By: Diane Stirling
A graduate of the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) came back to campus today with lessons for the graduating class of 2013 taken from his own fairly zig-zagged path in life.
Bence Oliver, who received his bachelor’s degree in Information Management and Technology in 1995, and who most recently has served as eBay’s director of strategic sourcing, told the iSchool Convocation audience that, from where the graduates sit now, living lives “according to boundaries set by ordinary people” would prove to be “a terrible waste.”
With apologies to the parents in the audience, he advised the graduates to “resist the temptation to get a job” where they might end up “wasting the vast majority of your life doing something you hate, so you can spend the remaining sliver of your life doing what you want in modest comfort. If you aspire to simply work, your soul is being chipped away, till there’s nothing left.” Instead, Oliver suggested that since they each had graduated with an information degree, that talent reflects how “each of you has something special that positions you above the rest. Whatever makes you special, bring it on. Show the world what makes you special, and suddenly, what was once known as work becomes your purpose.”
Eighteen years ago, Oliver said, he was seated at his own iSchool graduation, having the somewhat traditional expectations about starting a job, working some 40 hours a week, prospering at a career, and perhaps falling in love and starting a family. However, today’s graduates face a vastly different world, he said. “We are not living in our parents’ times. The world isn’t orderly. What you should prepare for is a mess. Life is a mess; you are not entitled to expect any of it. Life is not fair, everything just happens. Good and bad happens to you day by day, hour by hour. That degree you just earned is a poor armor against fate. But that means you can choose whatever you want to do – you’re free.”
He encouraged the iSchool graduates to consider a path of entrepreneurship, of doing what he called “one of the greatest things in life…to create something and present it to the world.” He said that right now “is the best time in history to pursue an idea or become an entrepreneur,” suggesting that the graduates develop their ideas without concern for how the world will respond. “Don’t worry if everyone does not agree with you. It is far too easy to be liked – one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions to be liked, and that cannot be your role,” he advised. Instead, “because you took the risk, and you put yourself out there, that’s entrepreneurship, that’s being alive, and if you do that, you get to fly for awhile.”
“I say, keep pushing the envelope, and you will find an extraordinary life. You and I are meant to live spectacular lives, that’s why we’re here. But we need to do our part. Be the architect of your future rather than be bound by your past.”
Oliver also paid a tribute to the group of faculty and staff members that he termed his “personal support system” while he was at the iSchool, including Barbara Settel, David Lankes, Murali Venkatesh and David Smith. They “kept me focused,” he said in understatement, and noted how each had taught him lessons he had been able to apply in his career.
That professional path after the iSchool has included work at Accenture and Intel for a time. Later, Oliver followed his inspiration to find a way for large corporations to benefit financially while helping the environment. He went on to eBay, where, on sabbatical, he explored the possibilities of helping the environment while managing a successful business. That included devoting his efforts to the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). As a non-profit organization working to promote, develop and facilitate rural solar electrification in developing countries, Oliver’s work helped create a solar-powered irrigation system for families in a village in Benin, Africa, to grow and sell their own food. When he returned from that initiative, he joined eBay’s Green team, promoting green practices within the company, and also founded eBay’s Sustainability and Renewable Energy Organization.
Oliver’s convocation address was the second time he’d been back in the years since his own iSchool graduation, he said. The first was three years ago, when he came to speak on a panel about entrepreneurial careers. He chuckled remembering students’ reactions to his comments then. “You talk about entrepreneurship and pursuing your passion, and the room is split. Half of it looks at you with a sense of relief on their faces, because you’re confirming to them that they’re doing the right thing. The other half looks at you in amazement, like, ‘Really? I could go out there and do that?’”
Since his earlier years here, the iSchool has embraced entrepreneurship significantly, Oliver said. “This School has taken a great turn and its focus toward entrepreneurship is exactly where you should be. I really compliment Dean Liddy and the rest of the faculty for embracing that.”