HEC’s 143th Commencement ceremony took place on June 9th and 10th in Jouy-en-Josas. Close to 3000 people gathered each day under the marquee looking over the gardens. This year, for the ceremony for post-experience students, Sophie Bellon, CEO and chairwoman of Sodexo, gave a speech along with four graduates from Russia, France, Aruba, and Qatar. Surprising the audience, one of the most famous African bands performed live on stage before hats were thrown.

Caps and gowns started flooding the marquee in the early afternoon of May 10th. The staging makes it a bit formal, but graduates could not keep a straight face. Their huge smiles echoed the over-excited laughter of their loved ones in the audience. Some came with their kids. Some were being watched online by their relatives who could not make it to Paris – well, to Jouy-en-Josas. About a thousand students graduated that day, coming from all parts of the world.

This ceremony was dedicated to MBAs, EMBAs and all the other executive programs. Most of them had to juggle family life, responsibilities back home, and a demanding curricula. That might be the reason why, this year, all the speakers went on sharing vulnerability and opening up about the difficulty of pursuing education when already well into adulthood. No one said they wouldn’t do it again, though.

Sophie Bellon, CEO and chairwoman of French group Sodexo © Noé Bugnot

It started with Sophie Bellon, chairwoman of Sodexo, a leading French food services and facilities management company. Her father, Pierre Bellon, who founded the company, was also an alumnus and a major donor to the school. He obsessionally wanted HEC for his education: it took him four years to get in.

When her daughter Sophie took on heading up the group, she had some serious reactions to stress, as she chose to share with the assembly: « I became CEO of a 500-million-euro business unit in France. On my first day, I attended a meeting with 18 members of my future leadership team and when I got in the room my heart began to race. I felt hot. My body was telling me, what are you doing here? Get out. »

« I was told that these roles were not for women because they involve a lot of travel. », she added. Words that resonate with this year’s 50th anniversary of the opening of the school to women. Her life advice for graduates was less about being dazzling successful than steady life-long learners: « Never be paralyzed by the search for perfection. By nature, it is out of reach. Progress on the contrary is accessible to all, no matter the issue you’re dealing with and no matter where you start from. »

Anna Dragina, an MBA graduate from Russia © Noé Bugnot

Stories that followed were about sacrifices and solidarity. Yet, she comes on stage like a thunderbolt, a happy-go-lucky look on her face: Anna Dragina’s energy was contagious. A MBA graduate coming from Russia, she initially expected to come here to share some of that Russian culture (ballet, literature, etc). Her experience took a much darker turn when the war in Ukraine started – something she cannot publicly talk about now as she fears persecution. “The war. Fear for my family. Not being able to go to them. Financial struggles. Relationship crisis. Depression. There were many challenges which threatened to prevent me from ever completing this MBA.”

« Most of us take a bumpy road of personal growth. And no one ever tells you what a messy thing it is. I’m extremely impressed by all the people who pursued that intentionally », she continued as she also recalled joyful times like the BBQ days by the lake. « It is a rare and precious thing to find a community that will celebrate with you the big moments, like finding a job, and make sure that you are experiencing life at its fullest. But it’s even a rarer thing to find a community that will help you lift you up when you are falling. »

“Painful for its sacrifices, happy for its victories”

« Completing this master’s program was the second hardest milestone I have done after I pushed my daughter out. », said the hilarious and energetic Kirti Daryanani from Aruba, who graduated from a MSc in Innovation & Entrepreneurship. « This adventure is painful for its sacrifices, but happy for its victories. », sums up José Marveaux a French Global Executive master’s in management graduate. I have been able to live through it thanks to a pedagogy permanently based on teamwork, case-solving, taking responsibility, and benevolence. »

After a thought for fellow colleagues who suffered personal tragedies while studying, Noor Al-Hori, a Qatari graduate from Doha’s Executive MBA, applauded the investment in education and talents in her homeland. « I’m also super proud to see here today our colleagues from Ryadh who are already actually engaging and using their newly developed knowledge and skills to innovate and to drive change in the Middle Eastern region! », she added.

All of a sudden, Magic System turned up 

Then the crowd quivered as the hosts of the ceremony announced Salif Traoré. His stage name is A’salfo, leader of the famous Ivorian band Magic System. He just graduated from a Global Executive Master’s in Management. He is also the president of a foundation and a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. Far away from the music scene, he decided to pursue a degree at HEC at a time “cultural and creative industries are expanding in Africa. I had to arm myself, I had to go back to school, I had to train myself to be able to have the necessary tools to face this challenge, in the face of this new world, the digital age that is coming. We shouldn’t be behind.”, he later told HEC Stories.

When he turned to the audience, he said he tried to entrust ChatGPT with his speech. “But ChatGPT doesn’t know everything: these moments we lived, these experiences we shared. Now, I’m gonna do what I do best.” Magic System performed their all-time hit “Premier Gaou” and their last one, “Magic in The Air”. For the first time in the school’s history, hats were thrown after dancing to the sound of coupé-décalé. 

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