Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • There we were,

  • souls and bodies packed into a Texas church

  • on the last night of our lives.

  • Packed into a room just like this,

  • but with creaky wooden pews draped in worn-down red fabric,

  • with an organ to my left and a choir at my back

  • and a baptism pool built into the wall behind them.

  • A room like this, nonetheless.

  • With the same great feelings of suspense,

  • the same deep hopes for salvation,

  • the same sweat in the palms

  • and the same people in the back not paying attention.

  • (Laughter)

  • This was December 31, 1999,

  • the night of the Second Coming of Christ,

  • and the end of the world as I knew it.

  • I had turned 12 that year

  • and had reached the age of accountability.

  • And once I stopped complaining

  • about how unfair it was that Jesus would return

  • as soon as I had to be accountable for all that I had done,

  • I figured I had better get my house in order very quickly.

  • So I went to church as often as I could.

  • I listened for silence as anxiously as one might listen for noise,

  • trying to be sure that the Lord hadn't pulled a fast one on me

  • and decided to come back early.

  • And just in case he did,

  • I built a backup plan,

  • by reading the "Left Behind" books that were all the rage at the time.

  • And I found in their pages

  • that if I was not taken in the rapture at midnight,

  • I had another shot.

  • All I had to do was avoid taking the mark of the beast,

  • fight off demons, plagues and the Antichrist himself.

  • It would be hard --

  • (Laughter)

  • but I knew I could do it.

  • (Laughter)

  • But planning time was over now.

  • It was 11:50pm.

  • We had 10 minutes left,

  • and my pastor called us out of the pews and down to the altar

  • because he wanted to be praying when midnight struck.

  • So every faction of the congregation

  • took its place.

  • The choir stayed in the choir stand,

  • the deacons and their wives --

  • or the Baptist Bourgeoisie as I like to call them --

  • (Laughter)

  • took first position in front of the altar.

  • You see, in America,

  • even the Second Coming of Christ has a VIP section.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • And right behind the Baptist Bourgeoisie

  • were the elderly --

  • these men and women whose young backs had been bent under hot suns

  • in the cotton fields of East Texas,

  • and whose skin seemed to be burnt a creaseless noble brown,

  • just like the clay of East Texas,

  • and whose hopes and dreams for what life might become

  • outside of East Texas

  • had sometimes been bent and broken

  • even further than their backs.

  • Yes, these men and women were the stars of the show for me.

  • They had waited their whole lives for this moment,

  • just as their medieval predecessors had longed for the end of the world,

  • and just as my grandmother waited for the Oprah Winfrey Show

  • to come on Channel 8 every day at 4 o'clock.

  • And as she made her way to the altar,

  • I snuck right in behind her,

  • because I knew for sure

  • that my grandmother was going to heaven.

  • And I thought that if I held on to her hand during this prayer,

  • I might go right on with her.

  • So I held on

  • and I closed my eyes

  • to listen,

  • to wait.

  • And the prayers got louder.

  • And the shouts of response to the call of the prayer

  • went up higher even still.

  • And the organ rolled on in to add the dirge.

  • And the heat came on to add to the sweat.

  • And my hand gripped firmer,

  • so I wouldn't be the one left in the field.

  • My eyes clenched tighter

  • so I wouldn't see the wheat being separated from the chaff.

  • And then a voice rang out above us:

  • "Amen."

  • It was over.

  • I looked at the clock.

  • It was after midnight.

  • I looked at the elder believers

  • whose savior had not come,

  • who were too proud to show any signs of disappointment,

  • who had believed too much and for too long

  • to start doubting now.

  • But I was upset on their behalf.

  • They had been duped,

  • hoodwinked, bamboozled,

  • and I had gone right along with them.

  • I had prayed their prayers,

  • I had yielded not to temptation as best I could.

  • I had dipped my head not once, but twice

  • in that snot-inducing baptism pool.

  • I had believed.

  • Now what?

  • I got home just in time to turn on the television

  • and watch Peter Jennings announce the new millennium

  • as it rolled in around the world.

  • It struck me that it would have been strange anyway,

  • for Jesus to come back again and again

  • based on the different time zones.

  • (Laughter)

  • And this made me feel even more ridiculous --

  • hurt, really.

  • But there on that night, I did not stop believing.

  • I just believed a new thing:

  • that it was possible not to believe.

  • It was possible the answers I had were wrong,

  • that the questions themselves were wrong.

  • And now, where there was once a mountain of certitude,

  • there was, running right down to its foundation,

  • a spring of doubt,

  • a spring that promised rivers.

  • I can trace the whole drama of my life

  • back to that night in that church

  • when my savior did not come for me;

  • when the thing I believed most certainly

  • turned out to be, if not a lie,

  • then not quite the truth.

  • And even though most of you prepared for Y2K in a very different way,

  • I'm convinced that you are here

  • because some part of you has done the same thing that I have done

  • since the dawn of this new century,

  • since my mother left and my father stayed away

  • and my Lord refused to come.

  • And I held out my hand,

  • reaching for something to believe in.

  • I held on when I arrived at Yale at 18,

  • with the faith that my journey from Oak Cliff, Texas

  • was a chance to leave behind all the challenges I had known,

  • the broken dreams and broken bodies I had seen.

  • But when I found myself back home one winter break,

  • with my face planted in the floor,

  • my hands tied behind my back

  • and a burglar's gun pressed to my head,

  • I knew that even the best education couldn't save me.

  • I held on when I showed up at Lehman Brothers

  • as an intern in 2008.

  • (Laughter)

  • So hopeful --

  • (Laughter)

  • that I called home to inform my family

  • that we'd never be poor again.

  • (Laughter)

  • But as I witnessed this temple of finance

  • come crashing down before my eyes,

  • I knew that even the best job couldn't save me.

  • I held on when I showed up in Washington DC as a young staffer,

  • who had heard a voice call out from Illinois,

  • saying, "It's been a long time coming,

  • but in this election, change has come to America."

  • But as the Congress ground to a halt

  • and the country ripped at the seams

  • and hope and change began to feel like a cruel joke,

  • I knew that even the political second coming

  • could not save me.

  • I had knelt faithfully at the altar of the American Dream,

  • praying to the gods of my time

  • of success,

  • and money,

  • and power.

  • But over and over again,

  • midnight struck, and I opened my eyes

  • to see that all of these gods were dead.

  • And from that graveyard,

  • I began the search once more,

  • not because I was brave,

  • but because I knew that I would either believe

  • or I would die.

  • So I took a pilgrimage to yet another mecca,

  • Harvard Business School --

  • (Laughter)

  • this time, knowing that I could not simply accept the salvation

  • that it claimed to offer.

  • No, I knew there'd be more work to do.

  • The work began in the dark corner of a crowded party,

  • in the late night of an early, miserable Cambridge winter,

  • when three friends and I asked a question

  • that young folks searching for something real have asked

  • for a very long time:

  • "What if we took a road trip?"

  • (Laughter)

  • We didn't know where'd we go or how we'd get there,

  • but we knew we had to do it.

  • Because all our lives we yearned, as Jack Kerouac wrote,

  • to "sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere,"

  • and go find out what everybody was doing

  • all over the country.

  • So even though there were other voices who said

  • that the risk was too great and the proof too thin,

  • we went on anyhow.

  • We went on 8,000 miles across America in the summer of 2013,

  • through the cow pastures of Montana, through the desolation of Detroit,

  • through the swamps of New Orleans,

  • where we found and worked with men and women

  • who were building small businesses

  • that made purpose their bottom line.

  • And having been trained at the West Point of capitalism,

  • this struck us as a revolutionary idea.

  • (Laughter)

  • And this idea spread,

  • growing into a nonprofit called MBAs Across America,

  • a movement that landed me here on this stage today.

  • It spread because we found a great hunger in our generation

  • for purpose, for meaning.

  • It spread because we found countless entrepreneurs

  • in the nooks and crannies of America

  • who were creating jobs and changing lives

  • and who needed a little help.

  • But if I'm being honest, it also spread

  • because I fought to spread it.

  • There was no length to which I would not go

  • to preach this gospel,

  • to get more people to believe

  • that we could bind the wounds of a broken country,

  • one social business at a time.

  • But it was this journey of evangelism

  • that led me to the rather different gospel

  • that I've come to share with you today.

  • It began one evening almost a year ago

  • at the Museum of Natural History in New York City,

  • at a gala for alumni of Harvard Business School.

  • Under a full-size replica of a whale,

  • I sat with the titans of our time

  • as they celebrated their peers and their good deeds.

  • There was pride in a room

  • where net worth and assets under management

  • surpassed half a trillion dollars.

  • We looked over all that we had made,

  • and it was good.

  • (Laughter)

  • But it just so happened,

  • two days later,

  • I had to travel up the road to Harlem,

  • where I found myself sitting in an urban farm

  • that had once been a vacant lot,

  • listening to a man named Tony tell me of the kids

  • that showed up there every day.

  • All of them lived below the poverty line.

  • Many of them carried all of their belongings in a backpack

  • to avoid losing them in a homeless shelter.

  • Some of them came to Tony's program,

  • called Harlem Grown,

  • to get the only meal they had each day.

  • Tony told me that he started Harlem Grown with money from his pension,

  • after 20 years as a cab driver.