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Yesterday, Casey Gerald was faced with an incredible challenge. Thanks to a last minute switch, the 29-year-old founder and CEO of MBAs Across America would to open not just the SXSW festival, but open for President Barack Obama. Speaking to a packed auditorium, the young entrepreneur started the conference with a bang, asking the crowd to reconsider how they view their businesses, their practices, and themselves.
Gerald’s keynote was deeply personal, starting with an image of him at age 12 at the dawn of the new millennium in a church in Oak Cliff, Texas. He described waiting for the second coming of Christ by holding his grandmother’s hand, hoping that when she was taken to heaven, he could tag along.
It then traced both his arrival at Yale at 18 and a violent robbery not long after that forced his face into the ground and put a gun barrel to his head. And it recalled the moment of misguided hope he had after securing an ill-fated internship at the soon-to-fail Lehman Brothers in 2008 and telling his family, “you’ll never be poor again,” not realizing the devastation of the financial crisis was around the corner.
These experiences led him to an important realization -- the “gospel of doubt.” He knew then that no education, no job, no blind faith, would be enough to save him or anyone. “It’s possible the answers are we have are wrong,” he told the audience. “It’s possible the questions themselves are wrong.”
Said Gerald: “The 'gospel of doubt' is to make a little room to question the people who tell you they have all the answers. By accepting that everything you know is wrong,” he continued, you can grow and you can make a true impact. “With all the power we hold in our hands, why are people still suffering?” he posited, telling the audience to find value in the things they don't believe in.
Although his non-profit MBAs Across America has recently become defunct, Gerald noted that even that has value, as the the programs and ideas his group spearheaded have outlasted the company itself, which makes his ongoing influence all the more impactful. “The organization going out of business was actually quite critical to convince people that the work is not the organization,” he said, “The work is human work.”
In describing that human work, Gerald shared the four rules that he adheres to at all times. The first: “Give a damn; either you care or you don’t. The second: “Listen more than you speak,” and the third: “Act on any plans [you make],” And most importantly, Gerald called upon the audience to embrace discomfort and uncertainty to avoid falling into a destructive patterns.
Moderator Jeff Salamon later complimented Gerald on his willingness to showcase his fears and doubts. “I’ve lived in America from the very bottom to the very top,” Gerald said, stressing that vulnerability itself can be vital for change. “We have so much to lose that we don’t want people thinking we’re god’s gift to humankind,” he said. There's a value in seeing fear and lying as the ultimate enemies, said Gerald in conclusion.