Case: Be curious, take risks

Steve Case, co-founder of America Online and chair of the Case Foundation and chairman and CEO of Revolution, urged Carolina’s newest graduates to be attackers, not defenders, as the new leaders of what always has been “a startup nation.”

“The attackers are the people with bold, innovative ideas, who are trying to disrupt the status quo, and usher in a better way,” said Case. “We need to think out of the box, and be curious, and be willing to take risks.”

A half-century ago, most graduates committed to one path, but today’s graduates will not only have multiple jobs, but also multiple careers. Case reminded them to keep learning and be flexible.

“Don’t be so fixated on a specific ending that you neglect to open the door when opportunity knocks,” he said. 

Case, drawing on his own experiences as an entrepreneur and reflecting on the story of America, asked graduates to focus on three P’s: people, passion and perseverance.

He quoted a favorite African proverb to remind graduates that the people with whom they surround themselves will determine the course of their lives. “It says, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, you must go together.’”   

Watch Steve Case’s Commencement Speech

Case successfully revved up a Mother’s Day in Kenan Stadium, where Holden Thorp presided at Commencement for the last time as chancellor before departing next month to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis.

The University awarded five honorary degrees to Case, as well as Bernard Flatow, longtime promoter of Latin American cultural exchange; Joel Fleishman, professor and philanthropist; Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Mary Pope Osborne, author of the “Magic Tree House” children’s book series. An estimated 6,027 undergraduate, graduate and professional students received degrees during Commencement weekend, which included a hooding ceremony for doctoral students.

Just a couple of hundred years ago, the United States was just an idea, Case said. That idea led to democracy and the world’s largest and most innovative economy.

Case started the company that would become America Online when he was just 26, and only 3 percent of people were online. He said passion propelled him through ups and downs that would precede the company’s rise to a leader in email, ecommerce and instant messaging.

“I’d urge you to focus on the things that you are passionate about – that you get excited thinking about and talking about – as those are the opportunities you should organize your life around.”

saw Case through the difficult days “when our hopes were dimmed by external events – when the naysayers around us – including often our friends and families – were urging us to give it up, and pursue a safer career path.”

In the last three decades alone, new startup companies created 40 million jobs – nearly all the net jobs created during that period, Case said. The graduates of today will write the next chapter in America’s startup story.

“Here’s my key message to you, the Class of 2013: as a nation, we can’t rest on our laurels. Other countries now realize that entrepreneurship is the secret sauce that has powered our economy, and they are working hard to replicate it. We need to double down on entrepreneurship if we are going to maintain our lead.”  

At the close of his speech, Case asked graduates before him to stand. He took a picture with his phone, which he tweeted from the podium using the hashtag #UNC2013 to show the graduates – including those at rival Duke University who also graduated on Sunday –who will be “taking over the world.”

“Given that I spent most of my life trying to get people to use the Internet, it’s only fitting that I end by sharing this important event on Twitter,” said Case, who called Carolina “one of the nation’s finest schools.”

View a slideshow of the Commencement ceremony.

Case praised Thorp as a friend and national leader. Both serve on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which met at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011. Case guest lectured this year in an economics class Thorp co-taught.

Case also said the Research Triangle Park region – anchored by Carolina, Duke and N.C. State – had provided a national model for 50 years. The RTP has been a hotbed for startups and contributed significantly to North Carolina’s economic success, he said.

In his final charge to the graduates, Thorp said Carolina’s newest alumni would make the world a better place. “You have the knowledge, energy and experience to take us where we need to go.”

Sunday morning’s crowd was estimated at more than 35,000 graduates, family and friends – easily a record for recent Commencements – who celebrated with the graduates under sunny, Carolina blue skies. The traditional sea of Carolina blue academic gowns revealed an enthusiastic section of students, many with balloons and signs thanking their Moms for their support and devotion.

On Saturday, social scientist and author Dan Ariely spoke at the doctoral hooding ceremony. Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, researches psychological processes determining daily human decisions and the possible implications of this human behavior. He is the author of the Wall Street Journal column “Ask Ariely” and three New York Times bestselling books.

Published May 13, 2013.