Five Wharton alumni share their thoughts about the time they spoke as students at Commencement, and how their words have guided them since.
By Michael J. O’Brien
Perhaps the most ironic thing about big life decisions is that we don’t always realize when we are making them. But as Lee Hower, ENG’00, W’00, sat and pondered his next move, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was going to be one of them. As a member of PayPal’s corporate development team, Hower inhabited “an exciting, interesting” role at the paymentprocessing powerhouse in 2002 when it just had been acquired by eBay for $1.3 billion. Yet there he was, entertaining an offer from an unknown upstart. The bite from the startup bug was beginning to itch again.
“Had I wanted to stay involved in building PayPal as part of eBay, it would have been an interesting and financially rewarding opportunity,” he says. “But part of me was realizing that being part of a much larger company with thousands of employees—as opposed to being back at a startup—was not something that made me terribly happy.”
Ultimately, Hower based his decision not on market research or the trusted advice of a mentor, but on a message delivered two years earlier—in May 2000—when he received his undergraduate degree from Penn’s dual-degree Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology.
The Commencement speaker’s message: Living up to Youthful Five Wharton alumni share their thoughts about the time they spoke as students at Commencement, and how their words have guided them since. Happiness should be the ultimate benchmark of a successful, fulfilling life.
Admittedly, Hower now says, “It seems like a very simple, obvious thing. It’s not rocket science, but it’s very easy, especially early in your career, to become fixated on other benchmarks on what a successful life is.”
Despite the professional risk associated with picking the long shot over the sure thing, Hower decided to follow the path to bliss and joined the startup’s founding team. If it seems odd that he would remember such a graduation speech years later, well, it’s because he was the one who wrote and delivered it.
“It turned out well in the end,” Hower recalls with a chuckle. “That startup, LinkedIn, ended up being a pretty successful company.”
Even if it had failed, Hower—now a founding partner of Boston-based NextView Ventures— holds that the decision would have still been a good one, he says, because being in a startup made him happy.
Dealing with Doors
As it turns out, the student Commencement speaker from the Wharton MBA Class of 2000 also experienced the phenomenon of living out her own message, as painful—yet formative—as it has been for her.
Heather Cochran, WG’00, who oversees the planning and operation of the $300 million museum project for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, wasn’t always rubbing elbows with the glitterati. Before attending Wharton, she was just as likely to rub bumpers while toiling as a bicycle messenger in Washington, D.C.
It was during her days strapped to a bike inside the Beltway that she learned the four hard lessons she shared with the Wharton audience that day in May 2000. Accept that your parents and peers won’t always understand what you’re doing or why. Take appropriate precautions when it comes to your head. Pack lightly. And—perhaps the one that requires the most explanation for a non-bicycle messenger—accept that, at some point, you will get “doored.”
“Couriers and business students actually have opposing relationships with doors,” Cochran told the Commencement crowd. “In the job hunt, you try to avoid having doors closed in your face. As a courier, the trick is to avoid having a car door open in your face. I assure you that I’ve been doored in both ways. I was hit twice while biking in D.C. And I’m willing to give any of you my spring ’99 internship rejection tour—a fascinating, multistop whirl around Manhattan and LA.”
That rejection tour was, unfortunately, just a taste of things to come, as Cochran was pedaling post-Wharton straight into the blast zone of the dot-com bubble burst. Shortly after landing a corporate job in LA, she was laid off.
“At graduation, I’d had a lot of job offers, but at all of them I would have eventually been laid off too,” she says. “The firms just kept going under.”
During this dooring period, though, Cochran, a former literature major, realized she had two options. “I could get another business-degree job, or I could try and do something I had always wanted to do,” she says.
So she focused on finishing a story she had been working on for some time, despite some pushback from family to find a more conventional job. But after she got two novels published (Mean Season and The Return of Jonah Gray), “it was a different story” with the family.
Now, 14 years after writing her Wharton Commencement speech, Cochran says, that fourth lesson still resonates today.
“I prefer to see failure as a sign that I’m continuing to aim high and to challenge myself,” she says. “I always tell my daughter that nothing worth doing is easy.”
Do you have advice to offer the Wharton Class of 2014? Share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or with the hashtag #WhartonGrad, and we’ll make sure it reaches the soon-to-be graduates.
Time for Optimism
Having the presence of mind to remember the positive in a tough situation is something Poonam Sharma Mathis, WG’07, also advises. Already twice published by the time she attended Wharton (The Harvard Entrpreneurs Club Guide To Starting Your Own Business and Chasing Success), Sharma Mathis focused her speech at the 2007 MBA class Commencement on “remembering your optimism.”
“On the day you graduate,” she recalls telling her classmates on that May morning, “remember why you applied to Wharton in the first place and remember the optimism that spurred you to do that or to think that was possible. Remember this uphill battle you thought you had, and know that that was the beginning of something great.”
After graduating, she published her third and fourth books and went on the obligatory book tours to promote them, followed by a few years working for her family’s real estate development company. She is now vice president of asset management at New York-based Partners Group and, while the current economy may not be all the way back to prerecession levels, Sharma Mathis nonetheless implores this year’s graduates to remain in the same frame of mind she possessed back in 2007.
“These are the times when the true optimists reveal themselves” she says. “It’s easy to consider yourself optimistic when the economy is going gangbusters and the pickings are easy. But taking chances at a time like this takes more internal resolve, and that’s why these are the times that make billionaires. These are the times that force you to … find out if you really are as creative and resilient as you’d like to believe you are.”
Making Memories, Laughs
Graduates back in 1989 were grappling with many similar challenging economic conditions. Back then, Ronda Sides, WG’89, delivered a speech to her fellow MBA graduates.
The text of her speech has long been lost or discarded—owing to Sides moving 17 times while raising two daughters as her husband worked around the globe for GE Energy. What Sides remembers distinctly from that day is her brush with one of Wharton’s eminent alumni: Mortimer Zuckerman, WG’61, who also spoke that day.
Shortly before the ceremony began, Sides recalls, “he quizzed me in the waiting room about current events on campus,” she says. “He took every comment I gave him and incorporated it into the speech 20 minutes later, and he didn’t miss a detail.”
But Sides admits there may be another reason the encounter has lodged so firmly in her memory.
Sides preceded Zuckerman in the order of speakers, and upon returning to her seat near him on the dais, he leaned over and said, “Oh man, I don’t want to follow that.”
“Which I think was really nice,” she says.
For this year’s student Commencement speakers, Sides offers a few lessons learned from her own experience and from Zuckerman’s fluid and agile presentation.
“My ceremony was ridiculously long,” Sides says. “So keep it short and to the point as much as you can. And any time you can make people laugh, it’s perfect.”
The Crackle of Applause
Beth Mlynarczyk, W’06, who addressed the undergraduate class in 2006 and now works in finance policy at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., is a firm believer in the make-’em-laugh method.
To wit, her speech’s opening line:
“I began writing this speech the night before an exam last semester. I decided that this was clearly a better use of my parent’s tuition than studying formulas for the next day.”
Despite the light tone of the opening, Mlynarczyk also struck deeper chords with the graduates’ collective experience.
“We’ll remember Locust Walk, College Green, the Quad, Fling, Smokes, Hey Day, Van Party, that incredible seminar class we were sad to leave, acapella, dance performances and athletic teams,” she told the crowd. “We’ll remember these by the people who were there with us. Our Penn memories will be made up of people. This is actually good news. Because even though we all have to leave, we don’t have to let go of the most important things that made up our Penn experience. We don’t have to let go of the people.”
And if there is any sound sweeter than laughter to a speaker’s ears, it is surely the crackle of applause, especially when you aren’t expecting it.
“Look at how many wonderful people are here to celebrate our graduation with us,” she told her classmates. “They’re all incredibly proud. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. They’re really here to celebrate … the end of tuition.”
She recalls the scene now: “It caught me off guard … but the parents all got up and gave me a standing ovation.”