Ten things to do when your car breaks down in Liberia

Thunderbird Interim President Barbara BarrettThunderbird’s Liberia TEM Lab team provided inspiration for Interim Thunderbird President Barbara Barrett, who spoke Aug. 17, 2012, at the summer commencement. Following is the full text of her speech:

Thunderbird graduates, it is nice to see you all together in one place at the same time … sitting down. That is rare for Thunderbird students. Usually you are off exploring the world, learning new things, meeting new people. You never sit still for long. Consider the example of our Liberia TEM Lab team, which returned this week from a five-week consulting project. Barely one hour into a three-hour drive on July 21, their Toyota 4Runner broke down, leaving them stranded for hours on a rural Liberian road. How did they spend their time while waiting for the mechanic? Like typical T-birds, they did not sit still for long.

Their blog details their various activities. They call the list: “10 things to do when your car breaks down in Liberia.” Each item contains a lesson for each of us as we prepare for our next adventure. We don’t have to be stuck on the side of the road to learn from the experience. Here is the list:

1. Visit the nearby village

The lesson is to never stop exploring. There is always another village to visit. Remember the example of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first confirmed mountaineer to scale Mount Everest. He said: “While standing on top of Everest, I looked across the valley, towards the other great peak, Makalu ˈmə-kə-loo and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed.”

2. Visit the village school

The lesson here is to invest in the rising generation. Take time to inspire or encourage a child. We show gratitude to those who came before us — who helped us along our way — when we give time to help others who come behind us on the same path.

During the Thunderbird European Reunion in Berlin, I met Thunderbird alumnus Fred Koppl from the class of 1952. Fred celebrated his 90th birthday during the reunion, but he still remembers vividly the mentoring he received as a student from legendary Thunderbird President Bill Schurz.

Fred recalls: “Professor Schurz cared deeply about the Thunderbird family. He knew every student on campus and got involved in their lives. For many of us, he became a father figure.”

3. Read a book

In other words, seek knowledge. As Thunderbird graduates, you belong to a community of lifelong learners. Never be satisfied with what you know. It is not enough. Never become too busy to open a book, take a class, or take a risk.

Remember the words of former South African President Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

4. Get rained on

Sometimes things don’t go your way. Your car breaks down, and then it rains on you. American financier Bernard M. Baruch keeps things in perspective. He said: “You can overcome anything if you don’t bellyache.”

5. Watch our car, which is parked off the road, get crashed into by a speeding car

See item 4 above. Sometimes things don’t go your way. (In case you’re wondering, no one was hurt in the collision. Our students report that the damages were minimal, considering the noise of the impact.)

6. Bet on what time the mechanic would finally arrive

The lesson here is to be flexible. Sometimes you have to wait for others. T-birds learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. BP CEO Bob Dudley, a 1979 Thunderbird graduate, understands this better than most. He says: “The world needs people who can function with lots of ambiguity and patience.”

7. Compare and contrast different type of governments

T-birds love to discuss politics and other ideas. They think about issues from all sides, and they listen respectfully. Often they agree to disagree. This was an eye-opener for Saad Abdul-Latif when he arrived at Thunderbird in 1980. Mr. Abdul-Latif, the CEO of PepsiCo’s Asia, Middle East and Africa Division, grew up in Palestine and then lived in Lebanon and Kuwait. Most people he encountered were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Then he came to Thunderbird and found a greater diversity of ideas. He says his MBA experience became a cornerstone that shaped his outlook on life. He says: “People could have different opinions, and they still could love you.”

8. Eat lots of plantain chips

Perhaps the lesson is to embrace the local culture. Eat lots of plantain chips while in Liberia, ceviche while in Peru, feijoada while in Brazil, and sushi while in Japan. Amol Khade, a 2008 Thunderbird graduate, opened an Indian food restaurant with a Thunderbird classmate in Tempe, Arizona. He said: “Your first contact with culture is not through the language or through business. It’s usually through food.”

9. Take a nap

Even T-birds need to sleep sometimes.

10. Make new friends

Photos from Liberia show our TEM Lab students surrounded by smiling children, some carrying younger siblings on their backs. By the time the mechanic arrived, our students had made dozens of new friends. In the end, global leadership is about people, and you understand that.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished.

Video: Thunderbird School of Global Management’s Summer 2012 Commencement (1:18:47)

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Slideshow: View hundreds of summer 2012 graduation photos on Flickr

Daryl James

Daryl James

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