Photo: The procession of graduates in Killian Court. Photo by Donna Coveney, MIT News Office.
That many of MIT's graduating students marched into commencement while chatting on cell phones only underlined the power of the keynote speaker's empire. Irwin M. Jacobs, SM '57, ScD '59, is cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Qualcomm, one of the world's fastest-growing telecom companies. He stood at the podium, a poignant symbol for the 2,100 graduates who sat before him in Killian Court. The engineer, academic, entrepreneur, chief executive, and philanthropist is the quintessential embodiment of the MIT ethic, having integrated cross-disciplinary skills to build a frontier business.
Although Jacobs received his first degree a half century before the students he addressed, he is very much embedded in the 21st century marketplace and clearly understands the landscape the graduating students face as they embark on their futures. He shared the ups and downs of his own career and illustrated the importance of seizing change when it presents itself.
He also spoke about the state of the telecom industry and its implications for Qualcomm's future. “Today, there are probably about one and a half billion users of cellphones around the world,” he said. “In 2005, there were over 600 million sold ... or will be by the end of the year. Comparing that to about 150 million desktop and laptop computers, it's quite clear that the future is not in plastics, but in mobile devices.”
While his allusion to the advice about plastics given to Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film “The Graduate” may not have registered with many of the students, the important take-away wisdom was clear: be a pioneer, and don't listen to the naysayers — they will abound. Jacobs should know. He originally pursued the hospitality field because his guidance counselor was so pessimistic about careers in science and engineering. Jacobs quickly switched over to engineering in spite of this advice. He added cheerfully that that temporary derailment did him no harm. The accounting and business lessons he'd learned during that brief stint served him well in his early entrepreneurial pursuits.
Photo: The MIT Dome is reflected in the glasses of Francisco Diarte, an MIT Sloan MBA graduate. Photo by Donna Coveney, MIT News Office.
In keeping with the theme of making change happen, Jacobs also urged students to try to make a difference in the political arena. He noted that cutbacks in government funding for science and technology are crippling research, development, and progress. “When I came to be a student here, I was lucky to benefit from the Research Laboratory of Electronics. ... Now the funding has been cut back quite a bit. There really are reasons to get out and become very politically active.”
Addressing her first commencement as MIT president, Susan Hockfield similarly appealed to the graduating class to bring passion to bear on all facets of their lives and most important, to move others to action.
“I ask you to inspire your own generation and those to come with a renewed sense of possibility and optimism for the future,” she said. “Here at MIT, we see up close the myriad ways in which science and technology promise to benefit humankind. If we are to realize that promise, we need to kindle in others the same love and passion for truth and discovery, for creativity and problem solving, that brought us all here. I hope that each of you will embrace this challenge as your own.”
Hockfield went on to say, “I would not set you this charge if I did not think you could meet it. I have tremendous faith in you. The intelligence, diligence, and creativity you have demonstrated here at MIT have inspired us all. And I know that in the years to come you will do even more — and surprise and delight us with achievements we could never have predicted.”
Barun Singh, president of the Graduate Student Council, spoke on a similar theme. He asked the graduates to “be open to unconventional solutions. Keep alive your passion and drive. The world needs this, and it waits for you.”