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The Inspiration to Weaponize Empathy

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By John Samuel

Recently, I had the honor of taping the commencement speech for the George Washington School of Business, my alma mater. It’s an amazing honor and I never thought I would be doing this, especially not barefoot in my parent’s house. (Check out the picture, if you don’t believe me!)

John Samuel barefoot

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the honor of speaking at numerous events, but I have to say that this was the most difficult speech I’ve ever done. This experience showed me how much I rely on feedback from the audience. I feed off the interaction from people, which lets me know how things are going, and it provides cues for me to know where I am in my script. However, in this situation, I was speaking to the camera on my mobile phone, and I didn’t even know if I was looking at it!

As I reflect on this situation, it makes me think about what a shitty situation this is for the students! Who cares that it wasn’t an ideal situation for me to speak in a room by myself. But this is not ideal for any graduating student to end their schooling career, whether it be high school, college, or graduate school, who has worked so hard to get to this momentous day. My heart goes out to every one of them, and I empathize.
In my commencement speech, I talk about building empathy, and how it’s important to be a great leader. Then this weekend, I was listening to a special edition of “How I Built This with Guy Raz,” which featured Chef José Andrés. The iconic chef spoke about how he’s “weaponizing empathy” and it really resonated with me. I feel like this sums up what I try to do at Ablr.

This isn’t the first time something José Andrés has said on a “How I Built This” podcast that’s made an impact on me. In early 2017, after the company I was working for folded and I found myself without a job, I was listening to a lot of podcasts. “How I Built This” was one of my favorites. Well, José Andrés was interviewed on an episode. And at some point in the conversation he mentioned, “luck can’t find you unless you keep moving.” At the time, I was scared to leave my house because my sight was diminishing and I was struggling to find a job. That’s when the words “Keep Moving” became my mantra.

Little did I know that luck was just around the corner and I met Ed Summers, who introduced me to my former job with LCI, which changed my life.

The funny thing is that the through-line of my commencement speech is “keep moving” but I don’t share the full quote or inspiration behind it because I focus on the hard work and dedication of the students, rather than the luck factor. The ironic thing is that Guy Raz always ends his interviews with the question about how much of the interviewees’ success was luck, or their hard work. And the answer is always a combination of both – which I totally agree with!

So as I end this blog, I am hoping for a little more luck. I hope that someone who reads this will share my story and my deepest gratitude with José Andrés. Let him know that he inspired me during a low point in my life, and he can be credited for the work that I am doing today.

Coincidentally, José Andrés was the commencement speaker for the George Washington University the year I graduated, but I don’t remember anything he said then. However, he’s made an impact on my life. Maybe none of the students will remember what I say during my commencement speech, but who knows, I still may find a way to inspire them down the line!

In an effort to say thanks to Chef José Andrés, I wanted to share a link to the World Central Kitchen and urge you to donate to this great cause. WCK is working across America to safely distribute individually packaged, fresh meals in communities that need support – for children and families to pick up and take home, delivery to seniors who can’t venture outside and to healthcare workers on the frontline. Let’s all join Chef José Andrés and weaponize empathy!