Operation HOPE founder instills values in students at ceremony

By Howard Koplowitz
Thursday, June 9, 2011 11:12 AM EDT

John Hope Bryant challenged the more than 2,500 graduates of Queens College to change the world and take advantage of the education they received at the Fresh Meadows school during graduation ceremonies last Thursday.

Bryant, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit that helps poor Los Angeles residents out of poverty, said the story of the graduates “is my story.

“Where else can you go in America [for $5,000-a-year tuition] that will provide $5 million in income to you in your working life?” said Bryant, who was tapped by President Barack Obama to be part of his Advisory Council on Financial Capability.

Bryant said the country’s economic crisis was not an economic one but “a crisis of virtues and values.

“Too many people in this crisis were treated as transactions and not as relationships,” he said, referring to the millions who were offered predatory loans and wound up in foreclosure.

Bryant also said there is a new definition of “poverty” — that being broke is an economic condition while “poor” is a condition of the spirit.

“You must vow never, ever, ever be poor again,” he said. “You’ve redefined success as going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

Bryant advised the students that money does not mean everything in life.

“What defined me was 10 years old and seeing a role model,” he said, noting he started a candy store at 18 but then wound up homeless living in a Jeep “for believing too much of my own press.”

He then started an auto business that made $23 million a year, but after the Los Angeles riots that erupted after Rodney King was assaulted by a group of white police officers, he decided to found Operation HOPE.

Bryant was greeted to a standing ovation and given Queens College’s Presidential Medal, which he called “my Nobel Peace Prize.”

Graduate Erica Rodriguez said Bryant’s speech “was really impactful.”

“He basically summed up what we came to college to do — to make an impact later on,” she said.

Olivier Noel said graduation “was a release” after finishing his last semester with nine classes worth 25 credits. He is headed to Penn State to start medical school.

The graduates also heard from their valedictorian, Fresh Meadows resident Anita Sonawane, who first stepped onto the campus at 14 years old as a student at Townsend Harris High School.

“I will truly be leaving home as I know it,” she said. “It had been an unbelievable four years.”

Sonawane reflected on the diversity of Queens College, talking about how she observed one Arab and two Jewish students discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while respecting the differences in their opinions.

“My education, our education at this campus took place not only inside, but outside the classroom,” she said.

Sonawane urged her classmates to be “relentless” and finding a cause they are passionate about.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc., author of Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business book LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and a Member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability.

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