Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg tells MIT grads “it’s about people”

When MIT Commencement speaker and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg asked the 999 undergraduates and 1,821 graduate students who were about to receive their degrees to raise their hands if they knew exactly what they wanted to do for a career, quite a few hands shot up.

“That’s impressive,” she said, speaking on a sunny Friday in Killian Court. “I did not.” In fact, as she recalled, she went through quite a few different kinds of jobs and was sure of just one thing: She didn’t want to go into business or technology.

“Things won’t always end up as you think,” she said. “But you will gain valuable lessons along life’s uncertain path.” She described one such lesson that she learned in her very first job after graduation, working in a leprosy treatment center in India.

Technically, the problem of leprosy had already been solved, she said. The disease can be easily diagnosed and is totally curable now, yet the age-old stigma attached to the disease remained, and many patients hid themselves from view rather than seeking care. The needed breakthrough came not just from medical technology, but from community leaders, she said.

“They wrote plays and songs in local languages and went around the community convincing those suffering to come forward without fear,” Sandberg said. “They understood that the most difficult problems and the greatest opportunities are not technical, they are human. In other words, it’s not just about technology, it’s about people.”

She noted that “today, anyone with an internet connection can inspire millions with a single sentence or a single image. That gives extraordinary power to those who use it to do good — to march for equality, reignite the movement against sexual harassment, rally around the things they care about and the people they need to be there for.” But, she said, “it also empowers those who seek to do harm.”

That leaves three options, she said: retreat in fear, barrel forward anyway, or take another choice. “I encourage you to choose the third option — to be clear-eyed optimists, to see that building technology that supports equality, democracy, truth, and kindness means looking around corners and throwing up every possible roadblock against hate, violence, and deception.”

Sandberg, whose company has increasingly faced criticism over the sharing of its users’ personal information, addressed that contentious issue head on. “At Facebook, we didn’t see all the risks coming, and we didn’t do enough to stop them,” she said. Recalling advice from a naval officer, that calm seas never make good sailors, she said: “When you own your mistakes, you can work harder to correct them — and even harder to prevent the next ones. That’s my job now.”

And it’s also the job of “all of us here,” she said. “It’s not enough to be technologists —we have to make sure that technology serves people.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his charge to the class of 2018, compared the students’ work at the Institute to the training of Olympic athletes — among whom, to the surprise of many, there have been almost as many MIT graduates as there have been Nobel laureates (36 Nobelists and 35 Olympians over the years).

Among the similarities, he said, are the need to be fearless in pursuing goals, and the experience of working with people from every corner of the world. And, he added, the fact that what they do will “raise the bar for everyone who comes after.”

Reif cited many specific initiatives by members of this student class, including the project to support each other by asking “tell me about your day,” efforts to help students who struggle to pay for food, and recommendations for ways to make the Institute more caring, welcoming, and inclusive.

He concluded by emphasizing a very important difference between MIT and the Olympics: “At MIT, in order for you to win, no one has to lose. No one even has to come in second!” That’s because, he said, “we are members of a single team — united with a single mission.”

In essence, that mission comes down to trying to “fix things that are broken … to hack the world, and at least to try to heal the world too.” He urged the graduates to “find your calling. Solve the unsolveable. Invent the future. Take the high road.”

Sarah Ann Goodman, president of the Graduate Student Council, told the graduates about her own research using electron microscopy, and how in that work it is essential to get multiple views of a sample from different angles. In the same way, she said, “when we tackle global challenges such as health care access, climate change, and human rights issues, I hope we ask ourselves — are all perspectives being considered? Whose voices are not being heard? … How do we create an inclusive environment that not only keeps everyone at the table, but elevates everyone at the table?”

Colin Webb, president of the graduating senior class, spoke of the great diversity of students that he had come to know in his time at MIT, and even offered brief comments in several different languages. “In order to change the world, we must first understand the world’s wide variety of people and backgrounds. Because people are the root of all the challenges we aim to solve, and we look to each other, other people, when we search for solutions.”

Webb added that “To me it’s quite clear that MIT is the place that makes the magic happen. It’s the place where I can graduate today and know that I’m going to make an impact tomorrow.”

As Sandberg concluded in her remarks to the MIT graduates of 2018, “I hope you will use your influence to make sure technology is a force for good in the world. Technology needs a human heartbeat; the things that bring us together and that bring us joy are the things that matter most.”

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