Remarks by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President Healey; Dean Lapp; Dean Lamb; Provost Johnson; The faculty and staff of Babson College; Distinguished students; Class of 2017; Ladies and Gentlemen;
Congratulations to you, the Class of 2017!
Today is your day. And I am here to honor every single one of you.
To celebrate your hard work. Your accomplishments. And also, to recognize the achievements of this prestigious institution of higher learning, Babson College.
I travelled 4,600 miles from my home country, Liberia, with a message. To implore you, who represent the future, to embrace this gift of higher education, to build upon it, to innovate with it, to challenge yourself—and to never settle for the ordinary when the extraordinary, is in your line of sight!
Commencement is a time to look ahead. Today, you will leave the controlled environment of the campus, and embark on the next chapter in your life. Your personal story is set to unfold. What will it be?
We are living in exciting and uncertain times, in the U.S., and around the world, including in Liberia. Change is everywhere.
In October of this year, almost two million Liberians will go to the polls to elect a new legislature and a new president, and for the first time since 1944, we will be transferring democratic power from one government to another. Peacefully. Through free and fair elections.
And for the first time since the establishment of peace in 2003, I will be just an ordinary voter, and not on the ballot.
After 12 years as president, and making history as the first woman to be democratically elected to lead an African nation, I am looking forward to retiring, on my working farm in Bomi.
It is time for me to make way for the next generation of Liberian leaders, and for the innovations that they will bring.
While the outcome remains uncertain in our highly contested elections, what I am sure of, is that the Liberian people will make an informed choice, and that the institutions of democracy that we have built after decades of conflict will endure.
I am also convinced that the people throughout Africa, young people like yourselves, empowered through better education and technology, will push the continent forward, as they demand their right to be heard and their opportunity to contribute.
So yes, we live in uncertain times. But in uncertainty, there is always opportunity. And history has shown us that it is often in times of change that great leaders emerge in politics, science, engineering, the arts, education, technology, economics, and business.
That is what I see before me today. The next generation of greatness.
And with the remainder of my time, I wish to turn my attention to a subject which this college is known for: Entrepreneurship.
From the developed world to emerging markets, job creation consistently polls as the paramount demand of the population. And entrepreneurs can lead the way in meeting this global demand.
Entrepreneurs are the global disrupters. Within the bounds of rule-of-law and democratic institutions, they forge a path whereby the individual can elevate themselves and their families through hard work and community participation. They are the antidote to extremism.
When President Barrack Obama addressed the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, he reminded the people of Africa that it would no longer be the great men of the past who would transform the continent. He said, “The future of all of our countries is in the hands of the young people—people like you, brimming with talent and energy and hope, who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.”
Today, for a young Africa, where over 65% of the population is under the age of 35, creating jobs is not only an economic development priority, but a matter of national security and a humanitarian imperative. Without economic opportunity, without clear dividends from peace and democracy, a desperate youth population can become a destabilizing force. Further, a population, not afforded opportunity at home, will go elsewhere, and exacerbate uncontrolled migration flows which have created a staggering humanitarian crisis and political backlash around the world.
This very topic will be examined at the G-7 in Hamburg, Germany next week where the focus will include Africa and migration. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has called for a “Marshal-like Plan.” And her Economic Minister, Gerd Mueller, has warned that, “If the youth of Africa can’t find work or a future in their own countries, it won’t be hundreds of thousands, but millions that will make their way to Europe.”
So entrepreneurship is not just a nice talent to have. It is a key to unlocking a global system in need of innovation to accommodate an increasingly youthful population.
Wherever you look across Africa, hundreds of entrepreneurs of all ages are striving to make a living, whether they are farmers selling peppers in the local markets, software developers building platforms for e-commerce, or designers like Paris-based Liberian-born Abraham Pelham blending local textiles and modern styles, as I am wearing today—they are impacting the entrepreneurial landscape not only on the Continent, but across the globe.
The vital role that women play in the economy cannot be overemphasized. In Liberia, for example, women already manage a significant share of our registered SMEs (34%) and are dynamic entrepreneurs. Liberian women are even more likely than men to start their own businesses (69% of women compared to 56% of men), which underscores the importance of enabling them to unlock their entrepreneurial potential.
My government has also recognized the power of entrepreneurship through public private partnerships to bring innovation and increased impact to government services. We have done this in healthcare delivery through partnerships with Last Mile Health to build a community-based healthcare force; initiated the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) to address the challenges of providing quality education to our children; organized a Philanthropy Secretariat to coordinate efforts of the non-profit and foundation sector; and relied on organizations like the President’s Young Professionals Program, to build capacity in our government ministries through internships and training.
But still, an estimated 80% of business transactions in economies like Liberia’s, are conducted in the informal sector. As such, the true benefits of youthful innovation are rarely realized because of the restraining business environment. Young innovators are faced with limited access to financing, inadequate training, outdated or inadequate laws, poor infrastructure, and corruption.
The entrepreneurial culture then becomes limited by business environments which are not evolving quickly enough, thereby hindering the real scale of growth and innovation. The burden is on government to democratize, reduce corruption, pass laws and regulations that open markets and borders, create functioning infrastructure that reduces the cost of production, and to empower the next generation of workers and innovators.
Our collective success is facilitated by the global exchanges among dynamic entrepreneurs across the globe. Many young people like yourselves, trading ideas and building new ‘bridges’ across the Atlantic. As a continent of emerging markets, the opportunities abound.
The use of technology provides youth the means to improve the overall quality of life and create wealth as the world has become smaller and more connected. Ten years ago, the complex financial instruments of the day would seem quaint to the hedge funds and investment banks of today. In those 10 years, our markets and economies have become more swiftly connected and rapidly adjusted.
I note that several Babson college alumni have already explored the opportunities, and the challenges, across our continent to help secure Africa’s future.
Alex Thomson-Payan started a business in Angola providing operational assistance to the country’s multinational oil operators. Ben Cox and Chris Smith served as project directors of an entrepreneurship resource center in Rwanda.
Richard Bright has changed the longstanding production and marketing system in the natural rubber industry which is providing more opportunity to Liberian rubber producers. Many other Babson trained Liberians are also making major contributions to an expanding private sector environment.
And Richelieu Dennis, a son of Liberia, is transforming the natural hair industry with the SheaMoisture brand, and, through his work, is impacting the lives of young people in Africa and in the inner cities of America.
He contributed immensely to my 2005 Presidential Campaign, an unprecedented success made possible in part from a graduate of Babson College. As a country, we are proud of what he has accomplished.
And finally, my deep appreciation to Marvin Tarawally, who honored me today on stage. I thank him for his work in equipping young promising Liberians with the skills and opportunities to change their lives, and we thank the Blank Center at Babson for its support.
Graduates, today you are a privileged group of young women and men with a bright future ahead of you. Over the years, you have worked hard, you have learned, you have heard countless stories from your professors, you have bonded with new friends from all over the world. You have been given the building blocks to go out and define the life you want to lead, and your unique contribution to the world.
I believe that the future of the continent rests in the hands of its innovators, risks takers, and entrepreneurs. And their ability to use new technologies to create networks without global boundaries where ideas can be shared, enhanced, and commercialized.
At a time when many around the world are looking to build walls, close doors, and limit interactions across cultures, the entrepreneur, by his or her own definition, is a bridge builder. A door opener. A problem solver.
I salute you, the next generation of innovators and bridge builders. I congratulate your families and friends who enabled you to succeed. I celebrate this remarkable institution of higher learning that has extended a hand to me and to my countrymen and women.
Thank you very much and congratulations once again!