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Keynote Speakers Pack the House for 'A Day With Northwestern'

Speeches focused on themes of urgency, importance of acting in the here and now

  • Prominent Northwestern alumni and faculty focused on a variety of subjects
  • Alumni Orbert Davis, Howard Tullman delivered compelling keynote addresses
  • Nearly 400 attendees filled the Norris University Center auditorium

EVANSTON, Ill. --- It was standing room only in Norris University Center’s auditorium for inspiring keynote addresses by Chicago-area luminaries at Northwestern University’s annual event, “A Day With Northwestern.”

Presented by the Northwestern Alumni Association (NAA) and open to the public, nearly 400 attendees gathered for the sold-out program April 9 to hear riveting keynote addresses from Orbert Davis, an Emmy Award-winning musician and co-founder, conductor and artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and Howard Tullman, CEO of Chicago’s 1871 startup incubator, as they highlighted the day’s presentations from prominent Northwestern alumni and faculty.

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Though from different backgrounds and industries, both keynote speakers focused on a similar theme of urgency and the importance of acting in the current moment.

Davis’ speech, “The Urgency of Now,” focused on four key elements to pursuing anything important in life: dreams, faith, opportunity and work.

“Dreams should always evolve,” he said. “My dream was to be a musician and a catalyst for change. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, and faith is positioned by opportunity, which is built upon work.” 

Davis earned his master’s degree at Northwestern in jazz pedagogy in 1997 but said his passion while here was to learn as much as he could about African and African-American history.

“I spent some of my fondest hours at the Melvin J. Herskovits Library of African Studies,” Davis said. “It changed my life.”

Davis’ organization, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, focuses on music performance, education and cultural diplomacy.

“We believed that music is the medicine for students who are at risk for failure … and we believed that music involvement can save lives,” Davis said, recounting why he founded music education programs for Chicago children.

 Davis spoke about establishing relationships and exchange programs with young musicians from Cuba. He helped bring a group of Cuban musicians to Chicago and Northwestern in 2015.  

“We wanted our students to see the splendor of Northwestern,” Davis said. “Because if you saw their facilities in Cuba, you would cry … But maybe you wouldn’t, because when you hear these kids play, it’s mind-blowing.”

During his speech, Davis played video clips from performances and at one point spontaneously grabbed his trumpet and played to illustrate how improvisation (in music and life) means responding to the moment.

True to his industry, keynote speaker Tullman, a member of the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s class of 1970 and a 1967 graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, spoke swiftly and concisely. His speech focused on seven current and future trends in technology and social media, and his first point was about time being the scarcest resource of all:

  1. “Time is the single vector on which every business will have to compete. Today, it’s not the big that eat the little; it’s the fast that eat the slow. If you’re not in a big hurry, you’re probably too late.”
  2. “Data is the oil of the digital age,” Tullman said, adding that the most important thing about the Internet is that it allows us to measure what users are doing, take information and turn it into insights.
  3. You are competing against everything for people’s attention, and “the clutter is accelerating,” he said.
  4. Social marketers and companies should aim for “engagement, not eyeballs,” he observed. Don’t raise your voice, he said. Improve your arguments. People want engaging, relevant and customized content in the right place at the right time. 
  5. “We live in a world of constant connectivity,” he said. More people have cellphones than ever had landlines. Worldwide, there are more phones than toilets, he noted.
  6. Tullman spoke about the importance of “cyberspace, not any place.” Today, he said, “real time matters, not real place, because we can be anywhere and everywhere at the same time.”
  7. The Internet is changing attitudes toward sharing, reputation and trust, Tullman said. Studies show that people don’t trust each other as individuals, but they do trust “the crowd” that reviews and offers products or online services they value. For example, through Airbnb, many people will open their homes to strangers. It’s still unclear where this trend will lead, he said, but it’s something to watch.

Tullman ended with a series of tips and practical advice for innovators and would-be entrepreneurs. His bottom line: Start now, focus and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

“Your greatest fear should never be failing,” he concluded. “It should be spending your life succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.”

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