Benetech Founder Tells SMC Graduates About the Power of Failure, People and Karma

New grads celebrate with high fiveEven a partial solar eclipse couldn’t dim the day for the students at Saint Mary’s College of California’s graduate and professional commencement on Sunday, May 20.

The moon began to slip across the face of the sun at 5:16 p.m., just about the time when the students were receiving their degrees, so it’s not surprising that no one seemed to notice. All eyes were on the new grads.

A total of 456 students received degrees, including 209 from the School of Economics and Business Administration, 117 from the School of Liberal Arts, and 130 from the Kalmanovitz School of Education.

Social entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman, the founder of Benetech, delivered the commencement address and surprised the class by recommending that they “fail early, fail fast, fail often.” 

Although he congratulated the SMC students for succeeding in earning their degrees, he argued that “failure is the best way to learn” and explained: “When you succeed, it’s not always clear if you were lucky, or smart, or just worked hard. But failure teaches real lessons.”

The former rocket scientist recalled how, six months after he left graduate school, he stood on a rocket launch pad and watched the rocket he had helped to design blow up. “That explosion, that failure, launched my career in a new direction,” he said. He went on to help launch seven high-tech companies. Even then, five of them failed. It was only when he founded Benetech as a nonprofit high-tech firm that he found his calling – using technology “to benefit all of humanity, not just the richest 10 percent.” 

The company has created the largest the largest online library for students with print disabilities, such as blindness and severe dyslexia, and has written a best-selling iPad app for special education. Among many other groundbreaking projects, it is providing access to almost 200,000 students through accessible e-books.   

Grad gets a kiss from loved oneBesides the power of failure, Fruchterman shared two other keys to success with the audience: the power of your people network and the power of karma. Investing in both, he said, will produce great returns.

Karma banking is “the Golden Rule on steroids,” he said. He advised the students to go beyond “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and do “triple the amount of good for others” that you can imagine receiving in return.

“Your opportunity is to build social good into everything you do,” he said. “Don’t wait until you’ve become rich or become successful. Start now!”

After diplomas were conferred, several students were singled out for dean's awards for their exceptional performance. Students winning dean's awards included Jeffrey Smith from the School of Education and Melissa Monroe Downing, Gagandeep Kaur, Timothy George O'Brien, Bethlehem Zawde and Julie Perkins from the School of Economics and Business Administration.

Before Fruchterman’s speech, Brother Ronald Gallagher, the College’s president, congratulated the new graduates and noted that they undoubtedly felt a great amount of gratitude not only for their teachers but also for the family members and friends who encouraged them and sacrificed for them during their studies. And, in fact, hundreds of families – everyone from grandparents to tiny children – filled the Saint Mary’s stadium to watch the graduates receive their degrees.

Grad's baby tries on graduation capAfter the ceremony, Daniel (Stash) Easton, a graduate of the Hybrid Executive MBA program, held his son Galen, who had celebrated his first birthday the day before.

“He’s one of nine babies who were born to families in my cohort,” Easton said, as he balanced his graduation cap on the toddler’s head so his wife could record this very special occasion.

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Read Fruchterman’s commencement address.

View a slide show of the graduate and professional programs commencement ceremony.