In rousing remarks that urged graduates to embrace risk, seek change and follow a guiding light, Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda delivered the keynote commencement address to the Class of 2019 graduates of Babson College’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business Saturday near Boston.
It was a homecoming for Toyoda, who earned his MBA from Babson College in 1982. As one of the school’s best-known and most successful alumni, Toyoda was selected as the keynote speaker for its Centennial Commencement, celebrating 100 years of specializing in entrepreneurship education.
Toyoda began by telling the story of his time as a young business student in America, trying to keep up with demanding classes in a foreign language.
“For me, taking classes in English was a real challenge,” Toyoda said. “It took all of my focus and free time. I never went to parties. I never went to a hockey game. I just went from my dorm, to class, to the library. I was, in a word, boring. But since I’m here to offer you words of advice, let the first be this: don’t be boring.”
Don't Be Boring -- Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda urged gradutes to find their passions and be bold, not boring.
It was a theme Toyoda built on throughout his speech – that while a transition like graduation can be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, the best business leaders face change fearlessly. Toyoda encouraged the graduates to lean into the unknown and find their passions.
“Now’s the time to figure out what speaks to your heart the most,” Toyoda said. “The beginning of your career is really the best part, because you have the freedom to try different things before the inevitable responsibilities of life pile up. So, use this time… this freedom that your youth provides… to find your happy world. And don’t be afraid if it’s not what’s ‘expected.’”
It’s a lesson Toyoda understands well. After all, his grandfather started Toyota more than 80 years ago. One would assume Toyoda was always destined to end up working for the family business. But as he explained to graduates, he did it on his own terms – even in the face of a global recession and the unintended acceleration crisis that marked his first years as TMC president.
“One of the challenges of running a business that’s been in your family for decades is, how willing are you to make dramatic change when it’s called for? How do you look at things objectively and not hang on to something for sentimental reasons? How do you take the risk of making fabric one day… and cars the next? I am often asked whether I am burdened by having the name Toyoda. When I was your age, I might have said yes. But today, I’m very proud of what the name represents, and the hundreds of thousands of people it supports around the world.”
Homecoming -- Toyoda pictured with Babson College President Kerry Healey. Toyoda earned an MBA from Babson's business school in 1982.
Toyoda was welcomed to the stage by former Babson College President Ralph Sorenson. Sorenson led the school in the early 1980s, while Toyoda was a student. The two developed a close personal bond, with Toyoda even living in the Sorenson family home for several months as he learned English.
“I remember he was an excellent student,” Sorenson said. “You have to remember, he was in a difficult situation. Imagine if you or I went to Japan to try and earn a graduate degree, and to study it in a different language. That is very, very difficult. But by the time he left Babson, he was totally fluent.”
He remembers Toyoda as a young man full of curiosity, always seeking answers and understanding in an effort to do things better and improve – something Toyota team members no doubt recognize as the spirit of kaizen.
“At Babson, I think Akio-san really learned that entrepreneurial mindset,” Sorenson said. “By that I mean, thought and action. Anyone can start a business. But an entrepreneur is always applying creative and innovative ways of thinking to what they do. And you see that as Toyota continues to be on the forefront of things like hydrogen and mobility. I’m so proud of everything Akio-san has accomplished. He could have done anything with his life. But he’s always been curious. And he’s stayed curious. And I believe that’s a big part of Toyota’s success.
As Toyoda’s remarks drew to a close, he had a few final requests for the room packed with newly-minted graduates and their families.
He urged them to find inspiration – whether it be Oprah, Yoda, Tom Brady, family or friends – and feed off their energy. Then, go out and be an inspiration for the next generation of leaders.
And in a nod to our Toyota Way, Toyoda wrapped up with perhaps the simplest advice of all: be good.
“Care about the environment,” he said. “Care about the planet, about what’s happening in other parts of the world. Don’t worry about being cool. Be warm. Decide what you stand for. At Toyota, we have a set of values that include integrity, humility and respect for people. We call it the Toyota Way. It gives our company a North Star… a guiding light. Find your own guiding light and it inform every decision you make. Let it help you make the world a better place.”
By Kristen Orsborn