Winter commencement speaker: ‘Berkeley makes you ready to make a difference’

Robert Haas shakes the hand of a man while a woman in a cap and gown looks on

Robert Haas, right, greets the family of an undocumented Berkeley student on her graduation day. UC Berkeley’s Dreamer’s Resource Center is named in his honor. (Photo courtesy of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund)

Robert D. Haas, the newly chosen keynote speaker for Winter 2019 Commencement, says he’ll tell UC Berkeley’s newest crop of graduates to “prepare for a lifetime of stepping out of their comfort zones, asking questions and always looking for better answers.”

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The student panel that chose Haas for the Saturday, Dec. 21, event consider the beloved Berkeley alumnus and former head of Levi Strauss & Co. to be a model for how to live a life that’s true to that mission.

Haas, a 1964 Berkeley graduate and one of the campus’s closest friends and most generous philanthropists, has long demonstrated a commitment to progressive workplace practices, positive social change and efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

“He is an esteemed example of how people can give back to society after great success and create a legacy,” says Paulina Jeng, a fourth-year media studies major who is president of the Senior Class Council, the group responsible for choosing commencement speakers.

Haas was Berkeley’s valedictorian when he graduated from Berkeley in 1964. He went on to serve in the Peace Corps on the Ivory Coast. In 1973, he joined Levi Strauss & Co. — he is the great-great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss — and was chief executive officer from 1984 to 1999.

During his tenure as CEO and chairman at Levi Strauss, Haas demonstrated an unwavering commitment to corporate citizenship — a company’s responsibilities toward society. For example, he led Levi Strauss to become the nation’s first company to enforce labor and environmental protection standards for contractors overseas and the first to offer health care benefits to the unmarried partners of its employees.

Robert Haas smiles at two Berkeley students

Robert Haas, right, meets with two students at the launch of the Robert D. Haas Dreamer’s Resource Center in the Cesar Chavez Student Center. (Photo courtesy of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund)

In 1992, Haas joined the board of the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. The fund, founded in 1953 by his father, Walter, to date has paid out $601 million in grants, especially to organizations that strengthen the bonds of community and advance social change. Those gifts include a recent gift of $10 million to support Berkeley’s efforts to strengthen diversity and equity on campus and to make Berkeley more welcoming and inclusive.

In an interview with Berkeley News, Haas said he intends to share with graduates next month “some of the things I have learned in business and philanthropy about how to have an impact in society.”

His savvy had a major impact on Berkeley in his role as national annual giving chair during The Campaign for Berkeley, a campuswide fundraising effort that collected $3.13 billion between 2005 and 2013.

And for those who may be curious about the value of an undergraduate degree from Berkeley, Haas had a clear message:

“Berkeley makes you ready to make a difference,” he said. “Eighty percent of students graduate with either a job offer or acceptance to graduate school. And, perhaps more importantly, Berkeley helps shape undergraduates for a lifetime of success by broadening their horizons and underscoring the importance of living your values.”

“Berkeley was a transformational experience for me,” he added, “and I believe the same is true for many of the students in the Class of 2019.”