Good afternoon, Class of 2021 and family, friends, and guests. Congratulations on this next step in your academic journey, and on your commitment to developing yourself and continuous learning.
In the brief time I have before you today, I plan to make three points that I hope will spur you to action as you embark on this next phase of your professional lives. After each point, I’m going to ask you if you accept the challenge. And if you do, I want you to respond with two words: “Challenge accepted.”
Let’s practice. I challenge you to respond, “Challenge accepted” when I pose four challenges to you. Do you accept that challenge?
One more time! Do you accept that challenge?
Tough crowd --you’ll have a few more chances to get it right.
I stand here before you today as a proud graduate of Georgia Tech. But at the same time, I never forget that I am also:
- One of the first few people of African descent to earn a doctorate from the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering.
- The first person of African descent to lead IARPA, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s advanced research organization.
- The first person of African descent to be the deputy director of one of the five largest U.S. intelligence agencies – some of which have been around for more than 60 years – although I am thankfully not the first woman to have served in either of those two roles.
- And the first person of African descent to be nominated to be the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, the #2 role in the U.S. Intelligence Community.
I’m not so naïve to think I arrived at this place alone, and certainly not so naïve to think I’m the only one qualified to make it. I am here thanks to hard work, a support network, and a commitment to something larger than myself, divine intervention, and maybe a little luck.
Today, I will make three main points, and challenge you to do four things that will have a significant impact on you and those around you.
Here is my first point: We in the United States find ourselves today in a Strategic Competition.
At its most basic, this means that our national security, prosperity, influence, and the values we profess are not guaranteed. Our democracy must be nurtured. And it must be informed.
What can you do? First, educate yourself on what’s really happening in the world by listening to experts. We all know there’s a lot of noise out there being freely broadcast by non-experts. When it comes to what’s really happening, especially in the realm of national security, each of us is responsible for wading through all the nonsense, and finding the perspectives of actual experts.
As a start, I highly recommend reviewing both the Interim National Security Strategy issued earlier this year by the White House, and the Annual Threat Assessment issued just last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. These documents offer great overviews of the threats facing America and the entire planet. And they offer insights into where your expertise might be valuable in addressing those threats.
Here’s your first challenge: Educate yourselves on what’s really happening in the world, especially in the landscape of national security. Do you accept the challenge?
Here is my second point: Never forget that everyone has a purpose in this world, and your interactions with others directly shape whether they’ll be able to achieve their purpose, and contribute their talent to the problems of this world.
I am the product of parents who taught me not to limit myself, nor what I thought I could accomplish. I am the product of teachers who had high expectations of me, notwithstanding the fact that I’m a woman, and a descendent of enslaved Africans. I am the product of bosses who gave me opportunities to learn, to fail, and to grow; and who encouraged me to take on new challenges, even before I thought I was ready for them. And finally, I am the product of peers who valued my technical and leadership skills, and most importantly, shared that feedback with me.
Some of the most talented people you will ever work with will be different than you in some way – perhaps in many ways. Don’t let your biases – and we all have biases – prevent anyone from bringing their full potential to whatever role they serve. The challenges we have to overcome in this world are too great to not allow everyone willing to contribute to be part of the solution.
All of your interactions matter. Educate yourself on how others experience the world. Treat others with respect. Treat others the way you want to be treated, and the way you would want your spouse, children, or friends to be treated. Being able to work effectively with and for others is a requirement for succeeding in today’s world.
In my 24-year educational journey – mostly focused on science, technology, engineering and math – and my 21-year professional journey, there were too many times where I could have been derailed along the way. Too many times where someone could have suggested I didn’t belong, or acted in such a way that it was clear my contributions weren’t welcome.
I’m a testament to the fact that how you encourage your children and other people’s children matters. That how you encourage your colleagues and the individuals whose care is entrusted to you – as their supervisor – matters.
Research shows that true diversity and inclusion leads to profitability and innovation. In the U.S. intelligence community, it leads to increasingly different and novel ways of solving problems, and improved national security.
As today’s newest graduates, you are tomorrow’s leaders. I hope that you do your best to ensure that everyone who wants to apply their talents to the many problems of this nation and the world has a seat at the table. Your encouragement might mean the difference between someone staying in school or dropping out, someone staying in the workforce or leaving for another company, someone developing a life-saving treatment, or never daring to even try. So be excellent in your tradecraft, whatever your profession, and ensure your actions demonstrate the belief that everyone has something to contribute – because they do.
Here’s challenge #2: Will you encourage others – including those different than you – so that they can reach their full potential? Do you accept that challenge?
Here’s my last point, and it’s certainly not the least: Give back to this country for the opportunities it has given you.
Whether you have plans to go into government service as a civilian, or a member of the armed forces – or stumble into it like I did, a few years after September 11, 2001 – a day that changed the world. Whether you join a company that contributes to national security in some way, or join academia, and leverage government funding to drive needed innovation. Do something to serve this country. I joined the intelligence community 18 years ago this week, and I’ve had an amazing journey.
Tens of thousands of professionals in the intelligence community wake up every morning, knowing that if we do our jobs right, we’re providing key decision-makers the information they need to navigate this complex world – even though our successes are rarely known, and our failures are widely criticized. That higher calling, that drive to make a difference, that desire to protect our nation’s fragile democracy – these are rewarded in public service in ways that are not possible elsewhere.
It’s also an exciting place to work, especially for a scientist and engineer like me, and it’s rewarding to be able serve the nation at the same time. Exactly where you serve is up to you – we’d love to have more Georgia Tech grads at my agency.
Here’s my challenge: Wherever and however you choose to serve, just find a way to do so. Do you accept that challenge?
Class of 2021, you have an amazing future ahead of you – one potentially full of more prosperity, security, and influence than ever before in our nation, if we work together. We certainly have obstacles ahead, but history has shown that we can overcome obstacles when we work together.
The challenges I issued today are foundational to overcoming any obstacles we face. Your opportunities have never been greater than they are right now.
Here’s my final challenge: Set your sights on doing great things. Do you accept that challenge?
I expected no less.
Congratulations, Class of 2021. This nation is counting on you. As a Georgia Tech grad, I have no doubt each of you will do great things.