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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kador

Inspiration from the Best Commencement Speakers of 2018

Commencement Speech Wisdom

Spring brings CEOs and other business worthies to college campuses for the annual rite known as the commencement address. The best of these speakers imparts hard-won wisdom not found in textbooks. Financial professionals may find it occasionally useful to be reminded of the aspirations and hopes that marked career beginning and consider how much of that idealism still resonates. We selected excerpts from the ten most inspiring commencement addresses of the most recent commencement season. If you want to see more, the links will take you to the full video and transcripts.


Carla Harris

Carla Harris Vice chairman and managing director, Morgan Stanley

Harvard Business School, Business School’s Class Day

May 23, 2018

You need to understand the difference between performance currency and relationship currency. You see, performance currency is the currency that is generated by your delivering that which was asked of you and a little bit extra. Every time that you deliver on an assignment above people’s expectations, you will generate performance currency.

But here’s the problem with performance currency. Early on, it’s worth about a buck fifty. Over time, it starts to experience diminishing marginal returns. That buck fifty works its way right back down to a dollar. Why? Because now you have established a new standard of excellence. Everybody knows that you will do a great job. Everybody expects that you will deliver. There’s no longer a premium associated with your deliverable. The currency that now is most important is the relationship currency. It never experiences any diminishing marginal returns. Relationship currency is the currency that is generated by the investments that you make in the people in your environment.


Sheryl Sandberg

Chief Operating Officer, Facebook

Sheryl Sandberg

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA

June 8, 2018

I encourage you to be clear-eyed optimists. To see that building technology that supports equality, democracy, truth and kindness means looking around corners, making sure you are throwing up every possible roadblock against hate, violence, and deception. You might be thinking, given some of the issues Facebook has had, isn’t what I’m saying hitting pretty close to home? Yes. It is. I am proud of what Facebook has done – the connections people have created. Proud of how people use Facebook to organize for democracy, the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter. Proud of how people use Facebook to start and grow businesses and create jobs all around the world.

But at Facebook, we didn’t see all the risks coming. And we didn’t do enough to stop them. It’s painful when you miss something – when you make the mistake of believing so much in the good you are seeing that you don’t look hard enough for the bad. It’s hard knowing that you let people down.


Carlos Brito

CEO, Anheuser-Busch InBev

Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

June 16, 2018

About ten years ago, I was giving a talk not unlike this one. The audience was a group of trainees from our company. I gave my talk. I did some Q&A. I said, “Well, time for one last question.” And that’s when this hand shot up. “Brito, what would the world miss, if our company did not exist?”

I was like, holy cow. Later, I came back to my top people and said, “We need to think more about this [question].” So, as you begin the next chapter, I want to challenge you with a question that probably never came up in class — a version of the question I was asked about a decade ago: What would the world miss, if you, did not exist? I don’t mean that literally, of course. Every one you is tremendously talented, and surrounded by people who care about you. I pose this question in a global context: Why is humanity better off because you are here? No matter what field you enter, tackling this question is going to be one of the most important things you ever do. I can’t promise you’ll ever find the final answer.


Tim Cook at Duke University

Tim Cook

CEO, Apple

Duke University, Durham NC

May 31, 2018

Fearlessness means taking the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you. It means being driven by a higher purpose rather than by applause. It means knowing that you reveal your character when you stand apart more than when you stand with the crowd. If you step up without fear of failure, if you talk and listen to each other without fear of rejection, if you act with decency and kindness even when no one is looking, even if it seems small or inconsequential, trust me, the rest will fall into place. More importantly, you’ll be able to tackle the big things when they come your way.


Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey at USC

CEO of The Oprah Winfrey Network

Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA

May 11, 2018

Eat a good breakfast. It really pays off. Pay your bills on time. Recycle. Make your bed. Aim high. Say thank you to people and actually really mean it. Ask for help when you need it and put your phone away at the dinner table. Be nice to little kids. Be nice to your elders. Be nice to animals and know that it’s better to be interested than interesting. Invest in a quality mattress. I’m telling you, your back will thank you later. And don’t cheap out on your shoes. And don’t ever confuse what is legal with what is moral because they are entirely different animals. You see, in a court of law there are loopholes and technicalities and bargains to be struck. But in life you’re either principled or you’re not. So, do the right thing especially when nobody’s looking.


Hamdi Ulukaya

CEO of Chobani

Wharton School of Business, Philadelphia PA

May 13, 2018

It’s great that you are a Wharton MBA. But please, don’t act like it. While earned, titles can turn into a burden. Don’t let it get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of their title or position. Business doesn’t have to be a dirty field. You can put all of your passion into doing good things. In business class, you learned about ROI – return on investment. You should also know about ROK – return on kindness. With ROK, you can immediately see results.


Kaushik Basu

Chief Economist of the World Bank, Advisor to the Indian Government

Brandeis University, Waltham, MA

May 13, 2018

In the words of Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” I think we need to bring the best of mind and morality to take on this challenge of inequality. As you go out into the world, let me give one piece of advice to you. This is not an advice on how to further your career or do better wealth management for yourself. The advice concerns morality in personal life. Morality is about compassion and kindness, about treating all human beings as equal, about trying not to do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you. When we do business and play the market we must have a self-enforced moral code, which comes from respect for other human beings, including future generations.


Michael Bloomberg

Former mayor of New York City and CEO, Bloomberg

Rice University, Houston, TX

May 13, 2018

Ever since you arrived here on campus, on nearly every test and paper you submitted, you signed a statement that began, ‘On my honor.’ But have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase really means?

The concept of honor has taken on different meanings through the ages: chivalry, chastity, courage, strength. And when divorced from morality, or attached to prejudice, honor has been used to justify murder, and repression, and deceit. But the essence of honor has always been found in the word itself. To be honorable, you must be honest. And that means speaking honestly, and acting honestly, even when it requires you to admit wrongdoing — and suffer the consequences. The commitment to honesty is a responsibility that you accepted as an Owl. It is also, I believe, a patriotic responsibility.


Stephen M. Smith

President and CEO of L.L. Bean

Dickinson College, Carlisle PA

May 19, 2018

I picture myself climbing a mountain. I am trekking up the mountain, but I cannot see the summit, just the next few straights, turns or cairns marking the trail. It’s a little chilly, the sun is bright, and the trail is wet from morning dew. On my back is a handwoven, wooden pack basket with an open top and with inch-and-quarter-wide leather shoulder straps that are wide enough to carry the load but are thin enough that you can feel them dig into your shoulders when the pack is getting full. And I imagine that as I am climbing this mountain, I am throwing things into my pack—experiences, skills, and knowledge—along the way.

Periodically, figuratively, I stop hiking, take off the pack, empty the contents and review what skills and experiences are in there, and I think about what skills or experiences I want to add or where I am qualified and ready to go. I have used this thought process for every major career or life event since I was 25, and it continues to serve me well.


Ellen Kullman at Tufts

Ellen J. Kullman

Former CEO DuPont

Tufts University, Boston, MA

May 20, 2018

My new job [as CEO of DuPont] was announced on what is known as “Lehman’s weekend,” the start of the global financial crisis in September of 2008.

In the weeks following the collapse of the market, revenues dropped 50 percent in our industrial businesses and I very quickly got to see who in the organization were real leaders, real problem solvers, and who were the ones that struggled in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity. Our first and most important step was not some dramatic business decision. Rather it was determining what our constants were: what would not change what we needed to focus on. In this uncertainty, what could we control? And at the top of our list was a re-commitment to our core values. Determine what your personal values are and resolve to yourself that they’re non-negotiable. And don’t mistake mission for values. Mission is what an organization does; values is the way it does it. Even more important will be your personal inventory of values. What are the principles you hold dear? What do you stand for?


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