The Power of Audacity, Embracing Failure, and Giving Yourself Permission to Be Great
The following is a transcript of Michael Ellison's (CodePath's CEO and Co-founder) 2023 commencement address delivered at Harvey Mudd College.
I’m grateful and incredibly humbled to be with you today. Thank you, President Klawe, for inviting me. Thank you, faculty, trustees, distinguished guests, and parents. And most of all thank you and congratulations Harvey Mudd class of 2023.
It is an honor and privilege to stand before you today. Harvey Mudd cultivates some of the finest minds in the fields of science, technology, and engineering, so there is no doubt you are a group of brilliant, high-achievers.
And while you have certainly worked hard to get here, I stand before you today to challenge you even further. I want to challenge you to think bigger. To dream bolder. To have the courage to be audacious.
The world will change more in the next 20 years than it has in the past hundred. Whether you are ready for the responsibility or not, your generation may be the most impactful in human history.
It's likely that the first person to live to 150 years old has already been born.
Your generation may witness the colonization of Mars.
It is you who will decide if the incredible rise of artificial intelligence and automation will lead toward global prosperity or dystopian inequality.
You are the last generation that can stop climate change.
In short, you have the opportunity to be the greatest generation ever. What each of you decides to do — or not to do — is going to change the world.
That’s the real reason I accepted President Klawe’s invitation to be here today. I’m here to recruit you. To recruit all of you to change the world.
That’s my obsession. And I want it to be yours, too, because the future is now in your hands.
Over 20 years, I have founded six companies. I have worked with leaders across the Fortune 500, tech startups, government, and philanthropy. What’s clear to me is that those who genuinely believe they can change the world — those are the ones who do.
If you believe you can, you will. But, how does one go about changing the world?
I believe there are three key steps. And, that’s what I am going to talk to you about today.
Step One: Be Audacious
Step one. Be audacious.
My college graduation was 13 years ago. We had more than 6,000 graduates, and our commencement speaker was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. It was a great ceremony.
Or so I was told. The truth is I wasn't there.
But let me back up a bit.
I grew up in rural Maine. When I was five years old, my father was incarcerated. My parents split. We became homeless. We moved 12 times over the next 5 years. Despite the challenges, we valued education, and my mom did her best to make sure we attended good schools. Even when that meant two-hour-plus commutes.
Like it was yesterday, I still remember those ice-cold 4:30am showers. Walking 10 minutes to the dock. Taking a 45-minute ferry from the island to the mainland. Then an hour car ride across two towns. All to go to a school in a place we couldn’t afford to live.
But I always felt lucky. My mother believed in me and that made me feel like I could do anything.
I learned a lot from my dad, too. From the times he was around and from the times he wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid to dream big, even when our world was small.
When I got to college, I signed up for everything that scared me. Which, at that time, was basically everything. I liked math and science so I enrolled in computer science. But dropped out my first semester.
My parents had sacrificed so much for me. I couldn’t give up. I became obsessed with thinking differently so that, for once, I could be in control. I felt so far behind my peers. But I didn’t just want to catch up, I wanted to get ahead.
I worked hard, but with six months until my college graduation, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I needed to be audacious. But how?
My brother had an adjunct professor at NYU, who he told me was about to start a tech startup. This was my chance! The timing was perfect. I cold DMed him on Twitter. After a few months of persistence, he agreed to meet for dinner in Boston.
At dinner, I passionately pitched him. I told him about how hard I worked and how my entire life had prepared me exactly for this moment — to join him in his new venture.
He said, “You’re ambitious, I’ll give you that. But you have no skills. Why would I partner with a kid?”
He went back to New York. And I stayed in Boston with only two months until graduation.
But I refused to give up.
I decided I would just work for him without his permission. I just did things. Anything I thought might be helpful to him: user research, product recommendations, I even tried to send customers his way.
First, he ignored me. Then he eventually responded: “What are you doing? You’re annoying. Stop that.”
Another week goes by. “Don’t you have anything better to do?
I didn’t stop. I kept at it. After one month of annoying him, he let me sit in on a meeting with his engineering team to take notes. I didn’t just take notes, I tried to contribute as much as possible. After that, he let me become his assistant.
By the time of my college graduation, I was his co-founder. I had gone from dropping out of computer science just a few years before, to running product and engineering for a multi-million-dollar tech startup. My co-founder was a Fortune 500 C-suite executive.
I was incredibly lucky. But I was also audacious enough to believe I could create my own luck.
You do that by taking risks. By thinking big. By not letting your past mistakes or your current environment define you.
Excellence is not enough. You have to be audacious.
Step Two: Embrace Failure
Step two. Embrace failure.
Unfortunately. If you are truly audacious, you will probably fail.
The startup I just mentioned was actually my second company. You see, I founded my first company when I was 19, my co-founder was 18. We started a nonprofit to provide low-income high school students with mentors and tutors.
We really believed we would change education. In our first two years, we had Boston Public Schools and the City of New York as customers. I got invited to speak at Harvard Business School when I was 20. I was in love with entrepreneurship, and it felt like nothing could stop us.
And man, were we audacious: cold calling heads of foundations, showing up uninvited to swanky black-tie events, telling education experts why they were wrong and we were right.
I barely knew what a nonprofit was, and there I was, saying I would change the entire education system. It was exhilarating. We were so naive it was embarrassing.
In 2007, we were a year into our first multi-state expansion. Revenue had doubled year over year. Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit. Most of our funding vanished overnight.
In a last-ditch effort, we tried to save the nonprofit. We threw a hail Mary fundraiser during President Obama’s first inauguration. In the month leading up to the event, I slept an average of 2-3 hours a night. But failure was not an option.
We put everything into that fundraiser. In the end, we barely broke even. What actually broke that night was us. I can’t even describe to you how painful it is to stake your identity — your world — on a dream, only to have that dream suddenly die.
Again, being audacious is hard. And you will fail.
When my identity as a social entrepreneur was shattered, I wondered what I would do, who I would be, and about all the people who had believed in me. The trauma was too much for my co-founder to take. She never founded another company again.
That failure taught me that my desire to improve the education system wasn’t just a passion…it was an obsession.
I failed forward, trying again and again. I went on to start two other nonprofits. I founded three tech startups, and I got lucky again. One of my companies was acquired for more than 3 billion dollars. I continued to make mistakes, but each time I failed smarter.
If you are audacious, you will fail many times, sometimes spectacularly. You must embrace this.
Today I’m 20 years into entrepreneurship. I still make mistakes every day. I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my journey. But more than ever, it’s clear to me that my many failures are my greatest assets.
If you can persist through failure, you will find your purpose, what you are called to do. You will think differently because you will have lived differently.
So, embrace failure.
But fail smarter. Fail forward. Because those failures will be your greatest learning opportunities.
Step Three: Invest the Time to Become Great
Those first two steps are incredibly powerful yet simple mindset shifts. They will enable you to find your purpose. To create your own luck and discover new ways of seeing the world.
While these two mindsets are more than enough to be successful, they are nowhere near enough to change the world. So, what is the missing ingredient?
Step three. Invest the time to become great.
I first thought I was going to change education 20 years ago. In the first five years, audacity, failure, and persistence turned my passion into purpose. I learned about the root causes of inequality.
Over the next five, I leaned into coding, technology, and tech startups to understand how to build programs that scaled liked products. The last 10 have been about applying what I learned to drive systemic change. Institutional change. I think we are close. We are so close to making education work more like software.
Can you believe that some tech investors expect as high as 1000x returns? Just imagine…what if we expected those same, impossible returns from our classrooms?
Not just for the wealthiest, but for all students. With technologies like generative AI, I believe we are just a few years away. But who am I to make such bold claims?
The truth is, I’m just a small-town kid from rural Maine who wanted to dream big.
Bill Gates once said, “People overestimate what they can do in a year…and underestimate what they can do in 10.”
Don’t underestimate what you are capable of. All you need is time. And when you do find your purpose. Take your time. Don’t let others tell you what you can’t do.
As I mentioned at the start of this address, your generation has the opportunity to become the greatest in history. The world needs you to dream bigger. To focus on the problems that can’t be solved in a year, 5 years, or even 10 years.
If you can be audacious. If you can embrace failure. If you can invest the time to become great. I know you will change the world.
Thank you, Harvey Mudd graduating class of 2023.