Combining Innovation and Kindness

MatrixSpace CEO Greg Waters gave a speech to the Class of 2023 graduates of the College of Engineering at Northeastern University. He shared his thoughts around values to hold in their career, which also reflect those we aim to uphold here at MatrixSpace.

Here is an edited version of his speech.

Combining Innovation and Kindness

Greg Waters, co-founder and CEO, MatrixSpace

Northeastern is not an easy place to earn these degrees. You’ve just completed one of the most demanding curriculums on the planet, and in one of the hardest degree areas. Congratulations on earning the proud title of engineer. Society needs your skills and talents more than ever.

So I would like to encourage and challenge you to think about only two things – innovation and kindness.

In the area of innovation, some of the common traits of all engineers are a natural curiosity of how things work and to create useful things, whether they be products, services or just better ways of doing things. We can imagine interesting and very useful things, and then bring those ideas into reality. Engineers are creators.

And engineering is not just limited to the classical degrees or lines of thinking – today’s problems and opportunities are highly cross functional, requiring a blending of ideas and talent from many diverse backgrounds. I genuinely believe Northeastern is a leader in this type of cross functional education and thinking, and has always emphasized this hands-on, results-oriented approach.

So now – what will you innovate, invent, improve or make possible for large groups of people?

I’ve spent my career running very large corporations, medium sized companies, and today a very small company – MatrixSpace. that sits in the Northeastern incubator campus in Burlington. MatrixSpace was cofounded with a Northeastern professor, Dr. Jose Martinez Lorenzo, and we employ quite a few huskies, including a few from last year’s graduating class – who are active contributors to some real innovation.

I’ve spent nearly all of my career working with people that can imagine cool new products, create them, and bring them to market successfully. It’s been an amazing ride. This area of deep tech, from semiconductors and sensors to complex software, attracts amazing people, and while it’s not perfect, it is a great example of a global meritocracy.

But it is not for the faint of heart. Creation is exciting but also really hard. Have fun doing it but recognize that creation is one of the most demanding things we’ll ever do.

And here is my first encouragement to you: Innovate. Invent. Create. But when you do innovate, make sure that you are innovating in a way that solves important problems for customers. This is a huge factor in the success, or lack thereof, of many people’s careers. Even if you are not in a job that provides contact with customers, you can proactively get to know the people that do.   Your customers may be internal groups in the same company – it doesn’t matter.

It’s important because customers provide a degree of realism to what we do. You’ll find out quickly that they have a different world view than the company that you work in does. Best of all, use that experience to figure out how to solve problems across a wide range of customers. When you achieve this, you will have the life skills to solve important problems across a wide variety of people. This is the key skill set of being an awesome engineer, a good parent, a business unit general manager, or a CEO. The only difference is scale.

And if you ever end up being a Chief Executive, your people will be grateful and impressed that you can get your hands dirty in this creative process and understand what they are going through.

In summary, innovate, but innovate in such a way that customers or society really notices it – and values it.

The second encouragement and challenge I would like you to think about is kindness. Don’t confuse kindness with being nice. Being nice is a passive act. Most people are predisposed to being nice or not being nice. I’m not talking about personality.

Kindness is proactive, and it requires energy and commitment and persistence. Kindness especially applies to people that we don’t like. Treating people with kindness does not require that we like them, or even respect them.

In your career, you will find that at times you have to work with people that you don’t like at all. You will be placed in situations that are not fair or have dependencies on people that don’t support you.

In those situations we can seldom control what happens around us – but we can control how we respond. And once we learn to do this, and do it consistently, this creates a type of inner strength. Kindness cannot be defeated, and if we are consistently kind in all circumstances, then neither can we be defeated.

We are living through a period where treating other people badly has become normalized. Some of this is social media-driven, but most of it is just that we’ve allowed our standards to drop dramatically. It’s normal now to not just disagree with people, or fail to relate to their positions, but to think that they are bad people if they don’t have the same opinions or preferences that we do. This is both a problem and a great opportunity for the class of 2023. The world is so desperately seeking positive role models, who can be trusted at a gut level, and who act in the best interests of people around them – whether you like them or not.

Kindness is a soft skill, but I believe you will find it one of the most important ones to advance your career. I have often been asked what career advice I had for a long and successful career, as if it was some type of formula. Here’s my answer – there is no formula. Success accommodates a wide range of personalities and leadership styles and skills. You must be very competent at what you do otherwise you won’t survive the roles you are in — and innovate in ways that customers really care about – or you won’t be able to grow.

But just as important as competence is to be a consistent and powerful force of kindness to everyone around you. Innovation and competence are skills. Kindness is character. The great professionals, the great leaders, and the great people in general — excel in both, but mainly they are kind.

You are all graduating at an important and exciting time. We see a rapidly declining confidence in governments, institutions, and other traditional ways that we have organized ourselves to make a better society.

There is a lack of innovation that improves people’s lives, and we are too often relying on the very successful approaches that were invented by people two or three generations ago. There is a lack of kindness and role models who are a source of strength. But people very much want role models who are both innovative and kind, and are waiting for these new role models to emerge.

Each one of you is amazingly well equipped to make a difference, wherever you go in life. And who is better suited for innovation that solves problems for large groups of people than engineers?

And when you combine these two things: innovation and kindness, what words come to mind that describe such people? What comes to my mind is that these people are called leaders. So my closing encouragement and challenge to all of you is this:

You have amazing skills. You can do amazing things.

Innovate – in a way that matters to others.

Be an unstoppable force of kindness.

If you find that you can make a difference in these two things, I assure you that you will make an impact in both your own career — and in the lives of people around you. And that is the mark of a true professional, and of a life well lived.

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