Undergraduate Commencement Address

May 8, 2010

Jeffrey S. Raikes Address
"Nebraska Can Change the World."

Thank you, Regent McClurg and Chancellor Perlman. Good morning, graduates. Welcome to your families, UNL faculty and staff, and members of the Cornhusker community. Go Big Red!

Thank you for inviting me here today. It is an honor to be asked to speak to thousands of young Nebraskans as you formally mark the beginning of that exciting period called "the future." I feel a special responsibility speaking to you on this particular day, when the university is recognizing my brother, Ron, with the Nebraska Builder Award.

Those two milestones, your commencement and my brother's tribute, fit together in my mind. Commencement is a beginning, an occasion for you to reflect on the kind of life you'd like to lead. And I submit that Ron's life is an excellent model.

It was certainly my model. Ron was already a teenager when I was born, and off to college by the time I turned three. In many ways, he was a second father to me. I always admired the choices he made, and the values on which he based those choices.

As a young man, he was an up-and-coming professor of agricultural economics, but he decided to leave academia to come home and run our family's farm. He knew what he was truly passionate about, what really mattered. It wasn't always easy. There were lean years. But his quiet confidence in himself, and his relationships with friends and family, kept him going.

Years later, when the governor of Nebraska asked him to fill a vacant seat in the state senate, he humbly accepted. He wasn't a politician. He didn't seek public office. But he felt bound by a responsibility to serve when called. As a senator, Ron was an outspoken advocate for equity in education. He was committed to the idea that equal public schools were the key to Nebraska's future, and to the future of every Nebraskan.

Ron didn't like to be away from the farm, but he flew out to Seattle to help me celebrate my fortieth birthday. We could have gone boating or golfing, or just relaxed. Instead, we spent the whole weekend poring over an Excel table of public school funding in Nebraska, studying ways to make the state's aid formula fairer.

This state fosters that kind of loyalty.

I remember the fun and optimism of growing up in Ashland. I thought I could do anything. Everybody in town knew me, cared about me, encouraged me. And I had my brother's example to follow. I got to do a little bit of everything, and there was always somebody willing to teach me how to do it a little bit better.

I didn't recognize any limits whatsoever to what I could accomplish. I thought I could be a professional golfer. I thought I could run the U.S. Department of Agriculture and change the world through ag policy.

But when I moved to California for college, my Nebraskan self-confidence was shaken right away. I failed my first test, and I thought I should come home. In my imagination, I went from being head of the USDA to a college dropout. There were plenty of times my freshman year when I worried I wasn't smart enough or sophisticated enough to succeed outside my comfort zone.

I bet a lot of you believe those same two contradictory things about yourselves and your futures. You have a sense of mastery here and now, but you don't know what's going to happen out there, in the future.

For me, the secret was to keep Nebraska close, no matter where I happened to be. The further I got from Nebraska the place, the more important Nebraska as an idea became to me.

The idea of Nebraska - the collection of values and principles that are common to the Nebraska experience - has always kept me grounded.

Most of you are from Nebraska, and the rest of you have spent some very formative years here. The experience here is egalitarian -- the concept seems lofty, but it's the right one. Here, we understand that everybody is fundamentally the same. We see that we are all equal partners in a single enterprise. A lot of good things flow from that premise.

At Microsoft, I was successful because I followed Ron's example and worked harder than I was expected to work. I was lucky to get in on the ground floor of a technological revolution, and when I reflect back on those early years at Microsoft, I realize that the pioneers in the software industry thrived on a very Nebraskan formula: practicality, plus work ethic, plus big dreams.

Now, I work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Our mission is extremely ambitious: to help all people have the chance to live a healthy and productive life. But in the end, everything we do boils down to the principle that you're obligated to take care of your friends and neighbors. That principle should be familiar to you as Nebraskans. It is the bedrock of the cities and towns you grew up in, but it's also the driving force behind a massive global movement against poverty and disease.

When I travel for the foundation, a lot of people are surprised when I tell them where I'm from. "How'd you get from there to here," they ask? I tell them that I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't started in a small town in Nebraska.

There's a saying you've probably heard. "Think globally, act locally." It's an important sentiment. The idea is that you should consider the future we all share even when you're doing ordinary tasks, whether that means recycling, buying a hybrid car, or casting a vote. Well, in your case, I think the reverse is also true. "Think locally, act globally." Nebraska may not be a big place, but Nebraskans can do big things. The idea of Nebraska is very powerful.

  • Have a passion for what you do - the rewards will follow.
  • Think boldly - take smart risks and learn from your mistakes and failures.
  • Develop a strong work ethic -- that will be your competitive advantage.
  • Build your community - whether it's your neighborhood, your workplace, or the world. Model the values you want in your community: honesty and integrity, openness, and genuine caring for others.

The moments in my life that I'm most proud of have come when I was thinking like a Nebraskan. Warren Buffett was thinking like a Nebraskan when he pledged the second largest fortune in the world to help the poorest people on earth. My friend Clay Anderson was thinking like a Nebraskan when he persistently pursued his passion to be an astronaut and live on the space station-and through his experiences, encourage children to nurture their love of science and technology. Robert Daugherty was thinking like a Nebraskan when he turned his experience with irrigation systems into a passion for helping poor farmers in developing countries solve their water problems. My brother Ron always thought like a Nebraskan, and he spent his life making other people's lives better.

So as you commence, think about Ron, or about your own role model, the person in your life who does for you what Ron did for everyone who had the privilege to know him.

And keep Nebraska close -- no matter where you end up -- because Nebraska can change the world.

Thank you.