Blog/News

The Commencement where the Students Taught Me

July 15, 2018

The University of Washington kindly asked me to give the commencement speech for the Information Management Systems Masters program. This is my third commencement speech with the UW, and I always like to get to know the students who are graduating so I can personalize my remarks. While speaking with these students, I encountered something I’ve never seen before. This group of students was extraordinary. They had a bond that was beyond classmates. What they had was so rare, it was like finding gold.

The class was comprised of an extremely diverse group of people. They came from the far corners of the world with different backgrounds, languages and experiences, yet somehow found each other in the halls of the UW Foster School of Business. Their lives were changed forever once they met. It was a powerful thing to witness.

The Information Management Systems Masters program is difficult and technical. It’s actually a year-long program, rather than nine months, and the extra time probably gave the students more opportunities to bond. Some of the students had a technical background. Others came from the business world.  More than half of them used English as a second language. This class was graded as a group, so they learned to play off each other’s strengths, as well as help each other overcome challenges. They worked together not only in the classroom, but as they adjusted to a new culture, new technical challenges, and new fiscal obstacles occurring inside and outside of class. They were there for each other not only when it came to coursework, but ultimately, with day to day life.

There was a rare kind of magic to this class.  Many of them experienced failures of varying kinds. They risked a lot to just attend the University of Washington. Many showed up in a big city they’d never been to before. They had to find a place to live and make the money stretch with currency conversions. One student I spoke to actually had a start-up fail as he started the course.

Put yourself in their shoes. I’m not sure I could do it. As one of the students put it, this class had an easy path to failure, but it turned out, the whole class was cheering each other on, so it was impossible to fail with such tremendous support.

The truth is, you’re not always going to succeed. And you won’t always have a group cheering you on to success. One of the students shared a story about a class experience. She’s very shy and was afraid of speak in front of groups. To overcome her shyness, she challenged herself to speak up in each class. By the end of the year, she felt she’d not met her goal. She had failed to speak up in class as much as she’d wanted. During the final class, she decided to meet that goal with one big gesture. She made herself get up and give a full speech. One of her classmates said it was one of the best talks he’d ever heard.

That’s what it’s going to be like as you step into the workplace where you are one person in a larger group. When you speak up, you’ll be risking a lot. Maybe you won’t feel like you have the power to change things or contribute much. However, taking a stand is what the University of Washington teaches. Stand up and speak up because your ideas matter. Remember the story of the classmate who was afraid to speak in class. If you can influence, do it. You might be the most impressive speaker the world has ever heard.

Rarely, but sometimes, a group of people are just meant to come together. This group of students came to Seattle from far corners of the world and somehow found each other. The hard part is, this class will now separate.  The class is over and already a new group of 100 students are starting their year-long program. I hope it will be as powerful for this new group as it was for the class I met.

Perhaps many of you have run into special people who changed your life. Call them. Email them today. You must make the effort to stay in touch and support each other. It’s easy to get caught up in life, work, responsibilities and family. But friendships that change your life, well, that’s as rare as diamonds. You must work at it, but it will be worth it in the end.

As VCs, we talk about money and returns on investment a lot. But nothing makes a difference in this world like the bond of friendship and human connection.  If you find it, hold onto it. Friends will help you succeed. Friends will believe the impossible about you.  Friends…well, they’re better than gold.