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McCormick Seniors Celebrate 159th Commencement

Dean Julio M. Ottino and Joe Zadeh delivered remarks

Joe Zadeh (’03), vice president of product at Airbnb, addresses graduates of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering at the 2017 Undergraduate Convocation on June 17, 2017.

Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering celebrated the graduation of its undergraduate Class of 2017 on June 16 and 17 as part of the University’s 159th Commencement.

Graduates from across campus gathered at Ryan Field on Friday morning for the main Commencement exercises, which featured a speech by sports icon Billie Jean King. King told graduates, “It is time for your generation to win and to shape the future.” A pioneering advocate for equal rights and opportunities, she referred to the millennial graduates as “by far the best generation ever” to embrace inclusion of the diverse groups of people who make up the nation.

“Things are changing because of people like you,” King said.

Dean Julio M. OttinoAt McCormick, undergraduate celebrations continued Saturday morning with the School’s Undergraduate Convocation, held at Ryan Field. McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino told the graduates that they have left their mark on Northwestern.

“As a class, you started new student groups, grew our existing groups, and even revitalized older organizations that have been recognized as being among the very best,” he said. “You have traveled the world, volunteering for underserved communities. You have pushed us to grow here at Northwestern, launching new initiatives and projects that will continue long after you have left.”

Joe Zadeh (’03), vice president of product at Airbnb, served as the convocation’s keynote speaker. Zadeh emphasized the importance of persevering through uncomfortable times, as these moments often lead to dramatic personal growth. He first discussed an uncomfortable time in his personal life. After a painful breakup with a girlfriend, he traveled through Spain alone. He decided to try couch-surfing and slept on Belgian student’s apartment floor without any pillows or blankets. The student took him to listen to experimental electronic music and to parties to meet her friends, showed him tricks for saving money, and helped Zadeh become a part of the community.

“And throughout all of that, despite sleeping on the floor, I’m having the best night’s sleep,” Zadeh said. “What began as an uncomfortable solo trip ended in a rich, authentic experience.”

After joining Airbnb, Zadeh experienced a profoundly uncomfortable experience in his professional life. A group of teenaged Airbnb guests trashed a host’s house, resulting in thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. The story became national news, and many experts predicted the crisis would end the new company. In response, Zadeh led Airbnb’s entire technology team to install new trust and safety features.

Airbnb's Joe Zadeh“I was instantly out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I had never led a team before, especially not in a crisis. But I accepted the challenge.”

Within two weeks, Zadeh’s team built and deployed more than 40 trust and safety features. Airbnb paid for full repairs to the host’s house, implemented a $1 million guarantee policy, and has since has hosted more than 180 million guests.

“As I’ve grown with the company over the past several years, I’ve learned that being a leader means, by definition, you are leading people into the unknown,” Zadeh said. “And thus, you will always be in uncomfortable territory. And if it’s not uncomfortable, you’re not trying hard enough.”

At the ceremony, several students received school-wide recognition awards. Joseph Burke received the Ovid W. Eshbach Award; Wendy Roldan received the McCormick Alumni Award; Hyuk Joon “Jake” Song received the Harold B. Gotaas Undergraduate Research Award; and Matthew Amrofell was named the Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Engineering Education Student of the Year.

Ottino ended the commencement ceremony by extending his admiration to the graduates and welcoming them to the McCormick family.

“On behalf of the entire McCormick community, I want to say that it has been an honor and a pleasure to participate in your education and to observe your maturation as individuals and scholars,” Ottino said. “The very best to all of you, and I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at many Northwestern functions over the coming years.”