Business Wisdom from the Commencement Speakers of 2014

Business Wisdom from the Commencement Speakers of 2014

by Walter Frick  |   9:00 AM June 12, 2014

Commencement speakers face an impossible challenge: to inspire, advise, and entertain, without overstaying their welcome. In the age of YouTube, there’s the added pressure to craft a speech that could go viral, and perhaps even inspire a book. And this year, those invited to take the podium were no doubt aware of the student protests that forced some speakers to cancel.

It’s understandable then that speakers fall back on a similar set of themes: graduates should dream big, failure is part of the path to success, this generation comes to the rescue of a world in need of saving. Nonetheless, several of this year’s speakers put their own unique spin on these and other themes, like Janet Yellen’s inspiring description of her predecessor Ben Bernanke, or Sal Khan putting the profit motive in historical perspective. Others found a fresh angle through their own stories, like Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya speaking of the unusual first order he gave as CEO.

What follows is a short recap of some of the best bits from this year’s commencements, as related to business and career success.

Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, speaking at City Colleges of Chicago

Sometimes big dreams can be overwhelming. It feels like you can’t get from point A to point C. Well the good news is you don’t have to. You just have to get from point A to point B, then from B to C, and so on and so forth. Breaking really big dreams into small steps is the best way to get there… Start by figuring out where you want to go, and aiming high, then take the first step in that direction.

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, speaking at University at Albany

My first board meeting…they’re looking at me as if I have the magic answers. And one of them, Mike, he says “What now?” I said we’re going to go to the Ace store and we’re going to buy some white paint and we’re going to paint the outside. He said, “Those walls haven’t been painted for the last 15 years, don’t you have anything else to worry about?” I said, But they don’t look good, we need to do something about it. He said, “Do you have any other plan other than painting the walls?” I said, No. But, my friends, one of the best things I’ve done, in summer of 2005, was start painting the wall. I didn’t have a lot of answers… but that summer we painted those walls… Along the way I came up with more ideas… This poet who lived in Turkey Rumi says, “If you start walking the way, the way appears.” And the word that I said, without that much wisdom, that let’s start to paint, was the first very step of Chobani.

(Read HBR’s interview with Ulukaya.)

So don’t focus too much on making plans that you’ll just have to revise anyway

Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, speaking at Johns Hopkins University

So maybe one thing more to try to remember is plans are made to be broken. You need to be prepared to explore a bit, to make decisions, on what you find, enjoy, discover. I never would have experienced any of that — I never would have discovered that technology could be creative, I never would have started my career in tech, joined Google, led Youtube — if I had tried to stick to a specific plan that I had made when I was your age. The Internet as we know it didn’t exist yet when I graduated. We need to think of our plans as written in pencil, not pen.

After all, the world is changing too quickly

Steve Blank, consulting associate professor at Stanford University, speaking at ESADE

I’d like to start with a request. Everyone, hold your phone up in the air like this. Now look around. In this sea of phones do you see any Blackberries? How about any Nokia phones?… Think about this; 7 years ago Nokia owned 50% of the handset market. Apple owned 0%.  In fact, it was only 7 years ago that Apple shipped its first iPhone and Google introduced its Android operating system. Fast-forward to today—Apple is the most profitable Smartphone company in the world and in Spain Android commands a market share of more than 90%.  And Nokia?  Its worldwide market share of Smartphones has dwindled to 5%. You’re witnessing creative destruction and disruptive innovation at work. It’s the paradox of progress in a capitalist economy. So congratulations graduates – as you move forward in your careers, you’ll be face to face with innovation that’s relentless.

Everyone faces challenges, the difference is in how we respond to them

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, speaking at Wake Forest University

Graduating from Wake Forest means all of you have experienced success already and some of you — and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejections from grad school — you know the sting of losing, or not getting the thing you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, speaking at NYU

There is an unfortunate myth that success is mainly determined by something called “ability.” But research indicates that our best measures of these qualities are unreliable predictors of performance in academics or employment. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth says that what really matters is a quality she calls “grit”–an abiding commitment to work hard toward long-range goals and to persevere through the setbacks that come along the way.

One aspect of grit that I think is particularly important is the willingness to take a stand when circumstances demand it. Such circumstances may not be all that frequent, but in every life, there will be crucial moments when having the courage to stand up for what you believe will be immensely important.

My predecessor at the Fed, Chairman Ben Bernanke, demonstrated such courage, especially in his response to the threat of the financial crisis. To stabilize the financial system and restore economic growth, he took courageous actions that were unprecedented in ambition and scope. He faced relentless criticism, personal threats, and the certainty that history would judge him harshly if he was wrong. But he stood up for what he believed was right and necessary. Ben Bernanke’s intelligence and knowledge served him well as Chairman. But his grit and willingness to take a stand were just as important. I hope you never are confronted by challenges this great, but you too will face moments in life when standing up for what you believe can make all the difference.

True leadership isn’t about giving orders…

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, speaking at Campbell University Law School

I see too many leaders who take the short cut – they simply say “go do this because I said so.” That is the simplest way to disenfranchise those with whom you work. You, by virtue of your degree and title, will have positional authority. But I implore you to use that position sparingly. Work to engage those around you. You will be personally more effective, but also gratified by the results you inspire in others.

…it’s about listening to others

Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont, speaking at MIT

The hardest thing I had to learn in my career is that I am not always right. I had to develop the discipline to listen. Listening doesn’t always mean agreement. You may continue to disagree, but if you take the time to listen, it will be disagreement for a reason and that tension can lead to understanding and more importantly, to new ideas… This is a particularly important skill for the scientist and engineer to develop, because it can often address our biggest blind spot. Sometimes the science we find so elegant or the technology we feel is so promising doesn’t look that way to others who view the world through a very different lens.

The purpose of business is not just to make profit

Tory Burch, founder of Tory Burch, speaking at Babson College

From the beginning, one of the reasons I wanted to start a company was to start a foundation. Social responsibility was always part of the business plan. This was not always viewed as a positive—some people told me never to mention the word social responsibility and business in the same sentence. That only made me more determined.

In 2009 we launched our foundation to support the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs and their families. It has been incredibly meaningful not only to me personally, but to our customer, our employees and our business partners, all of whom care about giving back and helping women.

Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, speaking at Harvard Business School

Think of the firm not as a tool to maximize profit, but profit as a byproduct of maximizing global well-being, money not as a superficial scoreboard of success, but a command over resources to make the world a better place… Remind yourselves that you are in the eye of the hurricane, in one of the most important times in human history. Imagine living in Athens in the fifth century BCE and only being concerned about your crop yield. Imagine living in 15th or 16th century Florence and only worrying about the next transaction. Imagine living in Philadelphia in 1776 and only caring about your profit. In a thousand years people will romanticize about the time that we live in right now. The time when humanity went from being a fragmented, provincial, unconnected, sometimes petty proto-civilization to being a multi-planetary connected sentient one. The time when the human species awakened. Your grandchildren — and based on what is likely to happen in medicine your great-great grandchildren as well — will ask you what it was like to be alive at the dawn of the awakening of our civilization and what you did to catalyze it.

(Read HBR’s interview with Khan.)

And it’s up to a new generation of more diverse leaders to change the world

Mary Barra, CEO of GM, speaking at the University of Michigan

I noted earlier how the Millennial generation is the largest and richest and most technical, logical generation in American history. What I didn’t say is you’re also the most inclusive and the most optimistic. Use these traits, along with the unprecedented access to information and global communications that we have today, to challenge convention. More than any other generation in history, you have the power to expose and  correct injustice, to rethink outdated assumptions, to truly make a difference. And remember while there certainly a lot wrong in this world today, there’s also a lot that’s right. Not everything needs changing. Some things need protecting. And that can be just as important, challenging, and rewarding as changing the world.

Sean Combs, entrepreneur, rapper, and record producer, speaking at Howard University

Your generation is empowered to change the world in ways we can’t even imagine. See right now we are in an epic turning point, a changing of the guard. Our politicians are younger, our entrepreneurs are younger, our faith leaders are younger. The leaders of this generation are more diverse and connected. Your generation crosses cultural lines and breaks gender barriers. I don’t want you to be the next Oprah, I don’t want you to be the next Obama, I don’t even want you to be the next me. I want you to be you.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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