Kenneth Cole, an American fashion designer and social activist, will be this year’s speaker at Class Day, a ceremony for the baccalaureate graduates from Emory College, Goizueta Business School, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and the School of Medicine’s Medical Imaging Program. Class Day is a student-organized ceremony that traditionally takes place the Thursday before Commencement and involves the presentation of the class gift, awards and a keynote speech, according to the Class Day website.
Cole graduated as an undergraduate from Emory College in 1976, and, that summer, he began to work for his father’s Brooklyn shoe factory, according to the Harvard Business Review.
After turning the company into a $100 million corporation, Cole started his own fashion company, Kenneth Cole Productions in 1982. Since then, the company has developed five brands, creating shoes, accessories and men and women’s clothing.
Additionally famous for his social activism, Cole was one of the first members of the fashion community to take a stance in the fight against AIDS in 1985.
“AIDS was a problem nobody was speaking about,” Cole told the Harvard Business Review in a 2011 interview. “We didn’t know how to cure it, but we knew how to contain it. The biggest obstacle was the stigma. So, I did a campaign showing most of the big models in our industry at the time and children. The message was ‘For the future of our children, support AIDS research’.”
Cole’s charity has extended to Emory as well.
Over the years he has given numerous gifts that have helped establish a community-building training program to give students skills to aid numerous community issues such as poverty, infrastructure, local businesses and education, according to the Emory Commencement website.
In 1999, Cole was also awarded the Emory Medal, an award given by the Emory Alumni Boards’ Nominating and Leadership Committee.
The award recognizes either distinguished service to Emory, distinguished community or public service or distinguished achievement in a profession, according to the Alumni Association website.
“He meets so many of the criteria for a good Class Day speaker,” Executive Director at the Office of University Events Michael Kloss wrote in an email to the Wheel. “[He is a] well known name who will attract interest and excitement about the event, [he has] proven leadership in a professional field, [has a] multi-faced role [and] business and community engagement and [has] the shared experience of an Emory degree.”
Because Cole reached out to Emory last summer about coming back to speak, Kloss noted that this year’s Class Day speaker selection process proceeded differently than in the past.
“I spoke with the student committee right when they were beginning to compile names about this opportunity, since Mr. Cole’s name consistently appeared on the student annual speaker wish list,” Kloss said. “They decided that now was indeed the perfect time to extend the invitation.”
Class Committee Chair and College senior Breanna McElroy explained that Cole stood out to the committee in particular because he was an Emory alumni who was famous for both business and activism.
She hopes that Cole will share experiences from his time at Emory and will also give tips and pointers, that were beneficial to his success, to the graduating class.
“[Cole’s] business acumen and support of progressive social causes, along with a passion for Emory, makes him an exceptional choice for speaker,” McElroy said. “We couldn’t be happier that his desire to come back to speak to the students corresponded with an opportunity to extend a Class Day speaking invitation.”