Fulfilling a boyhood dream, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone received a degree from Saturday morning. Stone recalled his youthful ambition to “go to Babson and become a businessman,” as he used to tell his mother, during the college’s 92nd undergraduate commencement, at which he accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and addressed the class of 2011.
The ceremony doubled as a homecoming for Stone, 37, a Wellesley native and 1992 graduate of , and he wasted no time making himself comfortable. Sporting skate-style sneakers, Stone stepped to the podium, joked that his mortarboard resembled a “Yarmulke with a clipboard on it,” and tossed the cap aside, freeing the unruly hair-do that — along with a pair of black-rimmed, rectangular glasses — defines his look.
Stone used personal anecdotes — and one obscure cultural reference — to highlight four themes: opportunity, creativity, failure and empathy.
To illustrate the first, Stone harkened back to his days at Wellesley High, where he failed to make any of the school’s athletic teams. Rather than give up on sports, however, the teenage Stone convinced administrators to let him start a lacrosse team, which the school did not sponsor at the time.
“It turned out that I was really good at lacrosse, the others elected me captain, and we were a good team,” Stone told about 450 graduates and more than 3,000 guests. “This brings us to lesson number one: Opportunity can be manufactured. Yes, you can wait around for the right set of circumstances to fall into place and then leap into action, but you can also create those set of circumstances on your own. In so doing, you manufacture your own opportunities. This is as true for high school sports as it is for entrepreneurism or corporate culture. It has helped me immeasurably.”
Stone said he learned the value of creativity after he dropped out of college — he spent a year at Northeastern University and another at UMass Boston — to take a full-time job designing book covers for a Beacon Hill publishing firm. He had earned the company art director’s favor when, as a menial box mover, he surreptitiously slipped one of his own designs into a pile of professional work. The publisher chose Stone’s design over the pros’.
It was a big break, but Stone said he soon arrived at a humbling, yet inspiring, realization: “There is not just one great design for a book cover,” he said. “There are an infinite number of possible winners. Working with (that art director) taught me the second lesson I’d like to share with you today: Creativity is a renewable resource. Be as creative as you like, as often as you like, because you can never run out.”
Of course, Stone’s audacity at the publishing house could have backfired, as could have his decision to leave school, or any of his business ventures, including Twitter. But Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Decade said he shuns any fear of failure, much like a little-known film character named Damiel.
Damiel is an angel, the protagonist of a 1987 movie entitled “Wings of Desire.” His job is to watch over — but not interfere with — human affairs. Instead, Damiel takes a massive risk, descending to earth, becoming mortal, and falling in love.
“My third lesson to you is taken from Damiel’s decision,” Stone said. “In order to succeed spectacularly, you must be ready to fail spectacularly. In other words, you must be willing to die to achieve your goals.
“For legal purposes let me say, I’m not actually suggesting you should die,” he added, drawing laughter. “I’m just telling you, figuratively, to embrace failure.”
Finally, Stone, who along with his wife Livia has been named a Huffington Post Game Changer because of their philanthropy, urged graduates not to delay generosity.
“People too often consider altruism only after they have achieved financial success,” he said. “This approach is flawed because it does not take into account the value of helping others. … We are all in this world together, so when we help others, we also help ourselves. It’s exciting to think about companies running along this premise. There can be a new way for business to get done with a higher level of ambition, and a more meaningful way of measuring success. Beyond immediate needs, more and more people are discovering value in selflessness. It’s important that we learn how to recognize value before profit.”