“Disasters Sift out the Resilient”

At Harvard Business School’s virtual class day, a call for a new Marshall Plan

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli and Mezuo O. Nwuneli
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

In his last Commencement address as dean of Harvard Business School (HBS), Nitin Nohria, who steps down later this year after 10-plus years at the helm, urged graduates to remember their gratitude, even during the profound disruptions and disappointments of the pandemic: gratitude for their lives (“Amid the horrific losses so many families are experiencing right now, let's remember that life itself is a blessing”), and their friends and loved ones (“Relationships drive happiness in life far more than the achievements we put on our résumés”), and for their completed degrees. 

But Nohria offered some bracing words too. “There are more than 900 of you, who are about to take on new leadership roles and attack big problems at a time when society desperately needs leaders,” he said. Already, he noted, HBS students have gotten involved in delivering food to front-line workers and organizing supply chains to obtain protective gear for healthcare workers, raising funds for individuals and institutions in need during the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.  

“Yet you will need to do much more,” he said. “Today we face a global economy that has to be rebuilt, companies that need to be restarted, revitalized, and restructured supply chains that need to be redesigned, and markets that need to be reinvented.” Recalling that at Harvard’s 1947 Commencement, General George Marshall announced what became known as the Marshall Plan to rebuild the European economy after the devastation of World War II, Nohria told graduates, “We need something that is equivalent to a new Marshall Plan. The world is counting on people like you to do this vital work.” During the next decade, he added, “We will need to come up with ideas that will save our planet, create more opportunities for those who see none, foster unity instead of discord, rebuild society’s trust in capitalism, and increase prosperity and the quality of life for people all across the world.”  

The ceremony’s keynote speakers, Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, M.B.A. ’99, and Mezuo O. Nwuneli, M.B.A. ’03, who addressed graduates from their home in Lagos, Nigeria, had offered a similar message earlier in the day. The couple work in nutrition and agricultural business in Africa: Ndidi is managing partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd., which promotes agricultural policies and conducts research to improve nutrition and sustainable food security in West Africa; Mezuo is managing partner of Sahel Capital Agribusiness Managers Ltd., which manages a private-equity fund that invests in mid-sized Nigerian agricultural businesses.

Speaking together, the Nwunelis encouraged graduates to hold onto their courage and tenacity, to find their life’s purpose (“Consider what brings you joy, what makes you angry, and what you are willing to do for free”), and follow their morals: “Your success early in life can be destructive if you have not clearly defined your values—rooted in integrity and humility,” Mezuo Nwuneli said. Finally, they advised graduates to “Live your life with open hands”—both giving and receiving help. “Use your talents, time, and treasure to improve the lives of other people. And when you are in a position to make decisions, always think of the people who are not in the room, and make sure you speak up with boldness.” 

Nodding once more at the crises created by the pandemic, Ndidi Nwuneli closed with an exhortation: “An Igbo proverb states, ‘Mbelede ka eji ama Dike,’” she said, “which loosely translates: ‘Disasters help to sift out the resilient, the resourceful, and the brave.’”

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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