Webster University Geneva Commencement Address

Inflection Point

Thank you so much to Academic Director Dr. Ron Daniel, the Board of Directors, and, of course, Webster Geneva’s director Dr. Clementina Acedo for the invitation and honor to be here with you here today!

To the 137 new graduates and your family and friends who are here today – congratulations!

Scholars, Graduates, Educators, and Fellow Humans,

My name is Suzi LeVine and as was just shared, I’m the United States Ambassador to the Swiss Confederation and the Principality of Liechtenstein. And these are my two children – Sidney and Talia.

My initial plan was to come here today and share with you why today is the best day ever to be alive – and not just because it’s your graduation day.

Across the globe, people have more opportunities and more personal well-being than they ever have in the history of humanity.

If you look at the bigger picture – and not just your Facebook feed – you’ll learn that.

  • We are healthier than we have ever been – for example…
    • The number of people going hungry has fallen by 21% since 1990
    • Average global life expectancy is now 71 years old. 50 years ago it was 56 years old.
    • And the under-five mortality rate has almost been cut in half since 1990.
  • We are safer than we’ve ever been
    • Within countries with reliable records, the numbers of violent crime deaths are declining
    • And if you consider wars between countries, integrated Europe is in its longest period of peace since the Roman Empire.
    • And in the most destructive category of warfare – namely, war between two big rich countries – there hasn’t been a new entrant since the Korean War came to an end in 1953.
  • And we are more prosperous and have more opportunity than ever
    • Extreme poverty is declining at the fastest rate in human history and is down by 65% over the past 25 years.  At this rate, we are within striking distance of eradicating extreme poverty in our lifetimes!
    • 90% of youth are now literate
    • And the growing access to technology means that individuals and small businesses have access to markets like never before. In 1995, less than 1% of the world had Internet Access, now, it’s around 40% with over 3.2 billion internet users in the world

I believe that, not only can we continue these positive trends – but we can also take on other major global challenges that threaten our safety and our quality of life– especially if we act both together and as individuals.

Like I said a moment ago, I had planned to really go in depth into that information and fill you with feelings of hope and inspiration.  But then I realized that, while I want to share with you these statistics so that I can inform – and maybe even inspire you, I also want to arm you so that you’re better equipped to take all of those points to the next level.

In order for you and everyone else out there to avail yourselves of the opportunities and well-being I just outlined, you need to be ready to take on something subtle but powerful that still lurks among us and that can keep each of us from being the best we can be. Worse yet, if we are unwitting participants, it can also stymie each of us from empowering and supporting those around us – keeping them, too, from reaching their maximum potential.

Fellow humans, what I’m referencing here and want to isolate and – ideally help stamp out – is Unconscious Bias.

There are many books about this – but to really bring it home, I want to get personal with you – because, despite my now serving as Ambassador and having the President of the United States as my boss, I have been the victim of Unconscious Bias many times in the course of my non-linear career. To best equip you, I will share and deconstruct with you five very personal stories of Unconscious Bias that I have experienced in my life that, I hope, can be instructive for you. While enduring these perhaps made me stronger, there are ways to get strong that don’t have to come from suffering from bias. My experiences are based on Gender bias, but as you process these, please recognize that they could just as easily have been about racial, sexual orientation, or even religious bias.

Now – Dr. Acedo – I hope you didn’t invite me here today to be a conventional commencement speaker – one who talks at the graduates and their families – because if that’s what you were hoping for – I’m sorry to disappoint.  Instead, I am more of an interactive commencement speaker and, right now, I’m going to ask for your – and everyone else’s help with my talk.

I would like each of you – faculty, students, families, even my own kids – to raise your hand if you’ve ever had a teacher who really inspired and moved you – one who might even have changed the course of your life. Please keep your hands up. On the count of three – I’d like each of you with your hand up to shout out that teacher’s name as loudly as you can. One Two Three…

  • I love asking people that question because most people light up like a supernova thinking about that magical person!
  • For me – it was Mrs. Thompson – she was my 7th grade science teacher. And she was really, really tough. But I loved her and she made me want to try harder than I ever have before – and probably since. It was in her class that I made my first – and original – paper airplane. And to her credit, rather than just make crumple it up when she found it, she stirred my curiosity and taught me to ask questions like: with such an oddball design, what made it fly so well?
  • That’s when I decided I wanted to learn about flight – and to be an astronaut.
  • Note – that is still a dream for me, although I have a deal with my kids that I’ll only do it when it’s been proven that I can get back safely and not be younger than they are when I return.
  • So when I entered high school, I was pretty unique – a 14 year old girl who wanted to study engineering!
  • And here’s where I experienced – although I didn’t know it at the time – my first run-in with Unconscious Bias. My guidance counselor – rather than route a budding engineer into a heavy math curriculum, instead, pointed a high school girl to extra classes on history and English. That bad guidance became my nemesis when I started in University to get an Engineering degree. I didn’t have any of the math skills or knowledge that the others – mostly young men – had.
  • Now – I know that my guidance counselor wasn’t being malicious. He was one of the nicest teachers at the school. And – I’d like to think that, today, that is less likely to happen. But unfortunately, those early years are incredibly formative and if we route girls to reading and boys to math – we do everyone a disservice. Or – if we accept ridiculous statements from girls (or frankly anyone) like “I can’t do math” – then we’re perpetuating those unconscious biases. The reality is that math is all around us. A chef is a master of mathematics – especially when you think about measuring and ratios; an artist is a master of mathematics – especially as it pertains to perspective and balance; and I could go on. But it’s up to you how this trend goes over time – both in terms of how you talk about yourselves, as well as how you set expectations for those coming up behind you.

The next big lesson I learned – or the second big experience I had with Unconscious Bias was – well when I was standing where you will be in just a moment. During my University studies, there were a couple of times when I had raised concerns with my thesis advisor – who happened to be the Dean of Engineering – about sexist aspects of various textbooks or comments from professors. Thus – he knew that I was (and I still am) a feminist. Because we had worked closely together on my thesis, I was really looking forward to receiving my degree from him at the graduation. So there I stood, nervous but excited – kind of like I assume many of you will be shortly. But then, when he announced my name he said “And now Suzi Davidson – a nice little girl”. I had worked hard, performed well, and earned the respect of my faculty – and here I was in my moment of glory, being demeaned by the head of the department. I filed a complaint with the school and ultimately received a reluctant apology but that didn’t take away the sting. I knew he wasn’t being malicious – he thought he was being funny – but it wasn’t even close to funny – and, to this day, that moment for me has been tarnished.

  • What I learned from that experience is to show people the utmost respect and to not make jokes that demean people – especially as it pertains to their diversity. There are some people who can be considered funny when they do this – they are called comedians – although they aren’t always funny when they do it either. My rule of thumb is that, if there’s a risk that someone might be hurt or feel demeaned – that’s not a risk that I believe is worth taking.

We’ll fast forward 12 years to 2005 for the third instance of Unconscious Bias. I had been working at Microsoft for 5 years and then Expedia for 6 years and was about 7 months pregnant with our second child. The previous 8 months at work had been absolutely grueling. Our business wasn’t going as planned and, as our Vice President of Sales and Marketing, I needed to get the business back on track. I drove my team and the teams with whom I worked very very hard – probably harder than they ever had in the past. We created outstanding solutions and got excellent results. So, when I had my review with the division President, I expected to hear very positive comments. Instead, he basically told me I was on the verge of being let go. He shared with me that, while we had gotten good results, it had come at the cost of burning out the team. Thus – he wasn’t sure things would work out for me any longer.

  • I did what anyone who was 7 months pregnant and coursing with hormones would do at that moment. I started to sob. And I just took it. I didn’t argue, I just wept. He left the division right after that to go do something else, and I was able to kind of recover by persuading his successor to let me prove myself before I went on maternity leave, but my reputation was tainted and they weren’t really interested in my coming back after my maternity leave. But here’s where it gets interesting. It turns out that, at the same time, a male colleague had performed similarly in another division and, rather than receiving a reprimand and having a hard discussion and almost losing his job, he got a promotion.
  • Now – again – this division President was – and is – a very nice man and, I’m sure, did not intend to discriminate against me based on my gender. But he did. Hence – why it’s called Unconscious Bias. What he should have said was: “Suzi – great job on the results. However, let’s talk about not just “Whether you achieved the results, but HOW you achieved these results. We believe in you and want you to stay at this company for a long time, so we want to bring in a coach to work with you so that we iron out some areas of style that need work.”
  • As you all – as future leaders – think about creating companies and hiring people – know that it’s much less expensive to retain great and proven talent than it is to hire new people.
  • The lessons that have stuck with me ever since from this are threefold:  1) treat people fairly 2) pursue results without roadkill – or without completely burning out your team. And 3) be transparent with your team. If you’re going to push them extra hard because there are problems with the business or there’s a particular goal you need to achieve, they deserve to know so that they can be on board with solving those problems. It shows respect and – who knows – they might even have better ideas than you had even been considering!

Like I said before, the company wasn’t really interested in my coming back from my maternity leave – so I didn’t. I left paid work in 2005 and ended up staying home with my kids – and creating a couple of non-profits and becoming a community organizer. And then, in 2009, when I was trying to return to the workforce, I experienced my fourth bout with unconscious bias. It turns out that a lot happened in those four years when I was home with my kids in the communications field (the area in which I had been working). Specifically – social media – had come onto the scene. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done it professionally, but had certainly done it personally – and even on a volunteer basis with the community organizing I had been doing. However, when I spoke with a recruiter about a job I really wanted, he said that he wouldn’t interview me because I didn’t have the required social media skills.  I said to him “Really?  It’s not rocket science, and I have a rocket science degree!”  He laughed – but still said he wouldn’t interview me. As I look back on that now, what I realize is that it was a very classic case of a company not knowing or thinking about how to leverage women entering back into the workforce – a sort of institutional unconscious bias. Plus – I was incredibly truthful and humble with my resume and undersold my skills. Research shows that women frequently understate their skills in their resumes and men frequently overstate their skills. Thus – when evaluating resumes, it’s easy to pass over the women.

  • The takeaways from that experience were: Business is still challenged with how to handle women returning to the work place, so until there’s more recognition of that phenomenon, women will need to better package and sell the skills they’ve gained in an unpaid/volunteer environment and, as you’re hiring someone for a position, try to look beyond the resume – at the person themselves. You can teach specific skills, but the underlying person is the one you need to consider hiring.

My last and fifth anecdote is what I call “upside down unconscious bias”. In order for me to do what I am doing here as Ambassador, my amazing partner – my husband – who is an entrepreneur and has his own Internet business – is now also a stay at home dad. But what he and many other men who are enabling their spouses to break through the glass ceiling experience is reverse bias. People don’t recognize nor acknowledge the legitimacy and importance of their roles. School still tries to reach me if something comes up with the kids – even though he is the first number on their list; he doesn’t get invited to the spouse gatherings because they’re ladies lunches designed for wives, or – worse yet – family and friends go up to my mother, who lives with us, and thank her for raising our children for us – completely ignoring my husband’s contribution. While she certainly does a great job watching them on occasion, my husband is now the primary care giver and deserves enormous amounts of credit for what he’s doing to take care of them – AND me! This inability for society to recognize and support his role makes it harder for me to do my job. And I know that those sets of people – the school, the spouse group coordinators and our family and friends – again – mean no harm! It is simply that they have a very specific bias and set of standards in their heads as to what a man does and what a woman does.

So the lesson here is to make space for people to make their own life choices, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion.

My experiences have taught me so much – frankly, much of it in hindsight. I’ve learned that, to fight unconscious bias, we can’t accept when people

  • Pigeonhole others based on stereotypes
  • Make jokes that demean people
  • Treat people unfairly

Professionally, I also learned critical skills like

  • Pursuing results without roadkill
  • Being transparent and trusting in the power of bringing my team along – especially when going through a rough time
  • Not underselling my skills – including those gained through volunteer and unpaid experiences
  • And making the space for people to make their own life choices.

When I think back on those five experiences with Unconscious Bias over the over the course of my life, I know that every one of those people I described in my stories is a fine individual – and meant absolutely no harm. In some cases, they were even just simply doing their jobs. In most of those cases, they were just like you and me. But that’s what makes it even more important to be conscious of how we treat and think about each other. As future leaders, you have an obligation to not perpetrate Unconscious Bias – just like you don’t want to be a victim of it.

As I shared at the beginning of my presentation – I wholeheartedly believe that now is the best time ever to be alive. But it’s up to you – and you – and you – and you – to make sure that remains the case for generations to come.

And as I look around at this incredibly diverse and thoughtful room full of graduates, family members, friends, and faculty. I have faith that you are not only up to the task – but that, as you go forth into the world – you will blow away even our highest expectations at making the world a better place.

Congratulations class of 2016 and may you foster a world of respect, fairness, and well-being now and into the future!