When Casey Gerald woke up on the morning of his graduation from Harvard Business School this past May, he had a bad feeling. As a child, Gerald's parents had abandoned him, first his father, who had a drug problem, then his mother, who was bipolar. Gerald knew that trouble always lurked, punctuated by the memory of gun-toting thieves who broke into his apartment while he slept a few years earlier, threatening to kill him, and only fleeing at the last moment when the sound of police sirens approached.
But this day would not end with disappointment. Gerald, who had made his way to Yale undergrad before HBS, had been chosen by classmates to deliver the student address. And he went on to deliver an inspirational speech that became a viral phenomenon, viewed more than 100,000 times.
Everyone should watch this speech. There were the usual graduation calls-to-action in Gerald's words, about changing the world and making a difference. But what really set his speech apart, aside from the rhetoric and emotion, was his embrace of what he called "the new bottom line in business…the impact you have on your community and the world around you—that no amount of profit could make up for purpose."
"We need a new field manual for business," Gerald tells me a few weeks later, while on the road for his new nonprofit startup, MBAs Across America, which pairs students with local businesses. "It can't be about hierarchy, leaders sitting in the corner office and going to the Hamptons while everyone else is pressing sheet metal. It can't be just pursuing quarterly earnings considerations. Leaders can't just say, 'Let's do this because it optimizes efficiency.' There's got to be a larger vision of our future and ourselves."
Gerald's mission as a kid was survival in inner-city Dallas, living with relatives, friends, and his older sister. "We were like the Boxcar Children: on our own," he says. He stayed positive. He was plenty smart, played football in high school, and eventually made his way to Yale. He had a job lined up at Lehman Brother for after graduation, but the firm imploded. He tried his hand at a public policy nonprofit in D.C; worked on an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in Texas; and explored the New York City startup scene "living on tuna fish and peanut butter," as he puts it.
He came to Harvard Business School with broader life experience than his years belied, which was one reason perhaps that his classmates had selected him as their student speaker for graduation. That morning he called his grandmother, who calmed him with words and prayer. "My grandfather was a preacher in Texas, he talked about the high cost of low living," Gerald recalls wryly. "My grandmother made me practice speaking when I was a kid, but if I stepped into a pulpit now it would probably burst into flame."
Casey isn't shy about sharing his perspective. "The leadership deficit in America is possibly the biggest challenge we have," he says. "You can't say, 'Let's go do this because it optimizes efficiency.' There's got to be a larger vision of our future and ourselves. I tell the MBAs in our program, you can approach these assignments as a clinical exercise, but that detached approach won't be as well received and accepted. It has to be a human experience. You have to grasp the essence."
"In business, we are terrible storytellers about where we want to go. Sixty-page PowerPoints aren't going to move the needle," he says.
So what is Gerald's persona mission? He turns poetic: "I have an image of a bridge—two bridges really. One is a bridge from where we are to where we go. Another is a bridge from the world I came from to the world where I've been adopted. I was a poor, afraid 12-year-old child when my mom was discharged from a hospital and never came home. I spent a decade where I lived with grandmothers and teachers, slept on couches without a home.. A divine conspiracy plucked me out of where I was. I don't think it should take a divine conspiracy to have that opportunity."
For all his early experiences, Gerald remains essentially optimistic. "You have to be naïve in a way," he says. "Toughness isn't what's needed; we get strength from vulnerability. I'm totally optimistic, because I shouldn't be here. There's no way. There has to be something larger than myself."