Kenny Vaughn, MBA 16, danced on stage at the 2022 DEI Symposium to the beat of his classmate Ace Patterson’s (also known as Call Me Ace) song, “No Assistance,” prompting applause, laughter, and a few hoots of recognition. He wondered out loud what you had to do to get invited back to Berkeley Haas as a speaker.
One answer, he mused, was “You got to be rich. Not just rich, you got to be wealthy. But that’s OK because, I am, actually, a billionaire.”
In traditional MBA fashion, Kenny followed up by talking numbers, starting with a number that every human has in common: heartbeats. At an average resting heart rate of 75 beats per minute, he calculated, our hearts beat 40 million times in a year. “Suddenly, at age 30, I realized that I was a billionaire. In fact, I had been a billionaire for five years! Almost everyone in this room is a billionaire! And if you’re not 25 yet, hang on, you’ll get there.”
If heartbeats seem like an unusual way to measure wealth, Kenny reminded the audience of a fundamental definition every MBA learns in Intro to Finance: Currency is a store of value and a method of exchange. For Kenny, heartbeats are the currency we should value most. Instead of merely spending time—and heartbeats—people are better off spending time plus attention, which equals intention, according to Kenny. Intention delivers a better return on your investment for you and the people around you.
How does Kenny invest those heartbeats? His biggest holdings are in joy, gratitude, and love. He invests them following nine “principles of the heart” which he outlined by taking the audience through his life journey, including his “transformational” time at Berkeley Haas.
He related his first principle, “manifest the remarkable uniqueness of you,” to his childhood. “I was an Army brat. Because we moved around a lot, I was always the new kid. I had the choice to be friendly or to be lonely. Being friendly is a lot more fun and productive.”
He used his own military career—a West Point graduate, he served several years in Korea, rising to the role of company commander—to his second principle: Reframe happiness as a verb. “My wife served in Korea at the same time as me, but in typical fashion, she was stationed three hours away. Happy became traveling to see her. Happy became making a meal for our son.”
Kenny continues finding happiness in his career. After completing the full-time MBA program at Berkeley Haas, he served as director of Diversity Admissions & Outreach at West Point. There, he happily led the effort to matriculate three of the four most diverse classes in the Academy’s history.
Gratitude plays a huge role in Kenny’s life and his investment theory. “Thank you are the two most important words I know. They are saying ‘I see you. I appreciate you. I acknowledge you.’ We all need to plant seeds of gratitude, graciously, in our lives,” Kenny said. As photos of his Haas classmates and study group, of the Consortium Fellows, of former Dean Rich Lyons and Marco Lindsey, associate director, DEI, flashed on the screen, Kenny spoke about the importance of “being present in gratitude.”
And as he changed from button-down and suit jacket to T-shirt and leather jacket, replacing his dress shoes with red Ferrari Pumas, Kenny recalled the ”profound, beautiful and painful conversations” shared at the Brothers Luncheons, initiated by Lindsey.
His wardrobe transformation complete, deliberately lying face-down on the floor, his arms behind his back, Kenny spoke George Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”
“Oppression,” Kenny declared, “reveals our common humanity. We all have heartbeats. We all need to leave behind the shackles of racism, classism, materialism, and other isms. We need to go beyond the pain. We need to leverage our emotions and galvanize ourselves and others.”
Life isn’t happening to you, it is happening through you. The joy and the trauma in my life make me what I am. And that reverberates down through the generations.”
From there, Kenny segued into his belief that “life isn’t happening to you, it is happening through you. The joy and the trauma in my life make me what I am. And that reverberates down through the generations. Four generations of my family have served in the U.S. military; I carry that history with me.”
Leaving the military gave Kenny insights into another investment principle: Fall in love with the journey, not the destination. When he left the U. S. Army in 2021, Kenny, like all service veterans, found himself suddenly in control of his next move. “When you’re in the Army, you are given your next assignment. Now, no one was telling me what to do,” he recalled. “When you’re not always chasing or anticipating the next thing, you get to slow down. You get to look around and go toward the people and places that bring you joy.” For now, that is Louisville, Kentucky, close to family, where he works as a senior manager, Transformation & Operations with Indeed.
Citing the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Kenny talked about “the drum major instinct that makes us want to be out front working for hope, for equality, and for excellence. And that is important work. But the greatest change each of us can make comes from within. It comes from spending our heartbeats wisely, with intention.”
Watch Kenny Vaughn’s complete presentation, Born a Billionaire: Reimagining Wealth in the Pursuit of Happiness.
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