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Kareem Baassiri

Speech: Honorary Degree Recipient Roya MahboobJune 23, 2018

“Madam Chancellor, President Deane, Honoured Guests, Graduands, Family and Friends...

It is a great honour to be standing here today. I am continually amazed that the path I have taken has brought me to this point. As a child growing up in Afghanistan, the idea that I would be here in an international university accepting an honorary degree would have been dream too good to be true. I am sincerely grateful for how you have honoured me today and I do not take this opportunity lightly. I will not forget this important moment in my life. Thank you for honouring me.

Any one of you graduates or individuals around the world could have a life-altering breakthrough in their future. The next generation of leaders could come from anywhere. The cure for world hunger or the answer to poverty or next invention in medicine may be sitting in this room today. There is no limit to the possibilities that reside in the minds and hearts of these graduates.

As we graduate today, we must realize that one of the greatest leadership skills that a leader or inventor can possess is courage. When I first walked into the internet café in Herat as a young girl, I entered a path that many looked down on me for. Many believed that “good girls” should not be interested in technology and business. It was commonly forced on women that her only future was being a wife and mother. We as women were and still are seen as incapable of leading others in a business or public environment. This was so ingrained into us that it took great courage just to take that first step such as walking into the internet cafe in Herat.

I took many steps, I grew in knowledge and continued to follow my dreams, I became an engineer and the first woman tech CEO in Afghanistan.

Each of you has the potential to become a tech CEO, to pursue an entrepreneurship opportunity, run a startup, or do research and development. As engineering graduates, your possibilities are limitless. What has happened to me can happen to anyone with a dream and the willingness to do something different and stand out.

I believe that deep within all of us is the desire to make a difference. The desire to do more, to become something greater, take responsibility and take a part in changing the world. Many across the world have access to the education, training and opportunities that allow them to continuously learn and explore their own minds and creative genius. Boys and girls all over the world are grasping the opportunities that they have and inventing, designing and creating things that change lives. Breakthroughs in science, technology and other industries start with the dream of a child to do something great and make a difference.

Because children and particular girls in Afghanistan have limited opportunities, I had the desire to offer girls in Afghanistan access to technology. This led me to start my own nonprofit, the Digital Citizen Fund, a nonprofit that gives girls in the developing world access to technology.

 An initiative that I have supported through the Digital Citizen Fund is the all-girls robotic team from Afghanistan. This team was a symbol of courage that inspired thousands. These girls overcame incredible odds to travel around the world and prove that with encouragement and opportunity, girls and women have the potential to be leaders for change. Their story was a victory – a vision of hope for a country that for centuries has ignored women's abilities in science and other industries.

This team brought us to a point of change as tech leaders in Afghanistan. We saw the necessity of teaching kids math and STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts and maths skills). The next generation deserves the chance to learn and someday graduate from a university like these graduates here today. They have dreams and goals which they have every right to pursue and learning is crucial to becoming meaningful, successful employees and employers. Because of our participation at First Global and FRIST Canada, now we got a vision and hope to build a school of STEAM to educate the next generation of Afghan leaders in science and technology with a vision to build a Tech University like in near future. One of you may someday be the graduation speaker at an Afghan University. 

Leadership takes courage, but before courage comes curiosity. I was curious to go to an internet café, this led me to study computer science at university and to become a CEO and pioneer for women’s rights around the world. The next generation of leaders are individuals of curiosity whose thirst for knowledge drives them to succeed. They must continue to learn, to seek knowledge and follow the path where it takes them.

Much of my work has been inspired by my meeting with leaders and CEOs in tech industries and academics at universities. Their influence has made me stop and think about how to adapt my work and reach others better.

The world is full of challenges and these graduates are the ones who will meet them. The potential of these individuals can only be realized as they become the leaders they are meant to be. As gold is put to fire and becomes purer as more heat is applied, so an individual who faces great challenges becomes a true leader. Our stories can inspire them to follow their dreams and grasp the reality of their potential, but it is up to them to face their individual challenges with courage. As they are led by their own curiosity and given the time and resources, they will become who they are meant to be.

Graduates, as you embark upon the next step in your lives and careers, never give up on yourselves. Let your curiosity lead you. Follow your dreams with courage. In time, you will be the leaders that we know you can be. Your journeys will not be easy. Time will see some of you deal with loss and tragedy. As women in Afghanistan know so well, some of you will deal with opposition and persecution. You will face hard times and what will seem like insurmountable circumstances. But the inventors, professors and leaders who stand before you today and have guided you to this point are here as proof that change is possible. Changes is not happening overnight, Changes takes time energy and tools.

No matter what you face, you must never give up on your dreams. The world depends on you to bring the change that is so desperately needed. With the tools you have been given, you can succeed. With courage and curiosity to guide you and the backing of the leaders who have gone before you, must persevere and never, ever give up. As graduates from an engineering and science school, you have been equipped with the skills, knowledge and techniques to make the world a better place. You can become employers, managers, teacher, even CEOs and founders of tech companies. You have everything you need to change the world, but as much as we would like to, we cannot give you success. We are each accountable for our own actions. We must plan ahead to be ready for the next step. We must live our own lives and follow our own paths. We believe in you and are your cheerleaders to the next step of your journey. We have done what we can. Now it’s your turn.