Bina Venkataraman: ‘It takes courage to ask: Is it possible to do what people say is impossible?’

USC’s 2021 commencement speaker addresses this year’s ceremonies.

May 17, 2021 USC staff


Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 – look at where you are. You made it. Pinch yourself. Don’t pinch anyone else.

Thank you President Folt, esteemed faculty and staff of USC, and Trojans for the honor of being part of your commencement.

This is my first gathering with more than 4 people in over a year, so hello everyone! And wow. This is a lot of people.

I just want to say that I personally never doubted you. I don’t know you, of course, but I still feel it’s important to say.

I don’t think anyone can doubt what you are capable of now:
More than any generation in recent memory, you’ve overcome trauma and adversity to get to this moment: the trauma and adversity of world events – a global pandemic for one – and the trauma and adversity of your inner worlds. The people you’ve lost and time you’ve lost. You’ve been forged in the fire of history.

If you look back at the past few years, you’re likely aware that your talents, your knowledge, and your hard work got you here. And all of that will serve you well in the years to come. But in my experience thus far in my life and career, the most rewarding and meaningful moments have come not from flexing my talent or my knowledge. They have come from learning to summon courage.

More than a decade ago, I was a lowly novice reporter in the newsroom of The Boston Globe. And I felt intimidated by the talent and knowledge of those around me. I often believed in other people more than I believed in myself. But because of something I cared about at the time, I dared to take on a fierce and powerful Senator from the most storied and famous Massachusetts political family – the late Ted Kennedy. I wrote a story about an offshore wind farm that he thwarted with his power in the Senate, and the Senator wasn’t happy. In fact, he was pretty upset. Even though it was a Saturday, he called what seemed like every editor at the newspaper – all the way up the food chain, to complain about the story. Each of them in turn called me to ask me whether I had backup for what I’d written in my story. I told each of them the same thing – I did. I had done my work, called the senator’s office, and my story was accurate. All these calls were an intimidation tactic.

Eventually the senator’s office called the highest-ranking editor at the paper on duty that day, a woman by the name of Ellen. She called me and told me Senator Kennedy was livid, which I knew. She asked me whether I might have gotten it wrong and if we should just correct the story. At this point, as I was being questioned for maybe the 10th time, I chose to say: Did it occur to you that the Senator is the one who is wrong and not me?

Ellen hung up on me. I was shocked. But even more shocked by the way I’d snapped at someone in authority – not something I was so accustomed to doing. And now it was clear that this editor hated me and that my future in journalism had disappeared. Still, I kept doing my job and covering that idea for a wind farm – and avoiding Ellen in the newsroom.

That small, super unsexy moment in my career – answering calls about Ted Kennedy from editors — turned out to be pivotal. It was a moment when I stood up for myself. But, the way I found the courage to stand up for myself was by standing up for something larger. My courage came from wanting people to know the truth. It also came from wanting to keep political interference from thwarting progress on offshore wind power, an alternative to the fossil fuels warming the planet. I found courage because I cared about the future.

Flash forward 10 years or so, and it was this same editor, Ellen, who recommended me to the publisher of the Boston Globe for one of the top jobs at the news organization, a position on its masthead as editorial page editor, which I hold today. She had also, years before, secretly recommended me to the job that led me to work in the White House. This was a person I was convinced hated me. Recently, I asked her about it. She said she appreciated my bravery in challenging the country’s most powerful senator – and my conviction when she challenged me. The very thing I thought made her hate me, made her respect me

Courage still doesn’t always come easily to me. But I’ve discovered that I can find it in myself when I know I am fighting a good fight. When I worked in the Obama White House, I had many opportunities to flex my knowledge and my talent — to speak in front of large audiences, to tout the president’s progress on climate change, and to be in the public eye. But the most rewarding thing I did during my time in government was behind the scenes. I refused to give up in getting an intelligence agency to declassify a dataset that could save the lives of people in poor nations by helping them better map the areas most likely to flood during devastating storms. I was told countless times that it was impossible to release the data. But a couple of my colleagues and I banded together and we kept asking, and I’m pretty sure that we annoyed everyone so much that they eventually decided whatever risk they were worried about was worth having us off their backs. People think of courage as entering the arena, standing before a crowd as I am now, or even as standing up for a friend in a barfight. But sometimes courage is just quietly asking “why not?” a million times — until everyone gets sick of you.

That’s the thing – sometimes courage in a world where people don’t want to rock the boat will mean making your social group or your political party upset – or that people won’t like you. But in exercising it, you get something more valuable, which is learning to like yourself.

Here’s something else I’ve figured out: When you look for other people to inspire and fortify you in practicing courage – don’t have heroes – at least not in the conventional sense. Be skeptical of putting people on pedestals. Rare talent or genius is not the same as being a hero. And, as I’m sure you know, a talented artist or athlete can be an abuser, just like a brilliant scientist can be a eugenicist. And a bold, progressive senator can be a barrier to progress.

You can admire these people for their accomplishments and real achievements, but know that when you exalt people, when you expect them to be perfect and act like superheroes, you will inevitably need to tear them down from their pedestals when they turn out to be merely human.

Look for heroes not on the silver screen or the pedestal or even at this podium — but at eye level and within reach: the people in your life who have been afraid but done the right thing anyway, who have shown you by example how to be bold.

Prize bravery over bravado. (Repeat) Prize all moments of bravery, even the small and unrecognized ones. You can be heroic whenever you choose, whoever you are, without being perfect or celebrated or superbly talented.

Finally, I want to challenge you to summon another kind of courage that is sorely needed in this moment of history, the kind of courage that will set you apart in your career and in your life.

It’s the courage of imagination. What do I mean? The courage to envision that the world can be different and better than it is today. The courage to care enough about the lives of others and to believe you can make a difference. It’s the kind of courage that teams of vaccine makers had when they believed that a COVID-19 vaccine could beat the odds and be created more quickly than a vaccine ever before in human history – one of the reasons we’re able to be here together today. It’s the kind of courage that Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart, and other abolitionists of the 19th century showed when they helped Americans imagine a society without slavery. It’s the courage that Khaleel Seivwright, a Toronto carpenter showed recently when he built shelters for the homeless that the city wasn’t able to pull off – imagining a solution to a problem that others said couldn’t be solved and buoyed by the Toronto residents who gave him money to do it. And it’s the kind of courage that groups of young people have today when they see not just the catastrophe of climate change but when they imagine ways to solve it.

This kind of courage can be hard to sustain but you can be fortified by banding together with fellow travelers. And you can gain perspective by looking beyond immediate obstacles to a longer-range future. Progress can take time. Just a few days ago, the US government announced that the country’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, something I wrote about so long ago – which can power 400,000 homes – is finally going to be built off the coast of Massachusetts.

It’s so easy to be cynical about the world’s problems, especially today. But cynicism comes from a fear of disappointment. If you don’t expect anything to be better, you won’t be let down. And while I know many loveable cynics – and I’m sure you do too, there are limits to what they can accomplish in the world. It takes courage to ask the question: is it possible to do what people say is impossible? And when people tell you it isn’t, to keep asking that question: why not?