Change the status quo and don't keep quiet about your accomplishments, but know this: not every accomplishment is created equal.
That was the message that musician and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams had for NYU's graduating class on Wednesday. At a ceremony at Yankee Stadium, Williams received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree before delivering a commencement speech to the class of 2017.
Williams went out of his way to highlight the achievements of his fellow honorary recipients, instead of talking about his own success. He shared the stage with Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who led the American response to the Ebola crisis; French Nobel Prize-winning chemist Jean-Marie Lehn; former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who has become a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011; and her husband, astronaut-turned-activist Mark Kelly. They all have one thing in common, Williams noted--service.
"In this day and age, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it's those who serve humanity that make the world really go round," Williams said.
The musician, who has about 10 million followers on both Twitter and Instagram to go with his 10 Grammys, advised the graduates that social media is not the stuff of real influence.
"This group of activists and scientists and public servants cannot be bothered with their numbers of Instagram followers or views on YouTube," he said. "But they're the real influencers who make us better and more intelligent. Their work is for others, not just themselves. They're motivated not by attention, but by idea of creating change for the better." Williams paused. "I personally find that incredible inspiring," he said. "I hope you guys do as well."
Williams went on to offer his own version of how to succeed both professionally and personally, by taking action--and striking the right balance of self-promotion.
"Engage and inspire, whether on an individual level or loudly within your communities," he said. "Talk about your accomplishments. It's very important. Be humble, but not too humble. Don't be invisible. The days of being anonymous activist or participant are over. How can we inspire if we are only behind the scenes? How will an anonymous donation ever inspire another? That was the way of previous generations. No disrespect, but don't be like them. Let your actions serve as an endorsement."
On that front, Williams has his hands in both nonprofit and for-profit endeavors. Like many artists, he has parlayed his music fame into a successful business empire. Williams launched his flagship apparel brands, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, in 2005, and the companies have combined for more than $25 million in annual sales in recent years. In 2012, Williams founded I Am Other, which houses his clothing companies and serves as a media company and record label. His non-profit venture, From One Hand to Another, provides educational tools to schools in low income areas, and he's involved with a number of children's charities.
Williams's services as a designer and fashionista have been in high demand: He serves as the creative director for Bionic Yarn, a startup that makes clothing out of recycled materials, and holds the same position for American Express's Platinum Card. He's partnered with companies like Adidas, Uniqlo and Louis Vuitton to design products ranging from sneakers to sunglasses. In all, Williams's various ventures have put his net worth at an estimated $100 million.
"All of this is school for me," he has said previously about his diverse set of collaborations. "I didn't go to college. This is my college."