Collaborating in the Desert: A Commencement Address to the Graduates of 2017

07/05/2017 10:06 am ET

If I were to share with any young person the key to life, one philosophy would rise above the rest: choose action over comfort, seek difficulty and not ease. For only through overcoming challenge and hardship can we grow, thrive and truly contribute something to this world.

In his famous moonshot speech at Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy implored the nation to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

But achieving the impossible is not the work of one, but rather that of many. Collaborating, communicating and aligning around a shared idea that is then acted upon, is where the alchemy occurs, where base metal transforms into gold, where failure becomes success.

To the graduates of 2017: as you embark on your life journeys, are you going to be tempted by what is easy, or will you insist on what is hard? Will you unite around a challenge that seems impossible – and act to change reality? Will you improve the world through the painstakingly hard work that is required?

Below is a full transcript of my commencement address at Touro College and University System in New York on June 14, 2017.

President Alan Kadish,

Provost Patricia Salkin,

Executive Vice Presidents David Raab and Moshe Krupka,

Dr. Nadja Graff, Vice President of the Division of Graduate Studies,

Vice Presidents and Deans,

Faculty, staff, families, guests and graduates,

It is such a great honor to be here with you today.

Graduates, you look magnificent from up here and for good reason.

Congratulations to all of you for getting here.

That has been no small feat.

Your families worked so hard to get you here.

Your friends worked equally hard to be here with you.

It’s your last day of grad school, but only the beginning of your lifelong connection to this amazing network of graduates who will help you with any challenges to come.

I want to acknowledge how important this connection is, and I want YOU to acknowledge that, too.

I first came to know your university when Touro licensed video streaming software from Kaltura, the company I helped start. Over the last few years, as I’ve gotten to know both students and faculty, I've learned that innovation and leadership is built into the structure of Touro, a university that is centered around people.

When Touro honored me by inviting me to speak with you today, I jumped at the chance to share with the graduating class of 2017 a few stories. Perhaps those will be useful, I thought, as you get ready to go forth and conquer the world.

On the way over here from my home in Brooklyn, I passed the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue, and in front of the library, standing guard, as always, are the two marble lions: Patience and Fortitude .

You can look it up if you don’t believe me, those are their real names. Now, I never really knew which lion is which, but I always remember that patience and fortitude are mighty allies.

Like audacity, perseverance, and conviction, patience and fortitude are traits that enable the pursuit of knowledge and serve as foundations for action in the face of adversity.

I want to say a little more about these qualities as I share with you a couple of anecdotes, which begin in another country.

But hold on, I see that some of you are still not with me but on your mobile devices…I wonder, are you looking up the names of those lions or posting to Instagram right now?

We’re all hooked, aren’t we?

We’re ALL connected ALL the time, but are we connecting in the right way?

I have a lot to say about connections and technology, but before I do that, I have a special request.

Graduates, please put your phones away for one minute and look at the eyes of the people around you.

I want you to acknowledge those sitting around you.

I want you to look in their eyes.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, graduating class of 2017.

I can actually see your eyes now, and they are rightfully shining.

So let me take you to another country, and a time before cell phones and social media.

I think the first time I truly understood the meaning of the words “patience” and “fortitude” was on a hot August day, a quarter century ago. This was week two of basic training for the Israeli Air Force Academy and my platoon was deployed on a remote ridge of the Israeli desert, in an area ominously marked on military maps as The Hills of Destiny”.

The temperature was well over 100 degrees, and like the other soldiers, I was struggling to survive, metaphorically and literally. Our drill sergeant, a young woman named Iddit— a name I’ll never forget — was perhaps only 5 feet tall, but she loomed over us rookies like a Greek goddess in her military fatigues.

Sergeant Iddit pointed to the only tree in sight on that barren land, and shouted:

“Do you see that tree over there soldiers? I want you to run around the tree and back in 30 seconds. M-O-V-E”.

Off we went, a motley crew, stumbling on our own feet, barely making it around the tree and back in 75 seconds.

“Did you not hear me? I said THIRTY seconds, M-O-V-E.”

We took 67 seconds the second time around.

“Again, and I want you to move with your souls too, not just with your bodies.”

61 seconds.

“Maybe if you help each other, you have a chance to do it in under a minute,” the goddess now suggested.

Everybody was drenched in sweat, panting hard, the dust choking our mouths.

Helping each other out? Believing in ourselves? Those were great ideas, but 30 seconds? Was that doable? Would this be one of those stories about military hazing, where someone dies?

But wait. Something was happening. As we huddled for a brief water break, one person suggested we redistribute the heavy loads we were all carrying, so that stronger folks carried more.

“Again.”

54 seconds.

Another soldier suggested we chant a mantra, so we could synchronize our steps.

“Again.”

49 seconds.

Another soldier took control of keeping time aloud.

“Again, but this time I want to see you run as a group! M-O-V-E”

37 seconds.

What? 37 seconds? Some soldiers were now smiling. We just cut our original time in half.

“Do you believe in yourselves soldiers? Do you believe in your peers? Show me you believe!”

32 seconds.

“Again.”

30 seconds.

Three, zero. We did it.

It was hard to imagine that after so many rounds we had finally tapped our inner power that was in us all along, but we did, and we all felt the magic, as if alchemy turned the dust in our mouths into honey.

We just had to believe. Believe in ourselves and in our peers, and in the idea that through group action and perseverance what seemed impossible just an hour earlier, was actually ….possible.

The only thing that died that day on the Hills of Destiny was doubt.

I’ve since found myself in other tight spots, and always tried to remember what I learned on that day.

Twenty years later, long after my wife and I made the U.S. our permanent home, moving here as immigrants to go to grad school and build a business, I took part in a different kind of ordeal: that of a startup looking for funding in the financial desert that followed the great recession, which began in 2008.

Our company, Kaltura, looked promising but was facing a major challenge. We had raised money just before the economic meltdown, and used it to hire about one hundred people, build a beta product, and even sign a few paying customers-- but like many startups, the company was burning cash rapidly, and without additional capital it would go out of business.

We only had a few more months of cash to make payroll.

And what did we hear?

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

“We’d love to fund you, but all our capital is committed to existing portfolio companies.”

“We’ll fund you as soon as you get more traction.”

These and similar statements were the typical responses from venture capital firms. It seemed as if two years into the recession nobody was funding startups anymore. The mantra in Silicon Valley was: “R.I.P. good times,” and as the list of potential investors dwindled to almost zero, every week that passed brought more disappointment and rejection.

Nobody wanted to give us money.

And we were about to lose our jobs, all of the prior investments, and several years of work.

What were we going to tell a hundred families?

But we still believed there was a way forward. As I looked at my co-founders Ron, our chief executive, Eran, our chief technology officer, and Michelle, our chief marketing officer, we knew we must find a way.

We knew we had a diverse and solid team.

We knew that our idea of making video as easy to use as Power-Point was timely.

And we knew that the fact that we built the technology and our culture on principles of openness and collaboration was an important advantage.

We also knew that to keep the company alive we had to enlist others. So we asked ourselves: if we believe video is the future of communication, who else can we convince? More importantly, who else stands to benefit from the spread of video everywhere?

As soon as we asked the question in that way, we had an idea: Intel.

Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of computer chips, was preparing for the post-PC era and investing heavily in new directions like mobility and cloud computing. And video was the perfect technology to drive consumption of high-end chips, Intel’s core business.

So we convinced Intel Capital to lead our third round of funding, and raised over $25 million. Intel brought immediate credibility and more money than we had ever had, and it allowed us not only to make payroll, but to continue to grow the business, to get more funding, and to create hundreds of jobs, and a world class product.

Today Kaltura provides video technology for hundreds of universities like Touro, more than 20 of the Fortune 100, and leading media and telecom companies around the world, serving millions of students and employees and tens of millions of consumers.

There is a good chance that all of you in the audience, not just Touro students, have used our technology even if you don’t know it.

When we focused less on what we needed and more on who else can benefit, we found our oasis in the financial desert.

Believing in our ideas and building alliances with a larger group made the impossible, possible.

A decade has passed from the great recession, the economy seems to have recovered, technology companies in particular are doing better than ever, but other aspects of our society have not recovered.

In many ways I fear we’re still in the desert, a social desert, this time, for lack of a better term.

Regardless of whether you are a liberal or a conservative, a democrat, a republican or an independent, it’s hard to deny that our civil climate has hit a drought. The polarization in this country --and abroad-- calls into question everything we thought we knew about democracy.

I shared with you the earlier stories to make the point that in order to make the impossible possible you have to align a group of people around a shared idea and call them into action. I believe that this principle applies at every scale, whether it’s a platoon, a business, a community, or the whole nation.

When we aim to create networks of people aligned around shared values, we must remember that communication is key.

Communication is the glue that holds our information society together.

You see, in the agrarian society, value was created by extracting from the land and the oceans. In the industrial society, value was created by manufacturing and turning raw materials into goods. In the information society, value is created by the exchange of information and ideas.

But I fear that the communication desert we are in threatens this exchange, and therefore threatens our very society.

I fear that we are lost in a desert because a thriving information society requires that we protect the freedom of speech of our opponents, especially when we disagree with them.

Yet when journalists get attacked by candidates for asking tough questions, professors and authors chased off campuses, or people stabbed for trying to stop hate speech, we know we have a problem on both the left and the right.

A thriving information society demands that we protect the wellspring of TRUTH from the sandstorms of fake news.

But instead, most of us find ourselves closing our eyes in the storm, opening our minds only to our self-referential social media feeds.

A thriving information society frees data in order to empower the public. Yet we find ourselves in a political environment that destroys data, rather than protects it.

How can we survive in this desert, my friends? History might offer us a clue.

In his famous moonshot speech at Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy implored the nation to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

I remember the first time I heard about the space program. It made me want to be an astronaut, where even the sky is not the limit. Maybe that’s why I wound up in the air force.

And just like in the space race, a challenge Kennedy wasn’t willing to postpone and had every intention to win, in our time, too, we need to choose the things that are hard, not the things that are easy. Because we cannot postpone, and we must win against the daunting problems of our time, such as wealth inequality, climate change, and the hardships caused by global migration.

There are of course a lot of things that are easy. Ignoring different voices is easier than listening to others.

So it might seem as if racism, misogyny and xenophobia are more easily spread than love and acceptance.

Destroying the planet is easier than developing alternative energy.

Denying health care for the sick and poor is easier than finding cures.

Slogans are easier to devise than solutions.

And building walls is easier than building bridges.

But as an entrepreneur, I believe we have a choice to make.

Are we going to face these challenges with action or with complacency? Are we going to be tempted by what is easy, or shall we insist on what is hard?

I think we really only have one option, my friends.

Why? The answer is simple. Because the information society that we’ve come to cherish, that I’ve come to cherish, and I see many of you in the audience nodding in agreement, our information society can quickly turn from paradise to hell, because the same forces and technologies that make our lives better can make them so much worse. If we stop communicating, if we make a habit of excluding instead of including, if we forget some people behind. And mostly, if we decide to ‘ride it out’ instead of engaging.

Why do we need to choose what is hard?

Because we only have one planet. And our generation’s moon shot is actually not going to the moon at all, but, rather, staying right here on earth and making sure that we do not annihilate the planet or alienate each other.

So yes, we must choose what is hard, but also, we must not be content to listen only to our own voices. We must amplify our inner voice so that it mingles with other voices in the echo-chambers of democracy.

Because only TOGETHER, through collaboration, can we effect change. Only together and through action YOU can effect change.

Here, in the center named after Abraham Lincoln, the man who did more than anyone else to unite this nation as it was falling apart, I see graduates of every color and ethnicity, of every gender and sexual orientation. I see graduates from dozens of countries, all 50 states, hundreds of cities.

It is this diversity of voices and unity of souls that gives you all the power. The power to choose ACTION over comfort. The power to choose things that are HARD.

And you know this, graduating class of 2017 because this power is already amongst you. I’ve seen it, so I know.

In one of the talks I participated at Touro, as the event was winding down and all the students rushed down the stairs to go home, I met a student in a wheelchair, next to the elevator. “I work hard and then some” he told me with a smile, as I was thinking to myself, how hard it must be to overcome not only the intellectual challenge of college, but also physical limitations. Likewise, other students have overcome the challenges of learning disabilities.

Now that is fortitude.

Or consider the immigrant graduates that are here this afternoon. They left their homelands, like me and my wife, coming here to seek a new life and an opportunity to excel. They had to deal with English as a second language. And they did.

Now that is perseverance.

Often, Touro students carry with them responsibilities including full-time jobs, family commitments, and sometimes single parenthood. And they prevail.

Now that is conviction.

Overcoming the barriers these students face is nothing short of remarkable. We recognize these champions for their courage and tenacity in overcoming any obstacle that tries to get in their way.

And what is most inspiring to me about all these graduates, and all the rest of you in the graduating class of 2017, is that you all believe. You believe in yourselves and your power to do extraordinary things with your lives. You believe in your dreams. You believe in your peers and the power to choose the things that are hard.

And the fact that you’re all sitting here this afternoon, tells me that you believe in the power of education to make the impossible, possible.

So you better believe that you can go around the tree in 30 seconds, that you can raise the funds against all odds, that you can be leaders in your future classrooms and communities, and most importantly, you better believe, just like your families, and your faculty, and my wife and young daughters who are sitting here in the front row, we all better believe that we can overcome adversity without having to hate anyone, without having to bully anyone, without having to keep ANYONE outside a wall.

In fact, Touro College and University System was founded on the premise that quality education must accommodate students from all backgrounds and circumstances-- not only the most talented and motivated students but also those who have been overlooked and underserved.

Maybe you’re a teacher. Maybe you’re a social worker. Maybe you’re a scholar. Maybe you’re a journalist. Maybe you’re a technologist like me. What matters is not your profession but the idea that you can take all the wisdom Touro has given you and use it in the real world to effect change.

I’m sure you didn’t get all the answers while you were a student, but I am equally sure that you learned how to ask tough questions.

The three questions I want to leave you with, are these:

What problem do you believe you can solve?

What solutions do you dare dream of?

And how will you enlist your network of peers to ACT with you?

Because it doesn’t matter if it’s going to take you 30 seconds, 30 days, 30 months or 30 years. It is time for you to find your startup, your nonprofit, your government position, your leadership in the classroom, in the arts, or in the community. It is time for you to find a big problem in the world and solve it, whatever it might be.

In other words, it is time to find your tree in the desert, to make sure you have the right people with you, and to go around that tree and back as fast as you can because you have no time to waste, and you know that the power is already within you, but your journey is only beginning.

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