28 May 2021

Harvard Business School Celebrates Class of 2021 Class Day and Graduation


BOSTON—Yesterday Harvard Business School (HBS) recognized and honored the Class of 2021 with online livestreamed Class Day celebrations and graduation ceremonies. Thousands of graduating students and their loved ones tuned in from around the globe—from India, Nigeria, the UK, China, Mexico, and more, with the largest concentration in our very own Harvard backyards of Cambridge and Boston.

The livestream featured Class Day speakers, Harvard University’s Degree Conferral Ceremony, and Dean Srikant Datar’s graduation address. After Dean Datar’s address, 787 graduates and their families and guests joined separate livestreams for their diploma ceremonies.

The morning’s student-led Class Day Celebration, hosted by the Class of 2021 Student Association (SA) Class Day Committee Co-chairs Abby Burcham and Ryan Flamerich, featured speeches by MBA SA Class Presidents Caleb Bradford and Annie Plachta; 2021 Class Day Student Speaker Sara McLoughlin Figel; and Distinguished Speaker Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart; and honored five Faculty Teaching Awards recipients.

SA co-presidents Plachta and Bradford spoke of the uncertainty and turmoil of this past year and finding community within it, reflected on the challenges and rewards of leadership, and offered their classmates final words of wisdom. “Over the last year, we have experienced a world on fire,” said Plachta. “I have seen acts that were meant to hurt, to undermine, to exclude, to seek credit where none is due. But I have also seen true leadership through thousands of little decisions from members of this class, and I ask that you continue to be leaders in ways that inspire the rest of us.”

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Reflecting on a year that brought challenges and joy, Bradford noted the collaboration between faculty, staff, and students that allowed the building of virtual and hybrid classrooms, and expressed gratitude for the custodial and food service staff who ensured safe spaces and food for the community. Bradford also commended the achievements of the Student Association team in fostering community and advancing the level of diversity and inclusion at HBS while coping with a pandemic and racial unrest.

“For us social distancing did not mean emotional distancing. We generated laughter and fun through the HBS Show and HBS Got Talent, we celebrated moments of pure joy as quarantine babies were born, plants sprouted, sourdough bread baked,” said Bradford.

“Together we discovered that uncertainty demands that we know more, that we care more, that we do more. Our character and our commitment are reflected in these times. I have seen you summon the courage to be allies and accomplices for our minority communities as the struggle for equality and justice continues, I have seen you launch new businesses and ventures to help combat COVID-19, I have seen you manage school and work and health during a pandemic, all the while constantly being there to support one another.”

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Class Day student speaker Sara ‘Figes’ Figel spoke of the value of inspiration—it’s ability to be humanizing, activating, and formative—and called upon her fellow students to remain as dedicated to living a life of inspiration as they do to a life of learning.

“We tend to think of inspiration as something that happens to us. But what if we took it upon ourselves to create within us the necessary conditions for inspiration to take root. What if we loosened the white-knuckled clenched fists that keep us in control and allowed ourselves to be moved. In an age of Instagram, what if we dared to be more than influenced. What if we were inspired? Deeply, viscerally, inexorably, inspired,” said Figel. “After today, a million more choices will take us on miraculously divergent paths. I can’t wait to watch you thrive. But today, let’s make one last choice together. Let’s choose to be integrators of inspiration. Let’s go out there and make something happen.”

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Class Day ceremonies concluded with remarks from Distinguished Speaker Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart. From his home in Arkansas, McMillan shared recollections from his childhood in a small town and his first job at a Walmart distribution center at age 17. Loading and unloading trailers and picking orders from the warehouse floor was hard work, said McMillon, but he and his coworkers were happy.

“We stayed busy, but there was a lot of laughter. On breaks and in those trailers, people expressed their excitement about Walmart. The culture and tenure of people in those buildings surprised me. The way they talked about Sam Walton surprised me. From him to the people working in those hot trailers, strangely, it felt like team. What I found is, culture matters, and leaders shape culture with everything they do and say.”

Over the past year, McMillon said he has found inspiration in the courage, caring, and positive attitudes that he has seen throughout the country. Alongside the inspiration, he acknowledged the challenges—pain, loss, and the reality of racial inequity. “The murder of George Floyd and many others, the attack on our Capitol, attacks on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and state legislation that attempts to further divide us are all just some of what we face. We have some deep systemic problems. Trust in our systems and institutions is deteriorating, and the effects are becoming more pronounced,” said McMillon.

McMillon then discussed the current ambiguity towards capitalism, and the duty to use it as a positive force. He pointed to the path that Walmart has chosen—investing in long term goals, learning from critics, investing in communities and the planet, and being transparent about and committed to racial equity. “I'm not saying we're perfect. Of course, we're not. But we're motivated and encouraged that we can put the size of Walmart to work to make a difference. Our hope is that we can play a role in bringing people together. We aspire to be part of the fabric that strengthens communities and the countries where we operate,” he said.

McMillon concluded his speech by recalling the loss of his father in November of 2020, and the three things his father spoke of as he declined: his faith, his love for his family, and helping people through his career in dentistry. “I thought a lot about the fact that he talked about his career as one of the most important things in his life. There's dignity in work,” he said.

“Life here is short. When you're wrapping it up, what do you want to have accomplished? What will be on your short list? I hope you'll help others. Let's make things better. Let's build more inclusive systems and institutions that create opportunity, that inspire trust, and give people cause to be hopeful. You should be full of hope. You will make this world a better place,” concluded McMillon.

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Class Day Committee Co-chairs Abby Burcham and Ryan Flamerich concluded Class Day celebrations with the announcement of the Faculty Teaching Awards, in recognition of first- and second-year professors who have “most impacted the class of 2020’s student experience”: Malcolm Baker, Tony Mayo, Kristin Mugford, Tom Nicholas, and Sophus Reinert.

After an all-University virtual celebration featuring remarks by Harvard University President Larry Bacow and student speakers and a special address by Ruth Simmons (Ph.D. 1973), 787 HBS students received their MBA degrees in 10 separate Zoom breakout rooms. The top five percent of the MBA Class of 2021 (40 students) graduated with high distinction as Baker Scholars (named after the School's initial benefactor, George Fisher Baker); 62 earned their diplomas with distinction; 159 earned second-year honors; one MBA degree was awarded this past November, and one in March.

In addition, two students in the Doctoral Programs were awarded doctorates in business administration (DBA); 14 earned PhD degrees offered jointly with the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the fields of business administration, business economics, health policy, and organizational behavior. In November 2020, two students received their PhDs in business economics, one student received a PhD in organizational behavior and one student received a DBA. In March 2021 one student earned a PhD in organizational behavior, also jointly with the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

In his Commencement remarks today—his first as dean—Dean Srikant Datar began by conferring Alumni Achievement Awards, one of the school’s most important honors, on six distinguished graduates. Dean Datar then acknowledged Neela and Ram Atluri, the parents of Anisha Atluri, who died in January 2020. Datar presented a certificate to commemorate Alturi’s role in the Class of 2021 community, and honored her memory with a moment of silence. Datar also noted the loss of Tiago Flórido, a doctoral student in the Business Economics program who passed away in 2019. Flórido’s master’s in economics, which he received posthumously, was honored in the Doctoral Programs ceremony.

Datar recognized the special role that the Class of 2021 holds for him as the first to graduate during his time as dean, and praised them for their imagination, inclusivity, and innovation during a challenging time. “Let me repeat these three words—imagination, inclusivity, and innovation—with a tip of the hat to my predecessor, Nitin Nohria, and his love for alliteration and all words that begin with the letter i. While I am the one standing before you today, know that Nitin is here and standing with you, too—proud of what you accomplished, and eager to see what you will do,” said Datar.

“If you lead with imagination, inclusivity, and innovation, I am certain you will experience a career filled with purpose and meaning, achieving things that you never thought possible, with people who did things you never imagined, in ways that you had not anticipated. And when that happens, I am equally confident that you will look back to your time here and appreciate all the things you gained—resilience, adaptability, and an ability to accept challenges—while looking forward to the future with optimism, hope, and creativity.”

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Mark Cautela

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.