflect the world around us — with all its complexity and diversity. If we succeed — and we can and will succeed — we can build technology that better serves not just some of us, but all of us.

MIT graduate and former faculty member David Baltimore won a Nobel Prize for his work on the interaction between viruses and the genetic material of the cell. But before that, he helped bring biologists, lawyers, and physicians together to debate new gene-editing technology. They were worried that it had the potential to cause more harm than good. But they concluded that the opportunities for progress were too great — so they created ethical guidelines and continued the research. That decision led to some of the greatest advances in genetic science and medicine. It also set a standard that we as technologists can follow: Seek advice from people with different perspectives, look deeply at the risks as well as the benefits of new technology — and if those risks can be managed, keep going even in the face of uncertainty.

Class of 2018, you are now graduates of one of the most forward-thinking places on Earth. You will have tremendous opportunities and you will be highly sought after. You will use what you learned here to work on some of the most critical questions we face. I hope you use your influence to make sure technology is a force for good in the world. Technology needs a human heartbeat; the things that bring us together and the things that bring us joy are the things that matter the most.  

The future is now in your hands. Congratulations!

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