Revering Tradition, Charting Unconventional Paths

Rotary Centennial Celebration

By Nathan O. Hatch

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Thank you, Tom, for your warm introduction. I am deeply grateful for your brilliant talents in shaping Wake Forest as the lively and nationally recognized center of learning that it is today. Tonight, let me join in paying tribute to your visionary leadership, which has greatly strengthened the fabric of this community. I salute your civic leadership as well, and I pledge to follow your example of finding synergies between a dynamic university and the city that it is blessed to call home.

I am also deeply grateful to this Rotary Club and its members for such a warm welcome. Your civic leadership in this community over the last ninety years has been extraordinary. Your members have been pivotal in building the modern Winston-Salem—including the move of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine to this community and, later, all of Wake Forest. Thank you for all that you have done, as a group and as individuals, to make this a vibrant and thriving community.

I have a very warm spot in my heart for Rotary because it was one of the loves of my grandfather’s life. In the 1950s, when I was a young lad visiting him in Charlotte, he would always speak of his Rotary friends and the weekly meetings he would never miss, even going out of his way to find clubs whenever he traveled. Like my predecessors at Wake Forest, I would indeed be honored to accept an invitation to join this club, which is so richly intertwined with the history of Winston-Salem and of Wake Forest.

Tonight, we are celebrating a rich tradition. We are honoring the past, its milestones, and the legendary leaders who built this club and this community. Yet even as we honor tradition, I would like to suggest that Winston-Salem cannot afford to be traditional. My thesis is that even as we revere tradition, today we must chart unconventional paths.

In recent weeks I have been reading Thomas L. Friedman’s new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. This book grips one simultaneously with excitement and with dread. Friedman’s thesis is that in the last decade the world has undergone an information and communications revolution, creating a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for intellectual work to be delivered from anywhere. Cheap and powerful computers combine with a worldwide network of fiber-optic cables and satellites to allow collaboration in real time without regard to geography. Radiologists can send CAT scans to be read in Australia, and American tax returns can be—and are—prepared by the hundreds of thousands in India.

For Friedman, the world is flat not just because back office work and call centers have moved abroad. More ominously, the next generation of creative work in technology design, biotechnology, and software application can just as easily come from India, China, South Korea, Malaysia, or Eastern Europe. China is currently producing 350,000 engineers annually, and India produces six times more engineers annually than the United States. The research team that Microsoft set up in Beijing several years ago already is the company’s most productive.

Friedman concludes that on this global economic playing field the U.S. and Europe have lost much of their competitive advantage. “When I was growing up,” Friedman notes, “my parents used to say to me, ‘Tom, finish your dinner; people in China are starving.’ But after sailing to the edges of the flat world for a year, I am now telling my own daughters, ‘Girls, finish your homework—people in China and India are starving for your jobs.'”

We live in rapidly changing, even convulsive, economic times. The economy of Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad once had tremendously stable economic pillars—tobacco, textiles and clothing, furniture, and banking. The tectonic plates of each of these industries has already shifted drastically, and there are few signs that we have achieved equilibrium.

I applaud the innovative moves that this community has taken to think out of the box and to move in bold, new economic directions by luring the Dell manufacturing facility to this community, launching the Piedmont Triad Research Park, and revitalizing downtown Winston-Salem.

Our best hope for the future is to develop intellectual capital. That is why life science, health care, and biotechnology are so important. I agree that the Piedmont Triad Research Park is a key plank for regional economic revitalization.

Yet to carve out beachheads in this area will not be sure or automatic. Let me suggest that to succeed in the flattened world that Friedman describes, no community can rest on its laurels. We must go the second mile to collaborate, to innovate, and to pursue aggressively our goals. I pledge the resources of Wake Forest to convene leaders to discuss these issues and to bring appropriate expertise and leverage to undertake new opportunities. Wake Forest has bold dreams for the future; we hope to pursue them in concert with this community.

Winston-Salem must also continue its path of innovation. I appreciate Don Flow’s reflections about what it took to land the Dell Plant. “You’ve got to recapture imagination,” he said. “If you want to see change, it starts with imagining something different.” We must imagine new opportunities and pursue them relentlessly.

As we look to an uncharted future, what gives me great optimism is the powerful tradition of this community. It is a welcoming place, a community-minded place, a wonderful place for families. It is sophisticated, livable, and affordable. It is a center of health care and the arts. It is ideally located, with great educational institutions. It is a place that has been blessed with gifted leaders and great community spirit—both reflected so well in the Rotary Club whose history we honor.

I look forward to collaborating with so many here tonight to build Winston-Salem and the Triad area into a community whose future for all its citizens will be as bright as the history that you in Rotary celebrate tonight.