June 14, 2018 by American College of Sofia
Commencement Address – May 18, 2018
Theodora first set foot on the ACS campus in 1992. During her five years here, Theodora was passionate about English poetry and Bulgarian literature, and harbored a deep fear of math, physics and philosophy. She played the piano almost as much as she attended classes, under the tutelage of the awesome Ms. Angelova. Theodora also discovered her love of acting – headlining in the role of a fat lady in a Polish play called Who Laughs Last and in a tiny role in the musical The Fantasticks. After graduating from ACS in 1997, Theodora attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where she studied Political Science and Economics. Following graduation in 2001, she became an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in New York for 12 years, after which she took a senior financial role at Harvard University. Theodora has served on the ACS board of trustees since 2012. She lives in Boston, MA with her husband Daniel and her two sons, Svetlin and Kalin.
Class of 2018, hello! What an honor to be joining your special day today!
I have to tell you, there’s nothing more effective in making you feel old than being invited to speak at the high school graduation of people who weren’t even born when you graduated high school! My first thought was, nah, I’m not ready to share wisdom with young people! Thanks, Dr. Ewing, but please invite someone with actual wisdom! Then I realized – wait, I’m 40 years old, I can figure this out! I can just steal other people’s great ideas! So I went to my 6-year-old son. I said, Svetli what should I talk to them about? He said, “Star Wars!” Then I went to a fellow ACS alumnus; he said, “Gotta mention The Hunger Games, so they know you’re not a total dinosaur!” Finally, I asked a colleague in his 50’s and he said, “Talk about world hunger and solving world peace.” Thanks for the advice, guys! So here I am. I promise to cover each of these gems, and to keep you awake – just pay close attention and clap when you hear each of them.
I wanted to speak to you today about leadership and your important role as leaders. I was introduced to leadership by ACS. After 9th grade, ACS sent me to a leadership camp in the U.S., where the long-standing moto was “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” In other words, we can complain or run away from a problem – or we can look for a solution. We can give up or we can remain enthusiastic and determined.
We can accept the way things are or we can challenge them.
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” It seems like this saying is especially important today, in a world of escalating conflict, human strife near and far, and an always unstable economy that affects our most vulnerable citizens first. “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I’ve tried to live by this moto as much as possible. And I am heartened to see our own community of ACS alumni live by it, too. Just the other day I had lunch with a wonderful young leader, Georgi Klissurski, Class of 2010, who loves his country almost as much as he loves ACS. I am certain that one day he will be the President of Bulgaria. In the meantime, he leads with his actions in his ACS community and in his graduate work at the Harvard Kennedy School. There are many examples like him in our ACS community of alumni.
ACS, of course, was re-built in huge part by a formidable leader who, too, decided to light a candle rather than curse the darkness in 1992, Dr. Roger Whitaker. As we heard earlier this afternoon, none of this – not the school, not the beautiful campus with a glorious, new Campus Center, not 21 years of alumni – 21! – would have happened without him. Dr. Whitaker is the vision and the brawn behind the gorgeous reality we’re sharing today. In the time I’ve had the privilege to serve on the board of trustees under his leadership, I have seen in Dr. Whitaker the perfect embodiment of grace, patience, respect for fellow humans, and an almost pathological obsession with baseball. My class, your class, and many classes after us will be deeply indebted to the quiet, resolute and charismatic leadership of this exceptional man.
But the best ACS leaders yet are all of you. You are our youngest, smartest, and most ambitious. And so I want to share with you some of my learnings from all sorts of trials, tribulations, successes and failures, to help inspire the growing leader in you.
Be brave. When you wonder if to do or not, do. If you question whether to go or not, go. When you hesitate if you should speak up or not, speak.
Explore, jump in, have an opinion, disagree, defend your beliefs. Now is the time to challenge, experiment, figure out where you stand and where you want to go.
There is much to be resolved in this world – world hunger, world peace! (audience clapping) We need your bravery, determination, and opinion to get solutions. In the timeless words of Yoda, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (audience clapping)
Surprise yourself. When you get to university, take a class in a very unfamiliar area or join a club you have zero prior experience in. You may enjoy yourself more than you ever imagined. I waited until my senior year in college to take art history – I’m so glad I did take it, it became the true love of my life. The play I acted in while at ACS was the first time I ever acted on stage. Acting is now such an important part of my daily job – I do finance :-).
Make many mistakes. But just the right kind. I don’t believe we should try to avoid mistakes in life – on the contrary, a good mistake is a great lesson. The trick is to make the right kind of mistake – not a stupid mistake that you could avoid or know is a worthless waste of time. My favorite mistake? Working 18-hour days in my first two years in investment banking. At the time, at age 23, 24, 25 I lived in the greatest city in the world – bustling, never-sleeping, colorful New York – and I barely ever left my office. I wanted to earn lots of money, succeed in my career, be appreciated as a professional. And I did achieve all of that. But I also learned that my job didn’t love me like my friends loved me, and will now tell everyone who listens not to ever make that work-life balance choice, no matter the job, their age or the city they live in.
Find a mentor or someone who can offer advice in unfamiliar situations. It took me a long time to realize that I’m not expected to have all the answers all the time. It’s very, very helpful to ask other people to help you or share their perspective. Like I asked all those people about my speech! And I’m doing a good job, right?
Be a mentor to those around you. Feeling responsible for the success of another person is a very important growth opportunity. And it is such a fulfilling emotion to share in someone else’s goals and aspirations, achievements and temporary setbacks. These people may end up teaching you more than you teach them – and in the process, you’ll become friends for life.
Keep your accent and your last name. Wherever you go next, appreciate the beautiful world of diversity and uniqueness we all live in. Share your beauty and your uniqueness. Each one of you is a shining gem – with your background, your perspective, your experiences. Do not attempt to assimilate, neutralize, or downplay your language, your love of family and country, the blood in your veins. Especially in moments of difficulty or indifference, that sense of belonging will carry you forward. Just look at my name, and you know I speak from experience – on many occasions I’ve regretted not slashing 80% of it and calling myself Theodora Ko. But the sacrifice never, ever felt worth it enough. I even gave my two Boston-residing sons Bulgarian names – hopefully, my little gems Svetlin and Kalin won’t hate me for it when they’re your age.
And lastly, give back to ACS. Get in touch with current students. Stay in touch with each other and with alumni who may need your advice at school or at work… or when writing a high school graduation speech. Consider volunteering on our committees and on the Board of trustees. And in everything you do, continue to represent the rare gift and life lesson that ACS has been for you. Without your continuing help, the ACS of the future will not be as beautiful, as impactful or as lasting.
Class of 2018 – May the odds be ever in your favor! (audience clapping) Congratulations.
 Theodora’s husband’s last name is Ko.