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Commencement Address 2016

Megan Smith, SCD; May 15, 2016

Commencement 2016

Megan Smith, the United States Chief Technology Officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House—the first woman to hold that post—delivered the address at Smith’s 138th Commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 15, 2016.

Thank you President McCartney, Chairwoman Eveillard and members of the Board of Trustees, Dean Rowe and the incredible Smith faculty and staff, Smith alumnae, honoree guests, amazing parents, families and friends who have supported this wonderful class—and you, the awesome Smith Class of 2016!

I just have to mention that it’s great to be at Smith. I can get customized holiday presents for my whole family in the T-shirt section of the thanks for that.

But seriously...

Class of 2016: Your class is filled with so much talent, diversity, breadth. You come from across the country and across the world. It’s been fun to learn more about you over the past few weeks. Also with Smith—some of you today now have an awesome connection with your mother or aunts or grandmother and even great-grandmother who graduated from Smith. Others amongst you are first generation Smithies—and in that group some as Smithies will today become the first person in your family to graduate from college.

I want to talk to you today, on this incredible day, about three things.

First is confidence. The second is about interconnection and about new approaches to solving challenges through collaboration. The third is intensity which feels like a great word to use here at Smith word, a kind of passion.

I love history. It informs so much of my thinking, so I am going to draw from things long ago as well as present day.

So let’s start with confidence. It’s a word that I came across in a document from a very long time ago in a context that really surprised me and gave me some perspective. Confidence. Confidence in how you see yourself in the world, confidence to take action, confidence to break molds, confidence to be your true self.

It was in a document written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton just a few hundred miles west of where we are now, at the start of another summer, the summer of 1848.

Today, we learn about Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a suffragist. An abolitionist. An activist. A strategic and highly accomplished leader for women’s rights, human rights, dignity, opportunity and equality. But before she was written into history books as all of those things, she was a young person like all of you.

It’s especially relevant to remember Elizabeth today as we celebrate you—because one of the things Elizabeth wanted to do most of all was to go to college which was not an option for women in those days—and now here we are with all of you graduating.

When Elizabeth was younger, her older brother—the only one to of her brothers to survive to adulthood—died while at university. So Elizabeth, trying to console her father, told him she would try to be all she could be. He just responded that he wished she was a boy. This to her was devastating. As a girl, she was barred from traditional college. But luckily she was able to attend Troy Female Seminary near here—one of the very first schools to provide women with education at the secondary and some college levels—founded by Emma Willard, who had a vision very similar to Sophia Smith, your founder: to give women educational opportunities equal to men.

So fast-forward from her schooling to the summer of 1848, to the Seneca Falls Convention—the first-ever women’s rights convention. Those who have studied women’s studies or have had a inclusive modern U.S. history curriculum will be deeply familiar with the story of the Seneca Falls, but for me—I often call March Women’s Missing History month, because it’s the month that surfaces so many stories that were not yet included.

Most people learned of the existence of Seneca Falls but never really learned many details of the meeting, and have never heard of the convention’s core document, called the Declaration of Sentiments—Elizabeth was its principal author—written to be debated and ratified at the convention. It’s in that document where I discovered the word “confidence.”

The Declaration starts with the important historic phrasing “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women (she added) are created equal.”

She writes the Sentiments much like the complaints our American Revolutionary founders wrote against King George, which speaks of “repeated injuries and usurpations” and states “let facts be submitted to a candid world.” She outlines 16 Sentiments. It is one of the most comprehensive documents on women’s equality I’ve seen. It speaks of course to equal pay, property rights, the rights to vote and more: full equality. And the very last Sentiment is where she writes to us about confidence.

It says, “He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” It is important to note this appearance and insight in the document because confidence is one of the most important things for everyone to have—and this document speaks to us, to that truth, that need, from so long ago—and yet is so relevant today.

As the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, my job is to advise the president and his team how to harness the power of data, innovation and technology on behalf of the American people and the world. And as we do that work, one of our big focuses is on looking at: how do we unlock talent, and empower people? American talent and beyond. Everyone.

One of the best ways to unlock talent is for everyone to have creative confidence to do the extraordinary things that each of you could and will do.

Class of 2016, we want you to feel confidence, your creative confidence. Because you have both deep talents and now extraordinary training—and our world needs your confidence now more than ever to bring your innovative brilliance forward.

And there’s a lot of bias in the world working against you, against women, against people of color, against LGBTQ people, those who are different in some way, against majority men who would show different sides of themselves. It causes talented people not to realize their full potential.

There are many ways we are all working to remove barriers people face, and one way to have confidence is to know that whatever your background, people like you—everyone, especially including women and people of color who have been so left out of the stories—have always done amazing things throughout our history. Your extraordinary alum Gloria Steinem says “Women have always been an equal part of the past, just not a part of history.”

Smith has been a leader in recovering and preserving these stories. I was able to spend some time in your extraordinary archives yesterday. This record is a great gift to the world. There is so much missing history. The original Declaration of Sentiments document itself is missing—we have only the contents because Frederick Douglass, one of its 100 signers, printed the contents in the Northern Star. The U.S. Archivist David Ferriero and I launched a search for it—making our own version of a Nicholas Cage-style treasure hunt (#FindTheSentiments)—because we would love for this fundamental document of American history to have its rightful place in the U.S. National Archive.

Last week, we visited the set of a new film called Hidden Figures. It’s about the amazing moon shot that President Kennedy led us on with NASA leadership—so awesome to have NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson here with us. The film chronicles the story of three African American women who were critical contributors to the space race as elite mathematicians. Katherine Johnson was one of them. Last year, President Obama honored Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Who knew that an African American woman, born on Equality Day exactly two years before U.S. women got the vote, calculated the trajectories for Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first American around the planet; and the Apollo mission to the moon? For so long Hollywood movies never featured an African American female character doing this elite mathematical work, and yet Katherine did.

So I want you to have the confidence that we women, people of color, people everywhere have been part of all of our history.

Recently Treasury made a fabulous announcement to bring women on our currency—Treasury Secretary Lew working closely with U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios. If you have a U.S. bill in your pocket, Treasurer Rios has probably signed it—she’s about to hit a trillion dollars of signatures. Her idea with the Secretary, as they worked on the theme of adding amazing heroes of freedom and democracy, was to activate buildings. The Lincoln Memorial on the $5 bill is where we know Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright and Eleanor Roosevelt have such deep histories. So they join the five.

This spring, President Obama dedicated the Belmont Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C.—which protects the iconic long-term home of the National Women’s Party located just adjacent to Congress on Capital Hill—strategically placed by founder Alice Paul, who organized many things including the 1913 Suffrage Parade, a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue of 5,000 women with half a million spectators.

Most people don’t know anything about it but the parade was filled with extraordinary people marching like Helen Keller, Ida B. Wells, our celebrated journalist and data scientist (congratulations Smith for adding data science)—it was the first public event of the Deltas founded at Howard University. People walked for months to get there.

The parade ended at the grand Treasury steps. So the new $10 bill will include depictions of a number of women suffragists and equality leaders against the backdrop of the Treasury steps, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth—her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” delivered just two years after the Seneca Falls meeting—Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul.

I love that it’s a group of leaders together. The Makers short films series, which celebrates amazing stories of women, started because its creator, Dyllan McGee, originally wanted to make a film about Gloria Steinem—and Gloria said you can’t make a movie about the women’s movement just about one woman. Find it if you have not seen it yet. Susan B. Anthony in 1902 talked about a “galaxy of women.” The Makers series illustrates the power of this galaxy past and present. In fact, Abby Wambach’s Maker film just came out a few weeks ago. Knowing these histories is important.

These are all important histories. It’s part of confidence-building to knowing that all people have always been doing extraordinary work, finding their passion and making things happen.

The message from the 1848 document is that we need to understand that undermining confidence is a serious universal challenge. Sometimes when faced with discrimination and daily micro-aggressions, conscious and unconscious bias, overt or subtle discrimination, we feel it personally and it hurts each of our ability to keep going, at the level we are capable of. And though it’s inflicted on us in individual ways day in and day out, women, and men, need to help each other fight for equality in confidence together.

And though we still have a ways to go on this equality path, we’ve come so far since that other summer of 1848.

The president established the Council on Women and Girls as one of his first acts in office, and the teams have been driving a strong agenda around family leave, equal pay and so many critical rights and policies that are now in place The vice president has been focusing his leadership on changing culture around sexual assault. He’s spearheading the “It’s On Us” campaign to eliminate sexual violence on campus, as well as efforts in other areas of work to end violence against women.

Last year, we supported the president in hosting the first-ever White House Demo Day, with a special focus on inclusive tech and entrepreneurship, welcoming over 90 diverse entrepreneurs from across the country. White House Demo Day helped catalyze action to get more people from many more backgrounds engaged as entrepreneurs and more resources available to them—especially growth capital. This is important because today only 3 percent of venture funding goes to women led companies—less than 1 percent to African American founders. 70 percent of this growth capital goes to just three states. We need to spread that across the U.S. and across the world.

None of us created the challenges we face but as we see them, we need to step into the responsibility to creatively collaborate to fix them.


The second thing I want to talk to you about is interconnection—collaboration—and solving challenges. About breaking down silos and using all the keys on the keyboard—meaning thinking out of the box to work with all the tools and talent available—being yourself and teaming up well with others.

Smithies are primed to be leaders and trailblazers. Today, as you take the next step forward, I want challenge you to be more than leaders. I want to encourage you to also be excellent collaborators and team up with people to bring together a mix of skillsets to everything you do. Smith is a powerful place to talk about this because of many moves your leadership has made—I will highlight two—Smithies hold the legacy and the leadership in making sure women have equal access to learning which you have from your founding—Sophia Smith—and as part of that leadership you have a requirement to learn a mix of skills as you are encouraged to take half of your course credits outside your major. This exposure is a great gift.

So this part of interconnection is about the interconnection of people, of talent.

Life is definitely a “team sport.”

I was lucky to have Alan Kay as an adviser and professor at school. He is the former leader of Xerox Parc. He always used to remind us, “It’s important to know that you don’t have to know everything and be good at everything. Instead you should find people who love doing those things and team up with them.” This is what I recommend for you.

Media coverage so often has a heavy emphasis on single founders alone—history always emphasizes the lone inventor-discoverer—yet all of my experiences in Silicon Valley showed that the greatest achievements in history done by teams. With lots of what my friend Reid Hoffman calls “smart generalists.”

Take Katherine Wright. Almost all of us know of the Wright Brothers. What about the Wright sister? There are many important roles on teams. Katherine wasn’t the core inventor of flight but she was involved. She’d regularly bring all the teachers that she worked with to support the fields operations running around supporting the planes and acting in at many times as a business manager and chief of staff in some ways.

Inspired teams do amazing things—so I really encourage you to interconnect and interwork with other people.

We were in South Africa two weeks ago for the Open Government Partnership which has grown to over 70 countries with the addition of Nigeria this spring. If you think about the sharing economy and the way that we share on social media and add in the way that Kickstarter works, the way Wikipedia works, we can bring more transparency and better serve and engage with citizens.

We have so many problems in the world and there’s so much talent just right here that if all of us enable each other to do our thing we can solve many things together—solving things faster by leveraging our interconnected world.

One of my favorite examples of what is now possible for your generation happened this past fall, when the United Nations had a special session during its annual General Assembly meetings to ratify the Sustainable Development Goals (or Global Goals)—17 global goals for justice, ocean health, the environment, equality, economic inclusion, sustainability, smart cities and more. This newly launched framework is the result of years of hard work by many of our governments, in consultation with civil society organizations, business, academia and individuals. We as a world have given ourselves a 15-year target to positively transform our communities through collaboration, innovation and teamwork. Each goal has a robust set of targets and indicators to help measure progress.

As a new approach, a broad range of collaborators helped the U.N. launch the Solutions Summit, a cross-functional, catalytic event that marks the beginning of a grassroots effort to scout for, lift up and progress the work of exceptional innovators—technologists, engineers, artists, social change agents, scientists, systems architects—innovators anywhere, who are already developing solutions that address one or more of the global goals.

One month before the September U.N. meetings, colleagues at the U.N. put out a call inviting anyone in the world to share their solutions-in-progress on an open Web tracker in real time. In two short weeks, the U.N. received more than 800 open submissions from individuals and teams from over 100 countries.

An independent volunteer selection committee of people hailing from all continents with broad expertise combed through the projects and surfaced 14 women and men to best represent the massive pipeline of solutions originating from every corner of the planet. The Solution-Makers presented at the U.N. one hour after the Global Goals ratification on the floor, and included a team using drones to eventually plant one billion trees per year to help with re-forestation; a team in Uganda teaching law in prison to help those with no representation get themselves released; a floating fablab maker space for people in the Amazon; and a visionary entrepreneur who also happens to be a radio host for an audience of two million in Nigeria using Airbnb-like models for cost-effective “cold hubs” sharing cold storage in the market. Their solutions captivated us and pushed us to think harder about how to come together and move faster to collectively progress these and other extraordinary efforts already underway.

As I look at all of you, I know that this courtyard is filled with social, commercial, political, cultural and other entrepreneurs with great ideas and solutions—and if we can scout and support each other, team up, we can fix many things in the world.

Continuing on the subject of interconnection, I want to include our thinking about interconnection of all subjects as part of this topic.

More recently, Smith again showed its groundbreaking leadership in bringing engineering and computer science into a women’s college. I’m drawing special attention to engineering not because it’s more important than the other subjects—but rather because it’s so often left out of the mix for many people, especially women.

As the U.S. CTO, increasing access to science, technology and math is obviously important on behalf of our country. Many of your leaders fielded questions challenging the addition of engineering at Smith and it’s still missing from so many women’s colleges. I had a personal experience with that kind of thinking. I was younger and I chose to study engineering in college. My grandfather, who’s an amazing engineer—who worked on state highway systems and in steel and global development—he asked my mom “Why would she want to do that?” He couldn’t imagine his granddaughter doing engineering. But once I started doing this work, of course he was so proud. And so you can see people can change their perspectives, people can evolve as they see what’s possible.

So thank you Smith for your evolution. I’m proud of the leadership of Smith for adding engineering as an equal standing with liberal arts and sciences.

This is a national challenge—and an international challenge.

Engineering, science and math are the language of nature and of innovation—yet we have a strange idea that some people are technical and some are not. Instead of adapting how to teach so it works for everyone, we settle for learning experiences that so often leave students feel deeply intimidates or in other cases see these subjects are boring—reinforcing anti-STEM stereotypes.

When people graduate from high school, no one says “well, reading and writing—they weren’t really my thing,” but they say that all the time about math or science. We need to evolve from that. We need to teach math and science the way we teach art or music or PE: make it fun, inclusive, active, hands-on, have an expectation that everyone can master it and adapt our teaching styles until they do.

Launching Computer Science for All for our youth and TechHire for adults to help build computer science and computation skills for all Americans—and that’s an area where we’re working on unconscious bias especially in media.

It’s fabulous to be here with Alison Bechdel. I  know that many of you are familiar with her innovative Bechdel Test, which helps us to see gender bias in media.

In the Office of Science Technology Policy in the White House, where we are embedded, we are working on implicit bias challenges our country faces—related to media we are working on a project for the president called “Image of STEM”—working to overcome the stereotypes and bias with which science, technology, engineering and math are portrayed in popular media. Today we see an imbalance of 15 to 1 male programmers to female programmers cast or animated in children’s and family TV.

And most people never learn that women are some of the core founders of computer science.

For example, Ada Lovelace, the first person on this planet to think of the idea of algorithms and write some of them in the mid-1800s, even before Elizabeth wrote the Sentiments. And Grace Hopper, of course. How many people here know Grace Hopper? Grace is the inventor of coding languages. She was a rear admiral in the Navy.

One of my favorite tech stories from history is the amazing work done at Bletchley Park during WWII. Many people know the story from the film The Imitation Game.

I was lucky to meet a woman, now retired, who had been a child at Bletchley. She told me the story of how their family lived in the stables area next to one of the major Bletchley leaders—Dilly Knox’s elite math team.

She said her mother used to try to keep all four children quiet, so they would not bother their hard-working technical neighbors—the elite math team next door. Imagine the elite math team for a second in your mind.

What said next was striking, to me. She said her mom would often say: “Shh. The girls are working.”

That gives me chills still, because I can see them, even though I had not imagined women as the elite math team, and it makes me think about the diversity of the Bletchley team.

Unfortunately what people don’t see in the film is that of the 10,000 people working at Bletchley, two-thirds were women—including elite mathematical women.

We need to know these stories. The Bletchley team is credited with saving over 11 million lives and shortening WWII by two years. That’s heroic engineering.


This brings me to my third and final quick but important point about intensity and passion and joy.

As a student—faculty bring so much great advice. Memorable for me was my acoustics class with Professor Bose—of the speakers. His advice was to focus on the things we were deeply passionate about, where we felt obsessed, intensity. He said if you choose those things and bring everything to them, you will be unstoppable.

So take the intensity that you have brought with you to campus, and have now honed here at Smith. Be confident in your skill mix and ability to learn new things. And build with each other.

And like most paths, yours will likely not be exactly as you expect. But I predict it will be extraordinary!

Congratulations to all of you and welcome to powerful alumnae of Smith!