In the last sparkling days of summer, the Academy of Achievement gathered in San Francisco, California for the 51st International Achievement Summit. From September 12 to 14, 2014, more than 100 young delegates met in San Francisco with nearly 100 of the most accomplished men and women of our times — leaders in politics and public service, the arts and letters, science and business. Twenty-nine new honorees were inducted into the Academy, joining the delegates, returning honorees, and special guests in a series of discussions at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.
The ranks of Academy delegates included some of America’s most promising young inventors, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs — Rhodes Scholars, Marshall Scholars, Soros Fellows, medical students and young physicians of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Harvard-MIT Medical Scientist Training Program — as well as scholars from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. Many have founded their own companies, nonprofits and NGOs. Their ranks included rising musical stars, an Olympic champion and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Members of the Academy attending the 2014 Summit included such outstanding public servants as Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr.; Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court; former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak; former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; former CIA Director David Petraeus; General Philip Breedlove, the Commander of NATO; retired Admiral William McRaven; former NATO Commander General Joseph Ralston; former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles; former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. and ACLU Director Anthony Romero. Outstanding members of the legal profession in attendance included David Boies, Ted Olson, Barry Scheck and Brendan Sullivan.
Distinguished scientists attending the Summit included: Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins; Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Steven Rosenberg; biomedical engineer Dr. Robert Langer; famed neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson; undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle; chemist Dr. Frances Arnold; and cosmologist Dr. Alan Guth; and 14 recipients of the Nobel Prize.
A host of renowned authors and journalists joined their fellow Academy members at the Summit: South African playwright Athol Fugard, and Pulitzer Prize recipients Rick Atkinson, A. Scott Berg and Neil Sheehan. The world of broadcast journalism was represented by Academy members Wolf Blitzer and Chris Wallace of CNN and Fox News, respectively. Business leaders among the Academy members in attendance included James Breyer, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, iPod mastermind and Nest founder Tony Fadell; MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito; and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Representatives of music, the theater, cinema and the arts included artist Jeff Koons, violinist Joshua Bell, record producer Lukasz (“Dr. Luke”) Gottwald, saxophone legend Wayne Shorter, entertainment icons Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett and Diana Ross, and the creator of Star Wars, filmmaker George Lucas.
The 2014 Summit Chairman was Catherine B. Reynolds, Chairman and CEO of The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. The Summit was made possible by a generous grant from The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. The Co-Hosts of the 2014 Summit were Ray and Barbara Dalio and Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates.
Academy members and delegates who were already in the Bay Area met for a pre-Summit dinner on Thursday, September 11, under the imposing dome of San Francisco’s City Hall. The soaring rotunda of the neo-classical landmark was exquisitely lit and decorated for the occasion, and the attendees enjoyed warm personal remarks from former Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Mayor Brown recalled the efforts he had made to fully restore the building after it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, while Justice Kennedy recalled his early career practicing law in the courtrooms the City Hall housed when he was a young attorney.
The formal program of the 2014 Summit got underway on Friday, September 12, with a dinner in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel. After welcoming the Academy members, honorees and delegates to San Francisco, Summit Chairman Catherine B. Reynolds introduced a distinguished member of the Academy’s Class of 2012, the Honorable Leon Panetta. An eight-term congressman from California, Panetta served as Chief of Staff to President Clinton and as CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under President Obama. Drawing on his unique breadth of experience, Panetta spoke of the difference between two styles of governance: one that exercises continuous leadership and another that governs from crisis to crisis. In concluding his remarks, Secretary Panetta introduced a surprise guest, the Governor of California, Edmund G. Brown. Brown spoke with easy humor and spontaneity, minimizing his own role in restoring the State’s finances while praising his state’s history as a model of diversity and a cradle of innovation. While recognizing the challenges California faces today, including its ongoing drought, he affirmed his faith in the State’s ability to absorb immigration and adapt to a changing environment. Following his address, he received the Gold Medal of the Academy of Achievement as the first inductee of the Academy’s Class of 2014.
Following dinner, a longtime member of the Academy, Dr. James Watson, took the stage to introduce one of its newest. Dr. Watson, who received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his discovery of the DNA molecule, introduced the first speaker. The evening’s speakers were followed by a brief but spellbinding musical program. Esperanza Spalding — a 2014 Academy delegate and today’s bestselling contemporary jazz artist — enchanted the audience with her expressive singing in both English and Portuguese, accompanying herself brilliantly on the upright bass. She was joined for a pair of ingenious duets by saxophone legend Wayne Shorter, a member of the Academy’s Class of 2014.
Saturday morning, the entire assembly gathered again for a series of striking presentations by Academy members. The prolific medical inventor Dr. Robert Langer gave a lively account of his early struggles to win recognition for his discoveries. Attorney Barry Scheck discussed his work as founder of the Innocence project, his long campaign to inject DNA evidence into the legal system, and the resulting exoneration of innocent men and women wrongly convicted of violent crimes.
In one of the most inspiring presentations of the Summit, Admiral William McRaven addressed a profoundly simple question, “How do you change the world, when so much lies beyond your control?” Recalling incidents from his own life and service, he demonstrated that we all have opportunities to perform countless small acts of compassion, courage and support that can have repercussions far beyond our own lives.
The award-wining playwright Athol Fugard spoke of his youth in South Africa and his early adventures as a merchant seaman. Rather than dwelling on the persecution he suffered as an advocate of racial equality in his country, he returned to the most basic and satisfying emotions that have informed his life, including the love of other human beings and of nature, deeply moving the audience with the simple humanity of his poetic words.
The Academy heard next from two of America’s foremost attorneys. Speaking together, David Boies and Ted Olson recalled how they met as adversaries in the historic case of Bush v. Gore that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election, and later joined forces to oppose California’s Proposition 8 and vindicate the right of same-sex couples to marry. The fantastically successful American artist Jeff Koons gave a presentation of his stunningly original work. Overturning any expectations of an obscure or mystifying rationale for his creations, Koons gave a straightforward and articulate account of the imaginative process that underlies his work, and the exacting craft that goes into its production.
The morning’s program concluded with one of the Academy’s best-known members, Star Wars creator George Lucas. With disarming humility, Lucas recounted the obstacles he overcame as a young filmmaker, and closed with an eloquent account of the ethical philosophy that informs his tales. He contrasted the values of selfishness and compassion, noting that the former leads only to discontent and disappointment, while a life of engagement with others yields the truest happiness.
After lunch the Academy heard from a new member of the Academy, chemist Dr. Frances Arnold, a pioneer of the research technique of directed evolution that is transforming fields as disparate as medicine, agriculture and alternative energy. General David Petraeus shared the knowledge of strategic leadership he gained in a career that included service as Director of the CIA, and as the U.S. military’s leading authority on counterinsurgency warfare.
The next speakers were two of the visionaries of today’s world of Internet commerce and social media: Reid Hoffman and Joi Ito. Hoffman was one of the founding directors of the PayPal online commerce service, and is the founder and Chairman of LinkedIn, as well as an early investor in Facebook, Groupon and Airbnb. Joi Ito, a social media entrepreneur in his own right, is now Director of the MIT Media Lab. With humor and dazzling insight, the two friends engaged in a freewheeling discussion of today’s media landscape, with personal observations of the industry’s leaders and a tantalizing peek at its future.
Another highlight of the afternoon was the appearance of America’s beloved First Lady of Comedy, Carol Burnett. With characteristic humor and unexpected depth of feeling, Burnett described her triumph over childhood poverty to achieve success in the theater and television, and the undisguised sexism she encountered when she first proposed hosting her own weekly television program. She closed her presentation by reading the words of her daughter, the late actress and writer Carrie Hamilton. Another new member of the Academy, master chef Thomas Keller, retraced the story of his life in the restaurant business, and the values he learned in building a culinary empire, beginning with his flagship restaurant, The French Laundry. The next speaker was the mastermind behind today’s most ubiquitous accessory, the iPhone, and its predecessor, the iPod. Tony Fadell, still recovering from a sporting injury, described his career as an inventor, Apple computer executive and as founder and CEO of the innovative home appliance company Nest.
Two other longtime members of the Academy appeared that afternoon, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, and pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson. The commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, touched on themes addressed earlier by General Petraeus and Admiral McRaven. As commander of Allied forces in Europe, General Breedlove spoke to the most pressing potential conflict to emerge in Europe since the end of the Cold War, and bluntly identified Russian territorial ambitions as a driving force behind the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
From the gravely serious situation in Ukraine, the afternoon’s program turned to the more relaxing subject of popular music, with one of its most creative and successful practitioners, Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. “Dr. Luke.” Creator of irresistible summer hits for the country’s most popular artists — including Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Rihanna — Dr. Luke was interviewed onstage by 2012 Academy delegate Baruch Shemtov. Saturday afternoon’s program ended with Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy addressing the entire assembly on the meaning of the Constitution, and on the capacity of democratic societies to adapt and mature.
The thrilling culmination of the 2014 Summit was the formal Banquet of the Golden Plate, opening with the induction of the Class of 2014 into the Academy of Achievement. One by one, the new honorees took the stage, accompanied by previously honored members of the Academy, who presented them with the Golden Plate Award.
For the second time over the course of the 2014 Summit, one of the Academy’s young delegates took to the stage to demonstrate her astounding musical talent. Janelle Monáe, accompanied by her eight-piece band and singers, gave an electrifying demonstration of the talent that has made her one of America’s most powerful young entertainers. Her songs “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic” had many in the audience on their feet dancing from the first beat.
The Banquet also included a presentation by a 2000 Academy youth delegate who has returned to subsequent Academy Summits as an honoree and Academy member, the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin.
The last performer of the Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies appeared: American musical icon Diana Ross. With the stage dazzlingly dressed for her appearance, Miss Ross sang a selection of her most beloved hits, including “I’m Coming Out,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Stop in the Name of Love.” Thrilled to hear these classic songs performed by their originator, Academy members and delegates rose to their feet to dance an unforgettable evening to its close.
The program resumed on Sunday morning with presentations by two recipients of the Nobel Prize. Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, who unlocked the mechanism by which our cells perceive and respond to the presence of hormones in the bloodstream received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discoveries. Dr. Louis Ignarro’s work concerning the role of nitric oxide in the circulatory system led to the creation of Viagra and similar medications. He recalled his extraordinary journey, as the child of immigrant parents who had never attended school, to a rewarding career as a scientist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The Nobel laureates were followed by two award-winning journalists. Rick Atkinson, previous recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, subsequently received the Pulitzer Prize for History for An Army at Dawn, his dramatic account of the Allied campaign in North Africa in World War II. He was followed by the final speaker of the San Francisco portion of the program, veteran CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer.
Following the Summit weekend in San Francisco, Academy members traveled to California’s scenic Napa Valley for an inspiring retreat and symposium at the renowned Auberge du Soleil, with its glorious vista of green hills and the valley’s fabled vineyards. Over dinner at the Auberge, the Academy was treated to a performance by America’s greatest concert violinist, fellow Academy member Joshua Bell, performing the Tzigane of Maurice Ravel.
Even in the hypnotically beautiful Napa countryside, the Academy continued to provide its members with intellectually stimulating discussion, beginning Monday morning with a talk by the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero. Three remarkable physicists engaged in a group discussion of the origin and nature of the universe. Dr. Adam Riess and Dr. Saul Perlmutter were joint recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that the expansion of the universe is not slowing, as was thought, but accelerating. Dr. Lisa Randall first attended the Academy as a student delegate and returned in 2008 as an honoree. Her hypothesis that the larger part of the universe’s gravity is hidden in an unknown dimension poses a formidable challenge to existing theories of the universe. Together, the three engaged in a provocative discussion of the limits of time, space and existence.
The morning’s conversation shifted from the infinite and cosmic to the comparatively comprehensible sphere of violent conflict in the Middle East, with two of the most authoritative speakers on the subject, Admiral William McRaven, the former Commander of the U.S. Special Operations, and Israel’s most decorated soldier, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Drawing on their vast experience and expertise, the pair explored the challenge posed to civilization by the transnational insurgency known as ISIS, which even as they spoke was attempting to establish a so-called Caliphate extending from Syria to Iraq. Although neither gentleman suggested that defeating ISIS would be a quick or easy task, they gave the assembly a clear idea of what measures would be necessary to restore a semblance of peace to the region. The morning’s session concluded with words from undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Drawing on her own extraordinary experience, she reminded her listeners that mankind’s fate is inextricably bound up with the fate of the global ecosystem, particularly the world’s oceans.
The afternoon program resumed with a presentation by Francine LeFrak. Having already enjoyed a successful career as an award-winning producer in theater, documentary films and television, Ms. LeFrak is now helping HIV-positive survivors of the genocide in Rwanda to create their own business, a jewelry line demonstrating indigenous craftsmanship. The sponsoring organization she has founded, Same Sky, provides a model which can be reproduced in other regions that have suffered from natural disasters, man-made catastrophes or chronic poverty.
Following Ms. LeFrak’s presentation, two recipients of the Nobel Prize shared their discoveries. Israeli-born Dr. Arieh Warshel, a member of the Academy’s Class of 2014, discussed his work, applying contemporary computer technology to the modeling of complex chemical reactions. Dr. David Wineland, also a 2014 honoree, discussed his application of quantum mechanics to information processing, a breakthrough that could lead to a new generation of super-powerful computers. The final speakers of the afternoon offered unique insights into current events. The Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, spoke authoritatively on the Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa. Veteran television journalist Chris Wallace, now the host of Fox News Sunday, has interviewed virtually every major political leader of our time, and addresses national and international issues every week on his morning discussion program. His overview of current events concluded with a lively question-and-answer session with his fellow Academy members.
Following the afternoon session, the Academy paid a visit to the Colgin Cellars, where they enjoyed a reception hosted by the winery’s owners, Academy members Ann Colgin and Joe Wender. The winery is located on Pritchard Hill, where Academy members enjoyed the breathtaking view of Lake Hennessey and the surrounding country.
For the last gathering of the 2014 Summit, Academy members enjoyed a farewell dinner at the Auberge, where they were once again serenaded by Academy delegates as well as by a longtime member of the Academy. Violinist Mariella Haubs charmed the audience with her rendition of the Presto in G Minor by J.S. Bach. The Duo Parnas — Academy delegates Cicely and Madalyn Parnas on cello and violin respectively — performed Johann Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Theme by Handel. Following these classical performances, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, took up his guitar and concluded the last evening of the Achievement Summit with a song addressing the urgency of the many issues discussed over the course of the Summit, “If Not Now, Tell Me When.”
From the first evening to the last, the Academy presented its guests with an extraordinary array of speakers and musical artists, representing the best of human accomplishment in every field of thought and endeavor. Once again the best minds of the rising generation met the most accomplished men and women of the present, to exchange insights and inspiration they will carry with them for all the years to come.
Two more distinguished honorees were inducted into the Academy of Achievement in 2014 at separate celebrations on both coasts. In a gala evening at the Academy of Achievement’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. on February 12, 2014, Academy member Dr. Francis Collins presented the Gold Medal of the Academy to Miss Carole King, the most successful and admired female songwriter in the history of pop music. Screen legend Sidney Poitier was presented with the Gold Medal by Academy member Oprah Winfrey at a ceremony in Beverly Hills, California on November 6, 2014.
Dear wonderful Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds!
When I was younger, I was of the strict opinion that the magnitude of one’s gratitude was directly proportional to the amount of glitter one put into the envelope of the thank you note. However, now that I have matured, I’ll try to restrict myself to words.
I’ve known that I’m a pretty lucky person for a while. Not the much-touted “hard work breeds luck” lucky, but actually just quite blessed. I first realized this when I started working in fast food. Several of my co-workers would do an eight-hour shift at one restaurant, eight hours at another, then go home to take care of their families, never expressing resentment or discontent. I quickly realized that in almost every way, they were far better humans than me — kind, selfless, and dedicated — yet I was presented with many opportunities that they never had.
This was a clear mandate to me to both become a better human and use the opportunities I had to give back, leading me into volunteering and developing medical devices. But that mandate is at an all-time high after the extreme honor I had in attending the International Achievement Summit.
From the first person I met, my view of the world started to change. I learned that my heroes who had seemed to transcend mortality were actually real people. And then I met the delegates who were making a mark on the world with passion and dedication. I, like many others, simply couldn’t see how I could belong in such an echelon of humanity. By the end of the weekend, I had a newfound belief in what one person could do to change the world, along with a strong resolve to make a mark of my own.
What I took away most, though, was the affirmation that kindness, decency, and genuine compassion were at the root of the lives that I so admired. Living in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to think that success is determined by funding and lucrative exits. But each powerful story I heard instead spoke of following passion and finding meaning in one’s work. It can be a daunting, almost toxic thing to be surrounded by great accomplishment, but hearing the stories behind each success turned potential insecurity and intimidation into inspiration. Not inspiration to chase “success,” but rather to pursue what I believe in, while embodying openness and compassion.
Adequate thanks may not be possible to express, but I think of the two of you each day when I reflect on what I’m grateful for, both on my behalf and for the many lives you’ve inspired with your kindness, generosity and open-mindedness.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,
Thank you both for this mind-blowing Summit! I’m writing to express my deepest gratitude for this invitation.
I keep remembering all the great delegates we met from across the world, and all the incredible honorees we met and heard speak to us directly. I still can’t believe we heard firsthand from so many Nobel laureates talking to us about their experiences and journeys, and from so many diplomats, generals, artists and producers! I loved that the universal message from most of them was that they failed for many years and faced many rejections before they finally broke through. This gives us hope, to know that we are on the right track of breaking the mold and breaking through barriers to build a new future.
Honestly, more than once during the sessions I felt like hugging myself tight and sobbing from being so overwhelmed by the greatness we were surrounded with! Your message kept ringing in my head: “Make sure you go around and get to know new people, even people who you disagree with. Widen your horizon.” I did, and I learned a lot from all those small talks, whether it was things that have to do with my startup, with business in general, with lifestyles or education, and so much more. The fact that all the honorees were so humble and reachable and open to our questions after the sessions was amazing.
Mrs. Reynolds kept introducing each of us to more and more people (being the amazing social butterfly that she is) and then before she continued on she’d say:
“I just want to make sure all you smart people know each other!”
That almost brought me to tears. I also really love the idea of the iPad, that we have all the delegates’ full profiles and their contact information so we can stay in touch, through that and through the Facebook group you’ve created. What an amazing network to stay in touch with!
And oh my God! Diana Ross? Come on! I keep bragging about it every two minutes to my family and friends.
The entire Summit was definitely one of the top experiences of my life, one that I will always remember.
Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds, so much for organizing this life-changing and soul-touching experience. No words are enough to express my gratitude. I hope we stay in touch, and I would love to be involved in any way in future events. If you host a Summit in the UAE, I’d be honored to moderate sessions and help out in any way possible.
Thank you… for everything!
Iman Ben Chaibah
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,
Since returning to Pittsburgh, I have been thinking of exactly how to convey my gratitude for the opportunity to attend the International Achievement Summit. I am still absorbing the many lessons of perseverance, bravery and creativity that were offered during the Summit by so many illustrious honorees. For me, the Summit was a call to think and act boldly, and to be less fearful of failure. From the Nobel laureates who pursued their scientific investigations despite repeated rejections of their grants, to the steadfast courage of General David Petraeus and Admiral William McRaven, I was inspired every time a speaker came to the podium.
It was equally stimulating to meet the other delegates and learn about the ways in which they are improving healthcare, education, governance and technology so early in their careers. These influences were very well timed, as the Monday following the Summit I submitted my residency application, and am now pondering the future of my medical career. My mind has been full of questions since my return. How can I offer “simple means of support” that have the potential to make great changes for those around me, as Admiral McRaven suggested? How can I help to advance medical care through exacting research? And how will I “love the little grey bushes,” as Athol Fugard urged us all to do? My world has expanded exponentially in the space of a few days.
Thank you for thinking and acting boldly to build countless bridges between individuals who might otherwise never cross paths. Thank you for the reminder that the world is rich with ideas, inventions, and actions meant to improve life upon it. Attending the Summit was an honor that I will now spend decades trying to live up to.
P.S. Thank you also for the great pleasure of dining with Dr. Ignazio Marino. Learning about the transplant medicine he pioneered at Pitt was fascinating and inspiring.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,
I wanted to write and thank you for my life-changing experience at the Academy of Achievement. I could never have anticipated the incredible impact of the event on my outlook, motivation and passion.
In the months leading to the Academy of Achievement International Summit, events in my personal life and career had decreased my confidence. My goals in women’s health and community development seemed increasingly unfeasible. I was searching for reassurance and affirmation that my passion was not naïve and my hard work not in vain.
At the Summit, speaking with my incredible peers and the inspiring honorees reignited my passion and commitment.
At dinner the first evening I sat with Bina Valsangkar, who shares my interest in maternal and children’s health and using health as a means for socio-economic empowerment. Hearing her story about moving to India and risking her career to serve others moved me. The next day, Dr. Robert Langer described several job and patent rejections, and Dr. Frances Arnold told the story of a non-traditional path to become the second female engineer to apply to Princeton. Their talks reminded me of the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.
At lunch, I spoke with Mimi Haas about working with underserved communities in San Francisco. She and I both believe supporting women and mothers from before birth and throughout an infant’s life is critical for reversing the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Our mutual passion has led to a growing association. We are planning on meeting in the coming weeks to discuss potential areas of collaboration.
These stories only begin to capture the impact of the Summit on me. I will cherish memories of dancing near Diana Ross (one of my favorite female artists of all time!), talking about pubs in Cambridge with Dr. James Watson, and asking Dr. Guth about the beginning of the universe, among others. All of this would not have been possible without your hard work.
I deeply appreciate the time and effort it must have taken to bring together such a tremendous group of people. All of the details of the weekend were perfect. From the moment I arrived at the Four Seasons, I was in awe, not only of the seamless organization of events, but also of the kindness of the Summit staff. I felt completely welcomed and taken care of.
I am still processing all of the incredible moments at the Summit. I am so grateful to both of you for reigniting my passion and belief in the power of the individual. Thank you for an unforgettable weekend. Your work truly changes the lives of the delegates and honorees.
Jessica (Jecca) Steinberg
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,
I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for this past weekend. It was beyond inspiring. In fact, I am still adjusting back to my reality. I meant to send you this email as soon as I got back!
There are so many incredible things that happened that I will never forget. First and foremost, I got to meet George Lucas! As a former USC film student, there is nothing more unbelievable than that fact alone.
On top of that, to feel so consistently humbled by the work the fellow student delegates were doing — it was a truly welcome and necessary experience for me to be reminded of how everyone, no matter what their field, aspires towards that common goal of making the world a better place.
Perhaps no moment summarizes this more clearly than seeing Diana Ross perform, scanning my eyes to the left, and seeing James Watson, starry-eyed and mouth agape, like a teenage kid at a One Direction concert. After a weekend of feeling so diminutive about the work I do in the face of such scientific and global achievement, it was a much-needed lesson on how a transcendent moment of entertainment can inspire those high-achieving minds. How, perhaps, that great mind that discovered the secret to life may not have done so were life not so worth living sometimes.
Mr. Watson’s face on that evening’s closing festivities will forever be etched in my mind as I continue to make movies that also seek to give, in their own small but earnest way.
With deep and abiding gratitude,
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,
I have to start off by apologizing for taking almost a month to write. I felt like I needed a little bit of space between the Summit and reality to let the shock value wear off enough that I could attempt to express how impactful the entire experience was for me. I should also admit that since I have lived in Africa for most of the past decade, I usually get my news from print rather than TV. I found myself in a constant state of surprise — after talking to others at dinner, a reception, or a coffee break — when their name badges flipped around, immediately giving context to the passion they brought to our conversation. I had a very surreal moment working out in the gym on the ground floor and looking next to me to realize that I was running with General Petraeus. That was the longest I have ever managed to stay on a treadmill!
In addition to the multitude of inspiring chats I had with people who can only be described as legends, I also made some incredible contacts amongst the delegates and sponsors. Just to give two highlights: I am in the process of hiring a couple of delegate-recommended, Harvard-educated Tanzanian engineers who want to return to their country. I am also going to meet with Francine LeFrak in Rwanda, as my company is launching there in the middle of 2015, and she has graciously offered to share her government relationships. The list goes on…
I am now sitting on a plane on my way from Tanzania to Brazil to attend TEDGlobal in Rio. In preparation for my talk, and in my leadership of my team over the past month,
I find myself fixated on Admiral McRaven’s talk on the little things that count, Athol Fugard’s emphasis on humility, and Joi Ito’s focus on the white space between the black dots.
Off.Grid:Electric is growing its customer base 10 percent month-on-month, and we are doubling our staff count every six months; we have hired 30 new people since the Summit! Additionally, we have just closed a $16 million equity round to accelerate our drive to light Africa within this decade.
With all this growth, it is easy to tell yourself that you’re too busy to spend time with your field staff. The messages from these legends reminded me to prioritize moments with all members of my team, and always to make time to spend in the homes of our customers. It is the small things that count. It is undeniable that my leadership approach was renewed and improved over the few short days of the Summit, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Thank you, your family, and your team for creating such a unique and magical space to absorb greatness and to be inspired.