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Class of 2013 | Commencement Speaker Holly Gordon’s Speech

Holly Gordon was chosen to be the Commencement Speaker at the 125th Mills College Commencement on Saturday, May 18. She is one of the executive producers of the documentary film “Girl Rising” and the executive director of 10×10 Fund for Girls Education, a global campaign dedicated to the empowerment of girls.

Want to know more about Gordon? Read her Q&A with The Campanil here.

The transcript of her speech has been republished below with permission.

Holly Gordon gives her speech as the Commencement Speaker. (Photo by Melodie Miu)
Holly Gordon gives her speech as the Commencement Speaker. (Photo by Melodie Miu)

Thank you, President DeCoudreaux for inviting me today. Thank you to the members of the board of trustees, to the faculty – you must be proud to see these students you have nurtured go into the world today.

Thanks to all of you parents, for supporting your children as they have pursued the most important tool for life – an excellent education. Thanks to all you brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends who have come here to celebrate this day. You have been part of the nurturing – and if you are a sibling, likely the tormenting – of these fine graduates…so take a bow.

But most of all, congratulations to the wonderful Mills College Class of 2013!

You are incredibly fortunate. Not just because you got to spend 4 years in this amazing setting – but because your degree gives you the foundation to innovate, to transform and to LEAD. The world needs more leaders.

But how do you get there from here?

I remember so well what it felt like to sit where you are and to be unsure about the path ahead.

I hope that by sharing a few stories about my own journey, I can inspire you to choose a path of leadership. And I want to encourage you to stay on that path even when it feels uncertain. What I have learned is that both the journey and the opportunity to lead are extraordinarily rewarding.

So, for those of you who don’t know me, let me share a little background. For the past four years, I have been producing a film called Girl Rising and leading a campaign called 10×10 designed to spread the word about the power of educating girls to transform the world. Our team has overcome many obstacles to make the film and launch the campaign, but the real obstacles are those that face many girls in our world.

The truth of it is that 77 million girls are out of school today because they face barriers to education around the world that boys do not. They are married off, sold as slaves, or kept home to take care of younger siblings, undervalued and marginalized.

And yet, what fires me up every morning is this: When you look at the data, it turns out that educating girls is the best investment you can make if you want a country to prosper. If you want to grow more food, educate girls. If you want to stabilize population growth, educate girls. If you want to lower infant mortality rates and raise vaccination rates, educate girls.

I started my career as a journalist. So when I found out that pretty much everything in a country gets better when more girls go to school, it felt like the story of a lifetime. I applied everything that I learned in my career to bring Girl Rising to life.

About twenty years ago, at my own commencement, I sat exactly where you are today, with a general idea that I wanted to have a career that involved foreign policy – or “international relations” as my degree said.

I imagine you have spent the last six months of your senior year in college much like I spent mine — madly interviewing with on-campus recruiters in a vague but intense search for a ‘career’.

I even took the foreign service exam thinking that was my ticket.

Despite clear instructions about word count, I wrote long answers on the essay questions. I foolishly thought that my essays were so good, that the word count limit would not apply to me. It did. I failed.

And yet, last month I shared the stage with the Secretary General of the United Nations, the President of the World Bank, and Britain’s Secretary of State.

I addressed an audience of education and finance ministers from around the world, and I urged them to invest in educating girls. The next day, I went to the White House where I met with some of the President’s key advisors to share ideas about how to make the world a better place for girls.

I am living my dream, and each of you can too, despite how it may feel today. By the way, my two happy children, incredible husband and amazing family and friends are a huge part of my dream, but today I’m going to focus on the career part of my dream.

My career has been neither linear nor premeditated. And yet, looking back, every part of it and everyone who helped me along the way prepared me to lead 10×10 and to produce Girl Rising…

I want to share with you four key principles that I hope will stick with you until you wake up one morning – as I did a few weeks ago – and realize that you ARE living your dream.

So here’s the start. You’re sitting there wondering what to do? Here’s my first principle: Just do SOMETHING.

Of course it’s better if that something brings you joy, but you often don’t know what does bring joy until you try. Doing something and having it not work out is better than sitting on the sidelines.

I already told you I failed my foreign service exam. I also failed my Conde Nast typing test. I interviewed with several investment banks, but that door closed quickly. Nothing seemed quite right.

So when my childhood friend Alex called me a few days after graduation and asked me to travel with him to India to write an article for Men’s Journal about the last tigers living in the wild, I jumped off the sidelines.

It wasn’t exactly a career in foreign service, but at least it involved an international flight.

I told my mother I wanted to write while I was away. And against her better judgement, I packed a 30-pound manual typewriter. Most of you have probably never seen a manual typewriter, but to give you a sense, it would be like traveling around with a desktop computer in your bag.

But to me, the typewriter was vital, even if it meant my bag weighed a ton and I had virtually no change of clothes. And each night in India, I typed out my impressions of the day. Peck, peck, peck, return.

About two months into the trip, up a mountain near where the Dalai Lama lives, I had the most important epiphany of my life — what I was doing WAS a career! And it had a name! Traveling around the world, finding important stories and telling them well was something that I loved and I could get paid to do — it was called JOURNALISM!

That moment was the first important step in how I got here today. And so, as I stated with my first principle, don’t sit around wondering. Take a leap. Move toward something. You will start to untangle what you enjoy and what you’re good at.

I hurried around the rest of India. When I came home, I started with two very weak personal contacts, and after 4 months of sleeping on my college roommate’s couch, I landed a job at ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. My career began.
After my Indian mountain epiphany, I had spent a lot of time imagining my glamorous and exciting career news.

But the reality of my first job is the reality that will face many of you – I was an assistant. With my excellent college degree, I became the queen of phone, fax and photocopy.

My boss was a wonderful man, a huge personality who wore lots of cologne and gave me big hugs in the morning. By 9am I was also wearing lots of cologne.

He liked everything just so – to the point that he actually taped his family photos and pen-holder to his desk so that they were never out of place. On my first day of work he instructed me on a very complicated but precise system for color-coding his calendar. Pink was for external meetings, blue for internal meetings, yellow for family, green for the gym.

I spent hours at the beginning of each week with a fist full of highlighters, methodically coloring blocks of time.

Only to have to do it all again later in the week as his schedule changed. It didn’t feel like my grand career dream; it felt like kindergarten.

But in fact, I was laying the foundation for everything that came later. Here’s what I mean: In addition to color coding, my new boss had other requirements. I had to spell every name correctly in his phone log; I had to be at work on time. He arrived at precisely the same time every morning, and I needed to be there 10 minutes before him. I was expected to learn quickly which calls he needed to take, and which questions I could answer for him. I listened in on his meetings and took notes, so that I could anticipate the follow up. I was expected to build a rapport with the staff of the show, so that everyone felt heard, even if they weren’t being heard in person by him.

The truth is, if you can be a great assistant, you can be a great CEO.

What that job taught me was precision, attention to detail, punctuality, judgment, follow-up, and how to listen and be part of a team. These are the fundamental skills of leadership.

I guarantee you that your first job is going to be full of seemingly menial tasks. I urge you to treat each one as important, as though it is the most important assignment of your life. Suck every little piece of learning out of it.

So that’s my second principle: Be a great assistant. Because if you can be a great assistant, you can be a great CEO.

There will come a time when you will be ready to move on.

When that happens, it’s time for my third principle – find your Fear Factor. Here’s what I mean: If there is no fear of failure in a job, it probably means you are not stretching. To me, the scarier the job, the more you should want it.

Fear means you are growing. Fear means you can take a huge leap forward in your professional life. I am going to tell you a story about facing my Fear Factor.

After two years of phone fax and photocopy, I moved to an overnight job at Good Morning America. I went to work at 6 in the evening and often left after 7am the next morning. It was brutal but I learned a ton.

Once I had it down, I told my boss that I would like to learn how to produce pieces. This meant actually going into the field to shoot and write stories.

Literally, the next day, I was at home, about to come to work for my night shift, when the phone rang. It was my boss. “You asked for an opportunity to produce,” she said. “I’ve got one.”

Looking back, I realize she must have been short on staff. Because sending ME was madness. I was totally under qualified. I had never produced a piece in my life. Now, she was sending me to battle. Literally.

It was 1999. There was a war raging in Bosnia. Ethnic Albanians were streaming across the border into Macedonia. The images were harrowing. People were forced to leave with only what they could carry on their backs. They were pouring into make-shift camps, with scarce food, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no proper shelter, and no health care. The situation was getting worse by the hour. There were reports of disease and death. Macedonian police surrounded the camps to keep the refugees in and others out.

My boss wanted me and our health reporter to get on the next plane to Macedonia. We would sneak past the police into a camp. The reporter, who was a doctor, would provide basic medical treatment to the refugees and report on the conditions. My job was to shoot this with a hidden camera.

We hoped a Good Morning America story would compel the Macedonian authorities – or the US – to act.

We had just under 24 hours to fly half way around the world, find the camp, sneak in, and shoot a story. All while not getting arrested or shot. It felt like Fear Factor combined with the Amazing Race.

Of course, along with fearing for my life, what I was afraid of was failing. But there was no time to think about my fears. Instead, I went to the airport.

By the time I got to the camp in Macedonia, dawn was just breaking. I had 6 hours before my Good Morning America live shot. But — instead of a mud-pit seething with desperate people — there were piles of abandoned belongings, smoldering fires, and an eerie, sickening quiet.

Overnight, the Macedonian police had emptied the camp. They had pushed the refugees onto buses and shipped them around the country. I ended up filing a story on families separated in the dark of night. For the next 7 days, I filed a story a day. With each one, I was terrified that I would get something wrong, that I wouldn’t make the air, or that someone might figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. I produced the first 7 pieces of my career that week.

I took a huge leap forward in that one week. Facing my fear factor led me to a major breakthrough. You can do the same. Look for opportunities to embrace fear and push forward.

To recap: First, just DO something. Second, be a great assistant. Third, find your fear factor.

Which brings me to the 4th and final principle.

Like the instructions on a bottle of shampoo: Wash, rinse, repeat.

Just do something, give it you’re all, and then embrace the fear factor. Repeat this cycle and something remarkable will happen: … You will build a career and you will become a leader.

In fact, my whole career prepared me to produce Girl Rising and to lead 10×10.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than phone, fax and photocopy, but the fundamentals are the same – precision, attention to detail, judgment, follow-up, listening and being part of a team and a hefty dose of relentlessness.

Years at Good Morning America was great preparation for the process of engaging Meryl Streep, and Anne Hathaway, and Alicia Keys and the other incredible talents who have given their performances and their names to the project.

Whenever I am totally freaked out about something I’ve never done or don’t know how to handle, I think about that time in Macedonia, and I just go for it.

20 years after graduating with a vague notion of how I could play a role in international relations, my dreams are coming true.

And yours can too.

Girl Rising has now been screened over 1,000 times at high profile events and grassroots screenings much like the one that you had here just a few weeks ago.

The success of this film tells me that there is a hunger for change in this world. A hunger for inspiration. And a hunger for progress.

The world needs leaders.

You are the next generation of leaders.

You are graduating with an education and opportunities that the 9 girls in our film dream about.

Our tag line for Girl Rising is “One Girl with Courage is a revolution. “

My question for you today is simple: What revolution will you lead?

Just Do Something.