Commencement Address by MCC CEO Daniel Yohannes at Carnegie Mellon University, Heinz College

"Think Big Picture; Take Smart Risks"

Thank you so much, Dean Krishnan, for inviting me to share this special milestone with Carnegie Mellon’s newest graduates from both the School of Public Policy and Management and the School of Information Systems and Management.

It is wonderful to be in this beautiful hall with so many smart men and women!

Graduates: Congratulations to you, your families, your friends, and all who have supported you during your studies toward your advanced degrees. Today is as much your day as it is theirs.

I remember, long ago, sitting where you sit today when I completed my Master’s.

Perhaps, like me, some 30 years from now, you will not remember what your commencement speaker said or even who he was.

But, I’m pretty sure you share the same feelings today I felt 30 years ago: a mix of sheer joy for reaching this point and some real fear for what’s next.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Why? Well, life is about taking chances.

It is about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones.

It’s about refusing to be passive bystanders in life.

Rather, we need to live as active participants in our own destinies.

Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Personal acts of courage each day—some smaller, like walking across this stage today—will lay the foundation for bigger acts of courage that conquer our fears and drive innovation, leadership and new thinking.

None of you worked hard to earn the degree you receive today just to keep doing what you’ve done. You invested the time, the money and the energy—in yourself—in a Carnegie Mellon first-class education—so you could enter a new chapter of possibility.

I am here to tell you that you can write that chapter if you take two bold actions:

First, think big picture. Have the vision to see the forest, not just the trees. Your life will be filled with people throwing trees in front of you. Have the courage to see beyond them.

Second, take smart risks. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Be a risk-taker, but one who is smart about the risks you take in pursuit of your vision.

I know this is a class of very analytical scholars. You reason, analyze and make decisions with all the facts in front of you. Today, I challenge you to add new tools to your analysis.

Broad thinking and smart risk-taking are key to successful decision-making. And, I believe these actions complement innovation and partnership, which are the hallmarks of the education you received at this great university through Heinz College.

Big picture thinking and smart risk-taking have guided my own personal and professional journey. These actions helped me manage the challenges along the way.

So, let me share three life stories … with three life lessons.

First, at the age of 17, I packed a suitcase and, with 150 dollars in my pocket, left Ethiopia for California. My thinking and action were driven by the big picture: Any hope for a successful future and a productive career—where I could help myself, my family, my community, and my country—would have to start with a first-class education. Like so many international students in this graduating class, I came to this country in pursuit of that education. What could be more valuable than a good education? And, how could my parents say no to that proposal?

The risks were real, of course. I left all I knew for a country I did not know. As I convinced my family that this was the right move, I reasoned through all the risks.  I did my homework in advance; I researched the options.  I picked California because of its diversity, warm climate and educational opportunities.

So, the first lesson I learned: With the big picture in mind—with a clear understanding of what motivates you—look for the opportunities hidden in the risks.

After college, I spent the next 30 years building a professional career in banking and finance. This taught me a second lesson: It is important to balance responsibility and risk.

I had a responsibility to the shareholders to deliver value for their investments. At the same time, I met individuals, couples and entrepreneurs each day who were working to achieve their big picture visions—from buying a first home, to sending their children to college, to opening and expanding a business. Their visions each carried risks, and I had the fiduciary responsibility to weigh those risks and invest wisely in their dreams. As the banking industry became more and more complex, the need to manage risk became more and more pressing.

I spent my whole career in banking managing risks responsibly. I was at the top of my game and very comfortable with what I was doing as the vice chairman of the sixth largest bank in the country. So, imagine the tremendous risk I took in 2003 when I left it all. I left to pursue a new passion—to launch a venture capital firm that has invested in nearly a dozen businesses. In 2006, for example, I co-founded New Resource Bank in San Francisco, a small, boutique bank specializing in financing for green projects and environmentally sustainable businesses. It was the first of its kind. And it was certainly risky. But, we offset the risks by acting responsibly to fulfill an unmet need and provide a new banking model for the green sector that continues to thrive today.

All this prepared me for a call I received in 2009 to come to Washington and serve in the Obama Administration as the CEO of a very unique U.S. Government development agency: the Millennium Challenge Corporation. As I traded the private sector for public service,  I am learning a third key lesson:  Even delivering a noble, big picture public good—like fighting global poverty and improving the human condition for millions of the world’s poorest—requires managing risk wisely.

For me, MCC is the perfect nexus of big picture thinking, innovation and smart risk-taking.

Building on more than 50 years of lessons learned in how best to deliver foreign aid, MCC was created in 2004 with strong bipartisan support to practice the principles essential for aid effectiveness.

So far, MCC has invested over 9 billion dollars worldwide in infrastructure, agriculture, education, health, and energy to help countries reduce poverty through economic growth and become self-sufficient. Development, after all, is risky business, but MCC’s smart approach effectively manages those risks to make sure that American taxpayers get the best return on their investment. MCC does this in three ways:

First, we choose the right investment partners. MCC works only with the best policy performers, awarding grants to countries committed to good democratic and economic governance and to the health and education of their citizens.

Second, after choosing the right partners, we listen to them. We believe that our partners are in the best position to come up with their own homegrown solutions for poverty reduction and economic growth.

And, third, we hold ourselves and our partners accountable for delivering results. Perhaps to a greater extent than others in development, MCC is committed to projecting, tracking and evaluating the impacts of our programs.

In these ways, MCC accounts for the risks and makes the right investments that place our partners on a path to greater economic independence. Just like your Carnegie Mellon education is an investment in your economic independence, MCC’s investments are generating greater prosperity for the world’s poor. And, fighting global poverty also serves the economic and national security interests of the United States by creating stable and stronger partners for peace, business and trade.

Graduates and friends,

Risk is inherent in all we do. How we choose to confront risk is a choice we make each and every day. I would challenge you to embrace risk, not shy away from it. From my journey to this great country, to my career in the private sector, to my time now in public service to end global poverty, my advice to you is to
• find the opportunities hidden in the risks,
• balance the risks you take with the responsibilities you bear, and
• look for ways to manage and minimize risks as wisely as possible.

Taking calculated and smart risks challenges us to see and focus on the big picture. Most wins come with a few losses. And, often times, losses can be lessons learned to achieve even greater gains. But, we cannot and should not let fear prevent us from taking the risks to achieve our individual big pictures. So, my challenge and my wish for you today: Have the courage to always see and pursue your big picture.

I ran across a story on big picture thinking that has stayed with me; perhaps you know it too:

A traveler comes across three bricklayers on a scaffold. The traveler asks the first one, “What are you doing?” The first responds, “I am earning a wage.”

The traveler then asks the second one, “What are you doing?” The second responds, “I am building a wall.”

The traveler then asks the third one, “What are you doing?” The third responds, “I am building a cathedral.”

Graduates: What “cathedrals” do you want to build?

What vision drives your journey?

What risks are you willing to conquer to build your big picture visions?

You are equipped and empowered through your degrees. You have the skills to compete. You know the questions to ask to push innovation and frame new ideas. You have the power to lead, not just follow. Nothing stands in your way. You are limited only by the limits you set for yourself.

So, listen to the words of that famous American author Mark Twain, who said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So … sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

And, as you do, I encourage you to “think big picture; take smart risks.”

Congratulations, Godspeed and many thanks.