From Career Ladder to Jungle Gym: Reid Hoffman's Commencement Address at Babson College

5/25/12Follow @wroush

Seniors graduating last weekend from Babson College, the entrepreneurship-focused campus just outside Boston, were treated to a commencement speech from someone who’s got to be one of their biggest heroes: Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder, executive chairman, and former CEO of LinkedIn. (He’s also an author, a venture investor with Greylock Partners, a member of numerous corporate and advisory boards, and a frequent man about Boston.)

In keeping with the mission of LinkedIn and the theme of his recent book, The Startup of You, Hoffman argued in his address that old ideas about stepwise career progress are dead, and that all workers today need to think more like entrepreneurs. “Whereas we used to have a career ladder, now we have a career jungle gym,” Hoffman said. “You need to climb sideways and sometimes down; sometimes you need to swing and jump from one set of bars to the next. And, to extend the metaphor, sometimes you need to spring from the jungle gym and establish your own turf somewhere else on the playground.”

The speech gave an interesting glimpse into Hoffman’s mind—and into the mindset recent college graduates will need to adopt if they hope to start new businesses or dive into the startup scene around Boston, the Bay Area, and other innovation hubs. We asked Babson College for permission to reproduce the address in full. Here it is. (For a video of the speech, scroll to the end of the text.)

* * *

I recently co-authored a book called The Startup of You. I know that you all know this, because in honor and respect of your achievement of graduating today, I have gifted a copy to each of you. In it, I began with a quote from Mohammed Yunus. I will begin today with the same quotation:

“All Humans were born entrepreneurs. In the caves, we were all self-employed. Finding food, feeding ourselves. That is how human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became “labor” because they stamped us “You are labor.” ”

I begin with this quotation because entrepreneurs are important. Here in the U.S., we have always known this because we have an entrepreneurial nation.

We have founding “fathers” of the nation; in parallel, entrepreneurs are founders of companies.

The vast majority of people in the U.S. are descendants of immigrants who took a huge gamble to cross an ocean and come to a new land; in parallel, many entrepreneurial companies emerge from immigrant founders and immigrant talent who come here to build these companies.

The American dream is the ability to make your own destiny, through hard work, perseverance, and some combination of intelligence and luck. In parallel, new entrepreneurial companies succeed on the same basis.

Generally, many people think of entrepreneurs as the (relatively few) individuals who take their own isolated path initially away from society. Few entrepreneurs succeed, but when they do they create products, companies, and jobs for many others. These products, companies, and jobs are part of the ongoing health of a society.

And this is really important; just consider the current unemployment rates. We wish that we had more entrepreneurs creating more businesses.

However, in the modern world, entrepreneurship is even more important than the creation of companies and jobs.

Entrepreneurial talents, skills, and mindsets now apply to all jobs and professions. This is new, brought about by the accelerating change in the world from globalization and technology.

In the last decades, there was a notion of pursuing a career ladder.

You would graduate from a good college – like you are today – and you would select from a set of employers who want you to join the first rung of a career ladder. You might have some choices around industry – finance, transport, technology – or function – sales, marketing, finance, product development – but fundamentally you would seek and choose a path.

In choosing a path, you would then work at one or more companies, and work your way up the steps of a career ladder or (if fortunate) a career escalator. Inevitably, with some hard work and a little luck, you would … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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