Mark Zuckerberg teared up during his commencement speech to Harvard graduates, telling them it is up to their generation to care about others and to fight inequality.
The billionaire CEO returned to Harvard on Thursday to receive an honorary degree – 13 years after he famously dropped out of the Ivy League school to focus on Facebook.
‘Change starts local. Even global changes start small – with people like us,’ the 33-year-old told the crowd of graduates.
‘Every generation expands the circle of people we consider ‘one of us.’ And in our generation, that now includes the whole world. …But we live in an unstable time.
‘There are people left behind by globalization across the whole world. And it’s tough to care about people in other places when we don’t first feel good about our lives here at home. There’s pressure to turn inwards.’
Zuckerberg, now the youngest commencement speaker in Harvard’s history, started off reliving some of his college memories.
He told the graduates that he was scheduled to speak to the school board after building the website Facemash, an early precursor of Facebook that allowed students to compare the attractiveness of their fellow classmates.
His parents showed up to the school to help him pack up his belongings, and his friends threw him a goodbye party, where he met his future wife Priscilla Chan in line for the bathroom.
Zuckerberg recounted: ‘In what must be one of the all time romantic lines, I said: “I’m going to get kicked out in three days, so we need to go on a date quickly.”
He joked: ‘Actually, any of you graduating can use that line.’
‘I didn’t end up getting kicked out — I did that to myself. Priscilla and I started dating.
‘And, you know, that movie made it seem like Facemash was so important to creating Facebook. It wasn’t. But without Facemash I wouldn’t have met Priscilla, and she’s the most important person in my life, so you could say it was the most important thing I built in my time here.’
Zuckerberg went on to emphasize the importance of changing the world for the better, saying: ‘I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough.
‘The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.’
He went on to say: ‘Today I want to talk about three ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community across the world.’
Zuckerberg implored the graduates to tackle ‘generation-defining public works’ like stopping climate change, finding cures for diseases, and ‘modernizing democracy’ so everyone could vote online.
He also emphasized the importance of having ample opportunities to fail, to which he proposed ideas like a universal basic income, affordable childcare, and universal healthcare.
Zuckerberg also spoke about building communities, and relayed his experiences teaching at the local Boys and Girls club at the urging of his wife.
But it wasn’t until the end of his speech that he choked back tears recounting his relationship with one of his students.
Zuckerberg said: ‘One day after class I was talking to them about college, and one of my top students raised his hand and said he wasn’t sure he could go because he’s undocumented. He didn’t know if they’d let him in.
‘Last year I took him out to breakfast for his birthday. I wanted to get him a present, so I asked him what he wanted and he started talking about students he saw struggling and said “You know, I’d really just like a book on social justice.”
‘I was blown away. Here’s a young guy who has every reason to be cynical. He didn’t know if the country he calls home – the only one he’s known – would deny him his dream of going to college.
‘But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t even thinking of himself. He has a greater sense of purpose, and he’s going to bring people along with him.
‘It says something about our current situation that I can’t even say his name because I don’t want to put him at risk.
‘But if a high school senior who doesn’t know what the future holds can do his part to move the world forward, then we owe it to the world to do our part too.’
He finished by sharing a prayer he often says for his daughter Maxima Chan Zuckerberg, who was born in 2015.
He said: ‘Before you walk out those gates one last time, as we sit in front of Memorial Church, I am reminded of a prayer, Mi Shebeirach, that I say whenever I face a challenge, that I sing to my daughter thinking about her future when I tuck her into bed.
‘It goes: “May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”
‘I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.’
He posted a photo on Facebook of himself holding his honorary degree and standing next to his proud parents on Thursday, writing: ‘Mom, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.’
In giving the commencement speech, Zuckerberg is following in the footsteps of another famous Harvard dropout, Bill Gates, who spoke before its graduates a decade ago.
He began teasing his return to Harvard earlier in the week when he and Chan live-streamed a video from Zuckerberg’s old dorm room on his Facebook page.
‘It’s pretty personally meaningful to me to finally get my degree from here,’ Zuckerberg said in the live video this week.
‘And I promise it means even more to my parents, who really wanted me to graduate, this might be the thing they are going to be most proud of me for,’ he joked.
Zuckerberg and his wife filmed themselves touring the old rooms and reminiscing about their time at Harvard in the 23-minute video.
‘This is literally where I sat. And I had my little laptop here and this is where I programed Facebook. It took me about two weeks,’ Zuckerberg said in the video. ‘This is where it happened.’
‘It’s my first time being back here since I left 13 years ago. This has been a place where a lot of really special things happened in my life,’ he said referring to his dorm room, ‘I’m really grateful.’
The billionaire mentioned how he created the disastrous FaceMash website on his laptop from the dorm room – where he had taken photos from university members’ pages and asked students to rank them by attractiveness.
The stunt sparked a huge backlash of complaints from students about the premise and that their photos were taken without permission. Harvard was furious and ordered Zuckerberg to shut it down.
Zuckerberg began working on the new website, then known as thefacebook in January 2004 – during the reading month given to students to study. He says he had been inspired by the success of his other website, FaceSmash, but had wanted to create a website to connect people.
On February 4, 2004, Zuckerberg launched ‘Thefacebook’ from the laptop on his dorm room desk.
After Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, he vowed never to return in 2005.
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