Remarks at the Reception in Honor of the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellows

Ambassador Wharton challenged the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellows to take some risks
Ambassador Wharton challenged the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellows to take some risks

What a group we have tonight!  I’d like to begin by asking all of the 2014 Mandela Washington Fellows, our illustrious alumni, to raise their hands.

Welcome. I’m so glad you could take the time from all of the extraordinary work you are doing to join us tonight.

I’d like to offer my congratulations to the thirty 2015 fellows who were chosen this year from a selection process that attracted nearly 1,000 applicants from Zimbabwe alone, and tens of thousands more applicants across the African continent.  Your successful selection means that, in just a few short weeks from now, you will be joining 470 of your counterparts for what we all hope will be a very exciting and empowering professional exchange visit in the United States.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is President Obama’s initiative that honors its namesake, Nelson Mandela, by forging bonds between the U.S. and the self-identified future of Africa.  Last year’s inaugural fellowship – and I think you alumni will agree with me – was an overwhelming success… but you were not the only ones to benefit.  The participating American universities, the academics, and the business professionals who hosted you are forever changed for the better as a result. Together with your American hosts and partners, you generated innovation and entrepreneurship and fueled a respect for diversity and mutual understanding. You left your mark.

And it is my express hope that this year’s class of fellows will have the same positive impact.

To be here tonight with all of you — in a room with this much potential — is a true pleasure.  None of you were selected by random chance to become a Mandela Washington Fellow.  You are here today because you have already demonstrated the drive and determination to catalyze change and stimulate progress.  Yours is the energy that will power the Zimbabwe of the future.

And as you embark on this next chapter together with us, I have only one message for you tonight, a simple piece of advice: Take some risks.  Look for opportunities to do things that are outside of your comfort zone.  Stick your neck out a little.

I don’t mean foolish or dangerous risks like driving fast on public roads, or getting involved in illegal activities, or doing things that contravene the expectations of your families or your society.  I mean risking your “cool,” or doing something you’re afraid you might not do very well.  Whether you are a scientist, an artist, a writer, or a business person, don’t be satisfied with what is easy or comfortable for you.  Take a risk, try something new, speak out!

Here’s a secret:  Every successful person you have ever met or heard of has insecurities.  Everyone gets nervous about sticking their neck out.  There’s a great line from an old American blues song that goes “If you ain’t scared, man, you ain’t right.”  Famous actors and musicians get terrible cases of stage fright.  Great writers develop blocks that can last for years.  Even super successful business leaders can be terrified of speaking in public.

And yet, all of these people have stuck their necks out, risked their sense of control, put their confidence to the test, and have overcome their insecurities to achieve something important.  Each of you should look for smart opportunities to do the same.

It need not be a big thing.  Start with what is in front of you.  Maybe it is something like speaking up in a business meeting; maybe it is volunteering to work on a church or community project; maybe it is accepting an invitation to go somewhere new or meet someone new.  Each time you do something like this, you will build your competence and self-confidence and bigger challenges in the future will become more manageable.

Think about what might represent such a step or “risk” in your life.  Then, talk to a mentor, a friend or a relative.  They can help you decide if it’s a good risk to take, and will likely build your confidence.  In fact, sharing your uncertainty or insecurity about something is a risk in itself, and is definitely one you should take.  If you feel a bit nervous to talk about something, it is probably an important thing for you to explore.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had opportunities throughout my life that stretched me well out of my comfort zone. In 1968 when I was 14, I was the only American kid at a German boarding school and was asked to explain things about America – like why the U.S. was fighting in Viet Nam, and why Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated – that were really hard to do.  But I managed, and learned a lot from taking that risk.

Later, in high school and university back in the U.S., I studied and participated in the arts – both music and theater – activities that helped me understand the value of sticking my neck out to try new things.  Each time I did something like that, it built my self-confidence.

Today I am here as the U.S. Ambassador and President Obama’s personal representative to Zimbabwe because I put my fear of failure aside long enough to dream that maybe, just maybe, I could pass the difficult entry examination for the U.S. diplomatic service.  I hate failing, and the risk of failure seemed high when I sat that exam.  But, with the support and encouragement of my family and friends, I decided to take that risk.  And, I am so glad I did!

Throughout my career in the diplomatic service I have looked for opportunities to stretch myself, to be a bit cheeky in thinking I could do something.  I volunteered for tough jobs, things I wasn’t really sure I could do.  But, I learned a long time ago that I was much more likely to learn from something that was difficult and outside of my comfort zone than I could possibly learn by only doing things that were familiar and safe.

So, please think about that, share your dreams with people here in Zimbabwe and with the people you will meet during your Mandela Washington Fellowship, push the boundaries a bit, and take some risks.  You are going to be surrounded by some incredible people and I urge you to work together, to pull each other in new directions, to support one another’s crazy ideas… and to build a community of leaders. On behalf of my president, whose initiative this is, I thank you for letting us be a part of your journey, and look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Twalumba, Siyabonga, Tatenda, Thank you for your time; be smart, work hard, be brave and you will go far.