Embrace doubt, but don't doubt everything: SXSW Interactive opening keynote Casey Gerald

Former MBAs Across America CEO was on stage before President Barack Obama

Posted March 11th, 2016

Erika Rich for American-StatesmanCasey Gerald, co-founder and CEO of MBAs Across America, delivers the opening keynote at The Long Center for SXSW Interactive on Friday, March 11, 2016.

If you think you're a pretty good orator, here's a challenge: try going up as an opening act for President Barack Obama.

That was the challenge for opening keynote speaker Casey Gerald at 1 p.m. Friday, just an hour and a half before the president was scheduled to speak at South by Southwest Interactive, a first for a sitting president.

Gerald, the 29-year-old founder of the now-defunct MBAs Across America, was up to the challenge in a sermon-like version of his recent TED Talk on the theme of embracing doubt, which itself followed up a very popular 2014 talk at Harvard Business School. Delivered at The Long Center to a room of reporters, city dignitaries waiting for Obama and those who won a lottery entrance to see the POTUS, Gerald used his significant public speaking chops to stir the imagination with a talk that stretched from 1999 to a stint as an intern at Lehman Bros. (in 2008, no less) to helping nonprofits develop entrepreneurial skills.

The organization he founded "Spread because we found a deep hunger in our generation for purpose an meaning," Gerald said. It found entrepreneurs in "Nooks and crannies, who needed a little help.. I was the dialysis for a country that needed a kidney transplant."

It was a neat, riveting piece of theater, a little ephemeral, but once Gerald sat down with interviewer Jeff Salamon for an interview following up from a Texas Monthly piece, things came back down to earth a little. He even admitted he had trouble sleeping and was falling apart Thursday night over the pressure of speaking before Obama. 

When Salamon asked why Gerald would choose to walk away from, and in effect shut down, a nonprofit that was working well. Gerald , who hails from Oak Cliff, Texas, admitted that his decision created tension, even with those close to him.

"To be honest with you people were quite upset," Gerald said. "People on staff were quite upset." But, he said, the goal was never to be a ever-growing. "We started this not to build some huge organization. It was, what if we used all this education we got not just to make a buck but to make a difference?"

Gerald is now working on a book project and asked SXSW attendees not necessarily to doubt everything, but to doubt those who say they have all the answers (a timely idea in an election year).

He advised those in attendance to live a true life: "There's an extraordinary cost to living a fraudulent life... I mean living in a way that is not engaging in an exercise of liberation," Gerald said.


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