The following is an excerpt from remarks by Henry Kravis ’69, founding partner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and co-chair of the School’s Board of Overseers, at the 2011 MBA Recognition Ceremony on May 14, 2011. (To view photos from the event, visit Columbia Business School on Flickr.)
Be alert to change that is meaningful and purposeful. Not gimmicks but real change. Bad news and criticism deserve more attention than compliments. Beware of the “not invented here” syndrome. You are not the only one with brilliant ideas. We live in a world of fierce competition, and arrogance will kill you. Speaking of competition, it is not a zero-sum game. Your success will not necessarily obliterate that of intelligent, acute competitors, even if you give them a run for their money. This is not a football game where only one team can win. Many can and should compete for market share and for profits in that market. Rules, regulations, and laws, and the vigorous forces of competition should correct market distortions and preclude anyone from unduly taking all, at least not for long. And bending the rules is never an option. There is no meaningful success without integrity.
Giving back to society is probably one of life’s great gratifications. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” There really is nothing more fulfilling than giving back to others with time, ideas, moral support, or financial assistance. Many times today, I have referred to the benefits of competition and capitalism in improving material conditions, choice, and personal liberty.
I am also fully aware of market imperfections — discrimination, environmental issues, access to capital, poverty, or what Irving Kristol called “psychic burdens” and “spiritual malaise.” Kristol called for “Two Cheers for Capitalism” — and withheld the third cheer. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to try to alleviate these failings. Teaching a disadvantaged child to read, helping an elderly person cross the street, assisting veterans to reintegrate the job market, making the arts and quality education accessible to a wider public, providing resources for a scientist to pursue a remedy for disease, mentoring troubled teenagers, cleaning a park — the list is endless. Just giving of yourselves will make your lives whole and richer.
Throughout your lives, you will be given many opportunities to give back. You will also be given the responsibility to shape society. You are living in a world of exciting and perplexing change — where medical science opens the door to longer life, but, at the same time, raises troubling ethical issues. Where globalization and trade pave the way for higher living standards for billions of people — but also cause job losses, displacements, and resource stress. Where the promise of biology and nanotechnology brighten our future — but where pandemics and terrorism have become household words. Where the Internet transforms private life into shared experiences — but invades privacy and provides an unwelcome platform for narcissism and self-indulgence. This dichotomy, so characteristic of our changing world can be truly confusing. And we know that the future will most certainly outstrip our imaginations.
Today I see before me a graduating class drawn from scores of countries and states, from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. You will find your own personal and shared approaches to our changing world. Each one of you can and must make a difference in his or her unique way. I encourage you to do so sooner rather than later. I am confident that if you believe in what you do, defend our values of freedom and choice, learn constantly, combat arrogance and complacency, embrace purposeful change and give back, always with integrity and loyalty, your world will be a better place.