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2018 Commencement Ceremony Marked by Calls for More Social Responsibility

HEC Paris Commencement ceremony enjoyed a bumper turnout on June 15-16. 1,700 graduates were joined over the two days by their family and friends, the academic body and several illustrious Alumni. All were gathered under the giant marquee where graduation day has been traditionally held for the last dozen years. The 2018 star Alumni, Jean-Dominique Senard (CEO of Michelin tire company) and Olivier Sevillia (CEO of Application Services for Continental Europe at Capgemini Procurement Services) sent off the graduates with rousing speeches centered on social responsibility, purposeful leadership and sustainability.

Commencement Day 2018 - Major Finance

They came from far and wide to share the tears of joy, whoops of success and flutter of flying caps proffered by their children on this unique day - a graduation which from instruction to education, has become part of HEC’s summer days. For the first time in her life, Zeinat Isselnane ventured out of her city of Tizi Ouzou, Algeria. She was draped in the traditional Berber thakankourt robe to see her oldest son Ali accept his Master diploma. MSc in International Finance (MIF) graduate Oskar Rotsa, meanwhile, toasted his success with his diplomat parents who flew in from his home town Helsinki, Finland. At the same time, fellow-student Onyinye Emuwa was starry-eyed as her family from Lagos, Nigeria, celebrated  the promise of a new job in the City, London, following her successful Master experience on the Jouy-en-Josas campus.

Just three amongst hundreds of stories that were fêted in and around the 2018 Commencement ceremony taking place under a cloud-free summer weekend. The optimism rippling through the 3,000 people gathered each day was largely stimulated by the quality of the speeches by student representatives, leaders from the HEC community and the two CEOs invited to share their respective vision.

A Form of Vertigo

Michelin chief executive Jean-Dominique Senard looked at the future in the form of the students gathered in front of the podium and admitted he felt “a form of vertigo.”The 1976 HEC Alumni continued: “Going back 42 years, I see myself in your shoes, alone in my HEC room in building A, trying awkwardly to build a 3D model for a machine linked to Fontainebleau . You, however, are born into a digital revolution which has turned the world upside down, giving birth to a new political, economic and social order,” he said before adding: “But some things never change “One is fundamental: be yourself. Never, never give up on your convictions.

The advice was mixed with a well-intentioned warning: “The search for purpose in our societies has never been such an imperative. Our structures are being destabilized, we are losing our bearings. So, your leadership is vital since companies are shouldering far more responsibility. Your behavior and management will be under heightened scrutiny. This is where purposeful leadership will cement your engagement. It is a great opportunity, but you must focus on customer demands and answer the social and human needs of your employees.”

Climbing the Right Professional Ladder

In a similar vein, Olivier Sevillia admonished the leaders of tomorrow to build on their own values and judgment. “As business leaders, you can set compelling visions that people adhere to. The key words are trust, risk-taking and respect. The power of true leadership lies in going beyond our professional lives, to a commitment towards the betterment of society.” Sevillia then turned to the technologically-savvy generation with hard advice: “AI and, soon quantum computing, will make cycles more intense and much faster than ever. So, my advice to you is act quickly, speed is of the essence. Done is better than perfect,” he concluded.

Then, the student representatives took to the podium to share strong moments of philosophy and compassion in their speeches. None more so, perhaps, than Sara Rezaee Vessal, the Ph.D. graduate in operation and supply chain management. Hers was a movingly personal description of the voyage she embarked on at HEC since 2012. “During these six years,” she told her fellow-graduates, “I hit rock bottom several times. Some of us started graduate school to keep climbing, as if we are on an endless ladder to reach heights we’ve never achieved before. For that reason, I urge you to make sure that you are on the ladder on which you truly WANT to be.” But the Iranian graduate cautioned about over-stretching oneself: “I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals,” she advised. “Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride, you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery.”

Following the Little Voices

That peripheral vision was fundamental in Pauline Laravoire’s evolution at the business school. “The first three years at HEC, I felt lost,” she admitted to her fellow-graduates. “And then, after a second gap year working for social enterprises around the world, I entered the Sustainability and Social Innovation (SASI) Major and said to myself: ‘I feel that I am where I’m supposed to be.’ It hadn’t made any sense before and suddenly it did. I had tricked the labyrinth and managed to come out of it.”

 Looking back,”  she pursued, “I think I did what you do in uncertain situations. You follow your intuitions, your interests and passions, and all these little voices from the HEC community and beyond, that tell you to take left instead of right, and then right instead of left. And that’s what HEC taught me, through concrete experiences, failures and detours.”

Frédéric Jousset told the graduates he knew all about the sacrifice and hard work they had put into succeeding at HEC. The newly-appointed president of the school’s Alumni network reassured them that they had gained a family that would never abandon them. “You have us for the rest of your life. Our Alumni are present in 138 countries.  So my advice to you is threefold: firstly, it’s all about energy. Keep a fit, healthy life to energize the others because you need them. Secondly, reach out to the others, you can’t succeed alone. And finally, explore outside of your comfort zone. Challenge your limits, that is the only way to grow,” he concluded to great applause.

This year’s ceremony enjoyed another first, the attribution of the Vernimmen Award for outstanding teaching contributions. The 2018 winners were HEC professors Gachoucha KretzJean-Michel Gauthier and Denis Gromb.