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LeVar Burton Shares Entrepreneurial Insight

Students Can’t Be Afraid to Fail, Commencement Speaker Says

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Actor and educational entrepreneur LeVar Burton meets Rowdy before delivering his 2015 Commencement address at the Tsongas Center.

By Ed Brennen

When Commencement speaker LeVar Burton, the creative force behind the long-running PBS children’s series “Reading Rainbow,” wanted to make the show’s popular mobile app accessible for free in classrooms, he launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign last May.
It took just 11 hours to reach the initial fundraising goal of $1 million. When the campaign closed 35 days later, it had raised a staggering $5.4 million from a record 105,857 backers.

After delivering a memorable Commencement address that touched on his mother’s educational influence, his lifelong love of science fiction literature, the power of dreams and the importance of thanking those who supported graduates along the way, Burton took time to talk about entrepreneurship, the future of reading and a few other assorted topics.
Q. As a successful entrepreneur, what advice can you give students?

A. The thing I’ve learned most about being an entrepreneur is to not be afraid to fail. I make 10 mistakes practically before I get out of bed every morning, and I’ve learned much more from my failings than I have from my successes in my life. I would encourage anybody who’s contemplating a career as an entrepreneur to remember that it’s not pretty. It’s not for the weak. You really have to have a sense of purpose and determination. You need to be resilient. Life isn’t always fair. It’s gonna knock you down. But it’s those who get up who succeed.
Q. In the entertainment industry, it seems like people no longer work for a studio for 30 or 40 years. Instead it seems like you now really have go out there with your ideas and do the leg work.

A. That’s the good news, the sea change in how entertainment and storytelling is done in the modern era. The studio system no longer has a complete lock on how content gets made, and there’s a much more egalitarian aspect to the many distribution mechanisms that there are. It’s not just three networks and some movie studios, a handful of entities that have all of the power and the say-so. With the digital technologies that exist now, if you have a story to tell and have some skill at being a storyteller, you have an opportunity to have your story out there, and it can be seen.
Q. What do you think about the state of reading today? 

A. One of the reasons why I reinvented Reading Rainbow for this new generation, this digital generation, is because I still saw an opportunity. Television is simply the technology we used in the '80s because that’s where America’s kids were hanging out. If you want to reach kids today, you need to be in the digital realm, and we have kids coming to the Reading Rainbow app reading 200,000 books a week. Now what that says is we can get these kids to come to this very engaging technology to read, not just play games. And that’s all the proof I need that we’re on the right track.
Q. You mentioned that science fiction is your favorite genre of literature. Who are you reading now?

A. Octavia Butler is my favorite science fiction author. And that’s the remarkable thing about the world in which we live today. People ask me all the time, especially where kids are concerned, “Bound books or digital books?” And I just say, “Yes.” Because for me, I just want kids to read, whatever it takes. I’m a firm believer, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will all come to the agreement that it is no longer sustainable to make books out of trees, so that means we will consume a lot more of literature in the digital realm. Does that mean we’re going to stop printing books? No. Not at all. Books and storytelling in that form are just too much a part of the human experience. Does it mean though that we might hold more preciously dear those books that have already been printed? I hope so. I’ve got boxes of books in garages and storage facilities, and it just does no honor to the art form to not have them out and enjoy them. It’s not enough that they’ve been written. They are of no value to humanity unless they are read.
Q. Why did you decide to deliver UMass Lowell’s Commencement address?

A. Higher education is very important to me and my family. I firmly believe that every human being deserves to be literate in at least one language, and this is a big day in the life of every human being who makes this passage. Commencement day is a huge rite of passage in this culture and in many cultures around the world. It is something to be celebrated, so it’s an honor whenever I’m asked to take part in a Commencement exercise.
Q. What message do you hope students took from your speech?

A. The power of the imagination really is where it begins. That is the human superpower — our imagination. Everything that we have in this realm really began as a thought in the mind of man or the mind of God; from my perspective they are indeed one and the same. So the strength of imagination, the power of imagination, and the idea that it is not necessary to know what comes next. Just to focus on the here and now. And like I said: Life, like walking, is a controlled fall. The next step will take care of itself.
Q. What are your impressions of UMass Lowell?

A. There’s a great spirit in this place and it’s clear that Chancellor Meehan is not just respected, but loved in this community. And he has earned that love and respect. He’s a great leader. You see it just being in the man’s presence. He’s a tremendously charismatic leader, and I definitely feel very much the sense of loss — and pride in this community for the job that he’s about to assume. As he moves on to this new position, he’s definitely Lowell’s.
Q. Having a daughter in college, does Commencement resonate a little more for you?

A. Absolutely. My daughter just completed her third year at the University of Michigan. She’ll be a five-year senior because she changed her major from English to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. She’s now an acting major, which makes me enormously proud. And it will make me a little poorer. However, I’m really looking forward to her day. Absolutely.