May 15, 2011
Commencement Address to UC Berkeley Haas School of Business by Barbara Desoer, President of Home Loans, Bank of America
Thank you, Dean Lyons, for that warm introduction. I’m honored to be back at Haas to join faculty family, and friends in congratulating and celebrating the MBA Class of 2011.
Graduates, today is a touchstone event in your life. A day filled with pride in what you’ve accomplished…appreciation for the sacrifices made to reach this pinnacle…and anticipation of the limitless, wide-open potential that awaits.
What will you build from this day forward? An impressive resume, a life of accomplishment…of that I have no doubt. But, a life of meaning, of purpose…that is the more difficult quest and the one that as a Haas graduate you are uniquely positioned to navigate.
At Haas, we talk about path-bending leaders – but I’d go a step further. With the tools and opportunities you’ve been given – you should be carving out new paths – bringing your ingenuity to bear on the difficult issues of the day – poverty, unemployment, the environment, access to healthcare…
You’re in a wonderful position to come out of school and make an impact, to influence the other side of the economic crisis. I can’t think of a better place to be equipped for the challenges of our day than a school built on the same values that pioneered the West…an entrepreneurial spirit, willingness to seize opportunity, and an ability to innovate. These are the same values needed in today’s business environment as we grow our economy, improve the quality of life for our citizens and further explore the global frontier.
It wasn’t that long ago…ok, it was pretty long ago…when I was sitting where you are. My experience at Haas was probably very similar to yours – except you have these beautiful new facilities – and my classmates and I had Barrows Hall where we fought the Economic students for space.
But the exceptional faculty, diverse student body, and the thrill of being in the heart of one of the most dynamic academic communities in the country is just as true today as it was for me 35 years ago.
The bedrock principles that Haas embodies have not changed since the school was founded more than 110 years ago. So, that as alumni we all share a unique culture perfectly captured in the Defining Principles - Challenge the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Student Always and Beyond Yourself.
Even though neither of my parents were college educated, they taught me the value of life-long learning and worked hard to ensure I could attend college. I think that’s probably why I identify so closely with Student Always – because no matter how many degrees you earn there is always something new to discover.
And, while commencement marks the end of your formal studies, it marks the beginning of a different kind of learning – where the only syllabus is the one you set and the only one who can determine if you’ve passed or failed is you.
In the spirit of this continuing education, I want to offer three words of advice – vision, valor and value.
First, vision. Not far from here stands one of the most marveled upon man-made structures. It exists because a young engineer had a vision for a mile-long suspension bridge to cross the San Francisco Bay. He saw possibility…where others only saw the daunting obstacles to construction.
Will you be someone who sees the possibilities, who sees beyond what’s always been done and has the courage to put new ideas into action?
You’ve gone to business school but don’t let yourself be defined by your degree. Keep an open mind about how you apply your degree, what you’ve learned and where that leads. Thirty years ago, I was a math nerd, whose dream job was sitting in an office, running models, where no one would bother me.
When I came to Haas, my time here accelerated a change inside me and gave me the confidence to pursue a vision that took me away from my models and my four office walls. And while I’m still a math nerd, I’ve learned how much I enjoy engaging and inspiring others in a common endeavor, being a part of a team and helping others succeed.
Let your degree, all that you’ve learned and experienced strip away the boundaries of what you think you can achieve. Don’t stay in a lane that’s too well-defined. Dream boldly and you may surprise yourself and find the last thing on Earth you ever thought you’d be doing is the one thing that brings you the greatest fulfillment.
The second word of advice is valor. In life you will experience failure. But, take pride in that because you can’t possibly succeed without the courage to fail.
An author extolling the benefits of failure had this to say:
“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”
After being unemployed, surviving on food stamps, and rejected more than a dozen times by publishers, J.K. Rowling had an intimate knowledge of failure – but it is her perseverance that is every bit as inspiring as her epic “Harry Potter” success.
More often than not opportunity presents itself in the form of a challenge. I pride myself in being a process thinker but sometimes you have to be willing to just take that leap and risk where you’ll land.
It is probably obvious how courage is needed in such situations – but it is needed every bit as much in the everyday of our lives…
To keep us engaged, when we’ve just had our 10th conference call of the day.
To not snap in a meeting, when we’re jetlagged and buzzed on caffeine.
To stay positive in the face of life’s little disappointments – rain on vacation, your favorite lipstick color discontinued, Pia getting voted off American Idol.
To say thank you, good job, and never underestimate the power of gratitude.
Because it is not the highs and lows that define us but the valleys – the day to day or our routines and the impact we have on the lives we touch.
Which brings me to my last word of advice - value. There is a horrible modern phenomenon that I am going to beg all of you not to fall prey to – multi-tasking.
It may seem like you’re being more productive, excelling at time management, and impressively dexterous - texting, tweeting, listening to a commencement speech – all at the same time.
But, I’m convinced as a society we’re more anxious and stressed because we’re trying to do too much at once – and in doing so end up doing none of it as well as we could. So, I’m going to champion single-tasking.
Focusing your mind, time and energy – to bring the full value of what you have to offer to the task at hand, to your passions, your family, and your community. To be fully present in all your endeavors. To make courageous choices – deciding in the face of competing demands where you will get and give the most value.
Strive to bring value to those around you, to make a difference for those in need, to give back out of the abundance each of you has been given and in so doing earning rewards more enduring than career accolades.
Because, what really matters in life is connection – not connectivity. Relationships – not quantity of facebook friends. Investing in people and communities – not investments.
A quote that has always had meaning for me and I keep above my desk is this one by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I’ve said more than three words – but I do hope these will stick with you – vision, valor and value. In a day of celebration take a moment for reflection. Write down your biggest, boldest dreams and keep that with you as a reminder of what you want to achieve.
Hold tight to the dreams of your youth and carry forward from this day the passion and excitement you feel. Let your compass be the limitless line of the horizon – seeing beyond what is in front of you and having the courage to go beyond yourself and be extraordinary.