Iqbal Quadir '81
At the 2011 Commencement, President Rebecca Chopp bestowed upon entrepreneur and educator Iqbal Quadir '81 the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. "Thirty years ago," he said, "I concluded my time here as a student, and ever since, my Swarthmore education has served as an all-purpose and flexible boat for me."
Iqbal Quadir, you are a world-famous entrepreneur, humanitarian, professor, and the founder and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT. Your work combines the fields of globalization, technology, and civic service. Your radical vision of a way to provide universal access to telephone service in your native Bangladesh has facilitated economic development and enhanced community empowerment. You have used the tools of technology to raise human hopes around the world.
Congratulations, graduates of 2011. You have just passed a unique test that will help you pass many other tests in life. Congratulations to all the parents, grandparents, family members, and teachers who have supported this exceptional group of young men and women.
Thanks to President Rebecca Chopp, the faculty, and the Board for giving me this honor. I am very proud of my first Swarthmore degree, so I am thrilled to get a second one. The first degree, of course, was much harder to obtain. Remembering how hard I worked to get my first Swarthmore degree, today I am more impressed with the graduates than with myself. It is a tremendous privilege to speak to the next generation of problem solvers.
Thirty years ago, I concluded my time here as a student, and ever since, my Swarthmore education has served as an all-purpose and flexible boat for me. It has taken me to many different ports, crossing oceans and rivers, and certainly swamps as well. These travels had their ups and downs, but the boat kept me afloat.
In addition to my formal education here, Swarthmore gave me two important things:
One, knowing that I am part of a special group of people gave me much-needed confidence in myself. This allowed me to take risks, break out of the mold, and work on certain social problems in what might be called new ways.
Two, Swarthmore gave me a sense of community and a sense of purpose: that whatever I do, I need to work toward improving society. In both these ways, Swarthmore certainly had a tremendous influence in making me an entrepreneur determined to bring telecommunications to all of Bangladesh, which many people thought would be impossible given the low income of the country and the cost of modern technologies.
Entrepreneurship, you ask? Isn't it uncool at Swarthmore to try to make money? I went to Wharton from here, and my Swarthmore friends might think that other school tarnished my Swarthmorean purity.
Indeed, sometimes people think of entrepreneurs as those driven to make money. This is not true.
Since this is 2011, perhaps I should mention that exactly 100 years ago, in 1911, Joseph Schumpeter came up with the fundamental economic theory on entrepreneurship. He was in his late 20s at that time, one reason I have such faith in young people. Even to this day, Schumpeter's The Theory of Economic Development is still the essential thesis on this phenomenon.
His point was that entrepreneurs are not necessarily driven to make money. They are driven to make change. They break out of the mold to innovate and to make their mark.
I think this is essentially Swarthmorean thinking. I know very well that Swarthmore students have the confidence, the intellect, and the imagination to move away from the conventional. They are risk-takers and mold-breakers. Seen in this light, entrepreneurship is, at its heart, very much the Swarthmore way.
I should also mention that Schumpeter's thinking advanced the subject of economics because he pointed out that new things, new ways of making things, and serving new people is what adds dynamism to an economy. Doing the same old thing maintains the economy; dynamism grows it.
For me, my experience bringing mobile telecommunications to Bangladesh reinforced this point vividly. In the 1990s, people generally thought of cell phones as luxuries for the relatively wealthy. To me, cell phones held enormous potential as productivity tools that could empower millions of people in low-income countries.
Because I was thinking in a new way, I faced resistance. But at the same time, it was the new way that actually gave millions access to a useful service. In your own quests for societal improvement as well, whether economic or otherwise, whether local or global, I believe you will find mold-breaking an invaluable approach.
It is unbelievable to me that I was sitting in your chairs 30 years ago. It seems to me that these 30 years have passed in the blink of an eye. So I want to warn you that, given that you are Swarthmore graduates and you have many things to do, your time will also pass quickly.
Therefore, you have to put your creativity and your caring for society to use, as soon as you possibly can. You have to take it seriously. You have to put to work the extraordinary privilege you have gained by attending Swarthmore, for which you have paid a high price through hard work over four years.
By the way, your parents, grandparents, family members, and teachers who have supported you might not have told you that they, too, have paid a price. But I can tell you they have, because my kids are planning to go to college in the next few years, and I am already preparing for my part in it.
As Swarthmore graduates, I know you cannot help but to think about improving the world. Perhaps I can leave you with a thought, something I have learned from my experience.
In my work, I believe it is essential to engage people in economics and politics, whether in high- or low-income countries. Their engagement is necessary for the greater progress we seek worldwide.
More broadly, if you empower people, they themselves become actors and multiply the effect of your contribution.
Through my work over the last 30 years, which has been challenging for me, as you can tell by my loss of hair, I must tell you that it is possible to empower the lives of millions in low-income countries.
It is not just possible, it is a critical part of improving the human predicament, and I am sure your generation can do it much better than my generation has.
As you move forward from this day, keep in mind that the story of progress is not written by one or two people; it is written by millions. It might be edited by a handful, but it is written by millions.