Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, Milestones, People

Winter keynote commencement speaker: ‘When the world zigs, zag’

'This is one of the most rigorous, high-quality institutions of higher education in the country — and indeed the world,' Haas told graduates.

robert haas at the podium giving a speech
Robert Haas delivers the keynote address during Berkeley's winter commencement ceremony. "I learned to listen closely to people whose circumstances and life experiences were very different from my own," he said of his time at Berkeley as a student. "And I learned the value of questioning the way things are.” (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
Robert D. Haas spoke to graduates at 2019’s winter commencement. (UC Berkeley video by Educational Technology Services)

Robert D. Haas, beloved Berkeley alumnus and former head of Levi Strauss & Co., was the keynote speaker at Saturday’s winter commencement. In his prepared remarks, shared below, Haas’ told graduates: “Staying true to your values and who you are will enable you to achieve a successful and rewarding life.”

Thank you, Kyree, for your thoughtful introduction.

Good morning Chancellor Christ, faculty, and graduates.

I want to begin by thanking the parents and friends of today’s graduates. This is your moment, too. Your encouragement and support over the years is one of the key reasons these students are sitting here today.

Graduates, it’s an honor to be with you on your special day. Thank you for inviting me.

The last time I spoke at a commencement ceremony was in 1964. That’s when I was in the place you are today, graduating from Berkeley myself.

Actually, I participated in two commencements that year — one here at Berkeley and another at a small university to the south of us.

It turned out that two of my closest high school friends were graduating from Stanford on the day following my commencement at Berkeley. I wanted to support them on their special day, and I thought, “Why sit in the audience when I could join them in going through the ceremony?”

I still had my rented Berkeley cap and gown, so I drove to Stanford, went to the gym where the graduates were lining up, slipped into the line in the place of an absent graduate, and filed into the amphitheater where the ceremony was being held.

I sat with the graduates as they listened to all the speakers and then joined them in marching across the stage and picking up their diplomas. The Stanford degree I received bore the name of the absent student whose place I had taken. (Full disclosure: After the ceremony I returned it to a lost-and-found booth.)

I learned an important lesson from that experience. Here at Cal, you have to work damn hard for four or five years to get your degree. But at Stanford, all it takes is half a tank of gasoline!

I know Berkeley has not gotten any easier in the decades since my own commencement. Most of you knew this when you decided to come here. This is one of the most rigorous, high-quality institutions of higher education in the country—and indeed the world. As students, the burden was on you to navigate your way, manage your time and figure out what to order from a Kiwi Bot to get you through a marathon study session.

Staying true to your values and who you are will enable you to achieve a successful and rewarding life.”

Think about how much of your Berkeley experience wasn’t in the brochures and the upbeat emails you received when you were applying. Or in the course catalog. They didn’t cover half of what a Berkeley education is truly about.

And that is what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk about how your life and career will rarely go as you think. The heavyweight boxing champion, Mohammed Ali, once said, “You don’t lose if you get knocked down. You lose if you stay down.”

I am here today to share some unfortunate news with all of you: You are going to get knocked down.

The question before you today is this: How are you going to react? How will you get back up and keep moving forward in the face of the unpredictable challenges and opportunities that life delivers?

My experience suggests a simple answer: Staying true to your values and who you are will enable you to achieve a successful and rewarding life.

For me, it all started at home with the values instilled in me by my parents and grandparents. Then I had the privilege to attend this great university. Being at Berkeley in the early 1960s was a transformational experience. I was going to Berkeley to get a degree and, perhaps, figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But what I actually received was an education.

Here at Cal, I was jostled out of the complacency of a comfortable youth.”

Here at Cal, I was jostled out of the complacency of a comfortable youth. From the moment I stepped on campus, I encountered sharp debates about the issues of the day. I was forced to consider different points of view. I learned to listen closely to people whose circumstances and life experiences were very different from my own. And I learned the value of questioning the way things are.

Early in my business career, I came across an image that has stuck with me for decades. It was on a billboard in England promoting a new line of Levi’s jeans. It showed a group of white sheep, all heading in the same direction. And in the midst of the flock there was a black sheep, going the opposite way. The tagline was, “Black Levi’s — When the world zigs, zag.”

“When the world zigs, zag.”

To me, that advertising slogan summed up a Berkeley education: be open to fresh perspectives, question established thinking and practices; stay grounded in your core values.

When I think back on my life and career, it’s the zags that stand out. Those moments when we make thoughtful and deliberate decisions to go against the grain and upend conventional wisdom. The times when we challenge social or business norms … not because we want to score points or draw attention to ourselves, but because it is the right thing to do.

Today I want to reflect on a few of those moments and what they taught me.

Earlier I said that I benefited from the values I saw practiced at my home.

My father, Walter Haas, Jr., led Levi Strauss & Co for many years. He graduated from Berkeley in 1937.

In the 1950s, manufacturers like Levi’s were locating more and more plants in the Southeastern U.S. We were attracted by the region’s plentiful labor. Offsetting that, however, was the fact that at that time, everything in that part of the country was segregated, including manufacturing facilities. Separate entrances, work areas, bathrooms, drinking fountains, everything. All based on whether you were black or white.

It was in this environment that Levi’s began negotiating with officials in Blackstone, Virginia, about locating a new plant there. My father and his brother, Peter, who were partners in running the business, insisted that the plant had to be integrated from the start. Local leaders replied, “We just don’t do that here.” Levi’s didn’t budge. So the locals came back later with a proposal to build a brick wall to split the plant in two. Black workers would work on one side and white workers on the other.

Again, we didn’t budge. Fearing that we might locate the new plant in another community, the locals said, “OK, what if we paint a white line down the middle of the factory to separate white and black workers?” My father and uncle stood firm.

In the end, local officials agreed to our conditions. And, contrary to their fears, the integrated plant – one of the first in the South – operated harmoniously from the day that it opened. This happened years before federal law required it.

What I took from that story is that values are non-negotiable. In the end, your values and your reputation are all you have to stand on. It may be uncomfortable to challenge the way things are generally done, but when it is the right thing to do, you do it.

Because that’s what lets you sleep better at night. That’s what lets you move on in your life and career, believing you did your best, not just for yourself and your family, but for society and the world.

When I moved into the CEO role at Levi’s, I had plenty of my own run-ins with dated business and social norms.

One of my earliest decisions was to let employees wear casual clothes to work. In today’s world that may sound easy. But back in the early 1980’s most companies required their employees to wear suits and ties, or dresses, to work.

That decision was a no-brainer, since we were the leading casual clothing manufacturer in the nation. But others were harder.

One that stands out was a decision we made as we moved the production of many of our clothing lines overseas in the 1980s. The writing was on the wall. Trade barriers were coming down, resulting in easier access to lower-cost foreign factories. As a result, most of our competitors were shutting their U.S. factories.

At Levi’s, we could not ignore the economic realities. To stay competitive and keep our business going, we had to consider sourcing more of our clothing overseas.

But this new situation raised an ethical dilemma. If you’re producing things overseas, how can you make sure your products are not coming from sweatshops, or from factories where there’s child labor, or from places where basic environmental and worker safety protections are ignored? Our brand’s reputation – and future appeal – were on the line.

I appointed a task force to look into these questions. They came back evenly split. Due to the added costs of rigorous standards and inspections, they couldn’t agree about how aggressive the company should be in trying to enforce global standards.

Zagging can have big – and unexpected – benefits.”

So it was up to me to make a decision. The risks were substantial. But, in my view, the integrity of how we did business was non-negotiable. Levi’s ended up adopting a groundbreaking set of standards that covered labor practices, the environment, everything. We defied conventional practice, potentially adding significant costs and affecting our competitive position. We took a risk and zagged.

Fortunately, a number of other companies quickly recognized the reputational risks in not following our lead. They started calling us and asked for copies of our code of conduct — so they could use it with their overseas contractors.

Those standards have impacted hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. They changed working conditions. They increased pay and opportunities. They supported new development in emerging economies around the world. The lesson? Zagging can have big – and unexpected – benefits.

As you move into your careers, you will discover that your decisions can have real and wide-ranging impacts on people and communities.

In 1982 a group of concerned employees came to me to talk about a deadly, unnamed disease that was primarily affecting gay men. The disease, of course, was AIDS.

At the time, people didn’t know a lot about this disease. There were a lot of rumors going around and a lot of disinformation. These employees wanted to combat the falsehoods by handing out leaflets to their colleagues with helpful information about prevention and treatment.

Those were less tolerant times when it comes to gay rights. As a result, these employees were concerned that by distributing leaflets about a disease identified with gay men they would be presumed to be gay themselves. This could be harmful to their relations with co-workers and their career prospects.

It was time to zag.

I saw the value of passing out information on this mysterious and deadly disease. The well-being of our employees was at stake. To reassure and support these concerned employees, I joined them and several other senior managers in passing out leaflets in the lobby of our headquarters.

Getting involved in the fight against AIDS raised our awareness of this emerging public health issue. This prompted us to learn more about the disease and take action. Levi’s made our first grant to an AIDS-serving organization the following year – we were one of the first corporations to get involved. We created pace-setting policies to protect and help HIV-positive employees that became models for other enterprises.

A decade later, Levi Strauss & Co. became one of the first companies in America to offer benefits to unmarried partners of our employees. We were ahead of the curve on that one too — and it happened because we listened to people affected by these problems and took action based on our values.

Some of you will go into business in the coming years, and others will join nonprofits or serve in government. Regardless of where you end up, it’s not just through your work that you will have opportunities to make a positive difference in the world. You also can do so through your involvement in your communities and on issues you care about.

Growing up, I learned about the value of community and public service. My time at Berkeley broadened my understanding of how to make a difference. I was exposed to protesting, picketing and advocating for causes I believe in.

These experiences benefited me as I joined with other members of my family on the board of the foundation my parents created. Over the last two decades this foundation has been involved in two issues that have risen to the top of today’s national debates: gay rights and immigration.

In 2001, we became the first foundation to embrace marriage equality as a major priority. At the time, no state in the country offered gay and lesbian couples the freedom to marry.

From the beginning, we knew this would be a long, uphill battle. But we saw marriage as a key step to winning broad acceptance and opening the door to full equality for gay and lesbian people. So, we started making investments in organizations and leaders working on this issue.

Then, in November 2004, voters in 13 states adopted constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage — and they did so by overwhelming margins. It was a demoralizing moment – we got knocked down.

In the face of adversity, however, we were undeterred. We got up and we zagged. We stayed true to our values and kept our focus on our ultimate goal. We persevered and worked with movement leaders on a wide-ranging effort to turn things around.

And things did turn around. In June 2015, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. It was a historic decision that ranks as one of the most-important milestones in American civil rights history.

Working for lasting social progress takes time. … But if you persevere, stay focused on the result you are trying to achieve, and join with partners who share your belief in the need for change, well, anything is possible.”

What I learned from this multi-year effort is that working for lasting social progress takes time. You are going to face all kinds of obstacles. There will be days and months and years when you wonder if it’s even worth it. But if you persevere, stay focused on the result you are trying to achieve, and join with partners who share your belief in the need for change, well, anything is possible.

I also want to talk about immigration. More specifically, I want to talk about the courageous and talented students here at Berkeley and at other universities across the country who are undocumented immigrants. Some are here with us today in this graduating class. My family and I have come to know many of these students very well. As we got to know their stories, and we heard more about the challenges they face, we decided we wanted to do more to help them succeed and have a voice.

In 2012, our family’s foundation gave this university a gift of $1 million for scholarships for undocumented students. It was the largest gift, and the first of its kind, at that time. Additionally, a member of my family provided support for critical campus services for undocumented students. Today, Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program is widely recognized as a pioneering initiative in higher education. Other colleges and universities are modeling their own programs on what is happening right here.

Needless to say, immigration has become a controversial topic in the United States today. Undocumented Americans are a favored punching bag for the anti-immigrant crowd. I remember the conversations we had when we decided to fund those Berkeley scholarships. We knew we’d take some heat for it, and we did. Nevertheless, we zagged.

If it hasn’t soaked in yet, I will say it once again: You have to stand for something in life.

If it hasn’t soaked in yet, I will say it once again: You have to stand for something in life.

For each of you graduating today, the issues you’ll be dealing with in your chosen career will be different. Maybe you’ll choose to work on climate change, or artificial intelligence, or digital privacy. Many of you will get involved in things that are not even on your radar right now. But in the course of your life and career, you are going to come face to face with challenges and opportunities that will require you to make a choice. Do you accept the way things are, or do you try to make them better?

I know from experience that your Berkeley education has prepared you for those moments. Not only because of what you’ve learned in your classes here, but because of the values you will take away from this special place.

The value of questioning the way things are. The value of listening to others. The value of learning and gathering the information you need to make smart decisions. The value of pluralism and diversity and justice for all people.

The value of zagging.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to make my way to Palo Alto for the Stanford commencement.

Go forth and zag. And Go Bears!

Thank you very much.