Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children's Zone, wears many hats — and changes them quickly.
"I'll go from sitting with a parent because they're worried their son will get shot, to sitting with a billionaire who is thinking it would be smart to help my organization, just minutes apart," he said.
For Canada, whose nonprofit runs charter schools and community programs, rapidly switching gears is but one aspect of being a successful leader. He plans to discuss leadership in both national and personal contexts during his commencement address Monday at the University of Pennsylvania.
Canada is one of dozens of luminaries offering advice — along with encouragement — at college graduation ceremonies in the region this spring. Among the other speakers are Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, who will address Bryn Mawr College graduates Saturday; author and columnist Anna Quindlen, who will speak at Bucknell University on May 20; and Motorola Solutions chairman and CEO Greg Brown, the commencement speaker at Rutgers University on Sunday.
In his speech, Canada also plans to encourage students to consider careers in the nonprofit sector.
"Many business leaders say to me that the future of our country rests on the shoulders of people who can help create a more equitable society," he said. "It's not that we don't need talented people going into finance and business, but the most complicated and different work in this country will lie in nonfinancial areas. I want to dispel the belief that if you're really smart, where you are needed are areas that tend to be more lucrative."
While Canada will stress the importance of leadership, Robinson, who chaired the U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, hopes to "challenge students to think about how we connect better in our world today, so that we can say it has become a global village. It is a very relevant challenge — the world has become more divided, not less."
Robinson, who attributes her idealism to studying at Harvard during the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, now runs an organization to help marginalized people afflicted by climate change.
During her address, Robinson will tell Bryn Mawr students to "find in what ways that you can make a difference." Canada echoed this advice, calling for students to discover their passions and pursue them.
"Everyone's worried about getting a job, how to pay off loans, but people have not examined what they are passionate about," said Canada, who defied pressure from his professors to go into medicine. "Life goes by much too quickly to give up decades of it doing what you don't want to do."
Quindlen, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her New York Times columns, will turn to literature when offering advice to this year's Bucknell graduates.
"As a reporter, I learned down to the ground these words of Henry James: Three things are important in life. The first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind," she said.
Quindlen will also call on students to continue recalibrating America's priorities.
"I feel as though I am part of a generation that turned the 40-hour workweek into the 80-hour workweek," she said. "I get a sense that my children's generation is trying to roll that back, and I say good for them. They appear to want to have more balance than we did, which I think is quite smart and sane."
Brown, who graduated from Rutgers' Livingston College in 1982, will "relate how Rutgers impacted me personally" during his Sunday address at High Point Solutions Stadium.
"It's all about finding what you're passionate about," he said. "Trying to overthink or oversteer a cradle-to-grave plan isn't the best way to go. The journey is as important as the destination. Try things, adapt, improvise, and move forward."
Brown will also call for students to embrace and learn from their failures.
"In tough situations, and when facing challenges, transformation is possible," he said. "Mistakes are fine — and good. When you hit adversity and challenges, it's when you get introspective and find out what you're made of."
Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit global venture fund Acumen Fund, will deliver the commencement address at Gettysburg College on May 20.
"You don't have to change the world all at once," said Novogratz, who will draw from her experience in dealing with poverty-related issues in countries such as Kenya and Pakistan. "But if you see something you do want to change, don't wait until you have all of the right facts and all of the money, just start. Start with a small step and then let the work teach you. But do it. Especially if the idea scares you."
Novogratz is optimistic about the ability of 2012 college graduates to take on these new social issues.
"There is a hunger, especially in this new generation, for a different approach, where people can combine head and heart, acknowledging that we can't isolate ourselves from issues like poverty and inequality," she said. "It is an incredibly exciting moment."
Contact staff writer Shaj Mathew at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @shaj10.