Robert F. Smith Speaking at American University’s Commencement in 2015

Robert F. Smith inspires the American University Class of 2015 to embrace the needs of a rapidly changing world during his commencement speech.

The following is the transcript of Smith’s American University Commencement address:

Robert F. Smith:
Thank you very much.

President Kerwin, Provost Bass, Dean Goldgeier, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, parents, families, friends.

And the Chair of the SIS Dean’s Council, my good friend Alan Fleischmann.

Please join me in congratulating the American University School of International Service class of 2015!

Today, we also celebrate the women in our lives, the ones that have nurtured us, challenged us to do more and be better, and taught us to do the right thing. These women are our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, friends, co-workers, mentors and anyone who felt maternal. And they make a difference in our lives every day with big and small gestures and through the best and worst of times. So, Class of 2015, please stand and thank your mothers.

It’s magical to be here with each of you today – on this stage, in this auditorium. It was here, a little over seven years ago, that the late great Senator Ted Kennedy and his niece, now Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, endorsed a young Senator from Illinois for the presidency, providing crucial support at a critical moment in the campaign. That moment spurred the momentum that carried Barack Obama to the White House.

President Obama’s victory was particularly meaningful to me. I grew up in Denver, Colorado, the second son of two parents with PhD’s in what had just become a newly desegregated America. As a child, I would come to Washington, DC, to visit my grandparents, my aunts and my cousins. And my grandfather made a career in the US Postal Service but when he was in his late teens, he worked in the United States Congress in the Senate Lounge, where he checked hats and coats and poured coffee and tea for Senators and other dignitaries.

Many years later, my grandfather and I decided we should attend President Obama’s first inauguration ceremony. At age 93, he walked over 4 hours that day, to and from the ceremony with a great smile, a full heart and without complaint. As we sat there that frigid January morning, as guests of Senator Ted Kennedy, our breath smoking in the chilly winter-cold air, my granddad told me the story of another inauguration he’d witnessed — that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He pointed up to a window. He said, “Do you see that window with a small American flag draped underneath?” An’ I said yeah. And from our angle, it was just above where President Obama or President-Elect Obama would take his oath of office… He said, “I remember being in that lounge and gazing out during the inauguration of President Roosevelt.” And it dawned on him, a fact, that he was the only African American face he saw. And this was a time when our country was struggling for human rights and for people to be full citizens of this country. My grandfather’s words poured over me – poured over us – as we sat there shivering, about to watch the first African American take the oath of office for President of the United States. What struck me was not how much the world had changed since FDR’s times in my grandfather’s lifetime, or the accelerated pace of change in this country.

You have to remember, I spent my life at the confluence of finance and technology. I was accustomed to warp speed transformations and mind-blowing change. But what I marveled at that day in Washington was how Barack Obama had the courage, in the timeless words of another Kennedy, the late Senator and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to, “imagine things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?’”

What IS true is that we are only bound by the limits of our own conviction. We can transcend the script of a predefined story, and pave the way for the future that we design. We just need to tap into that power, that conviction, and that determination within us.

As I look out upon you, the class of 2015, I see before me the SIS’ tradition of diversity on stunning display. I see graduates from more than a hundred different countries, and every continent. I see different religions, different academic interests, and different plans for the future.

But the thing that unites you all, the common glue in this stunning sea of diversity, is your instinct to serve, your shared understanding that you have a unique role to play in the world.

To effect change and live the ethic of service that is built into this school’s DNA, you must bridge who you are with who you can be by running your own race.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. And I’m going to share the story of a very famous racehorse called Secretariat. My grandfather and I used to go to the horse races all the time together.

But, 42 years ago next month, Secretariat galloped to victory at the Belmont Stakes. He captured the final leg of the Triple Crown becoming the first horse in 25 years or so to achieve that great feat. He was a 3-year-old thoroughbred, and he captured the hearts and minds of a nation. Even as a 10-year-old boy growing up in Colorado, I was captivated by this horse’s story.

Having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he was favored to win the Belmont stakes…even though it is the longest of the races, and many felt he was just a sprinter….and not really built for longer distances. Secretariat knew better. He opened the race by exploding out of the gate and drove himself forward to command an enormous lead and he kept growing that lead with every stride. He wasn’t looking to his left. He wasn’t looking to his left. He wasn’t worried about his challengers…. Instead, he was looking straight ahead. Even when he was 28 lengths ahead he kept surging forward….. Racing against himself. Running his own race.

By the time Secretariat crossed the finish line, he had won by 31 lengths. 31 lengths. You can win by one length, why win by 31 lengths? Because the lesson is as follows: there is no greater test of ourselves, and no greater reward, than to compete against our own potential.

It is incumbent upon you – the Class of 2015 – to run your own race:

And, when I talk about running your own race, what do I really mean?

Well, everyone’s story is going to be different. The ingredients are going to be different. But I’m going to give you an illustration of what running your own race – just by giving you some sense of my career, and the path of my career.

The first and foremost important thing about running your own race is dreaming big.

And here I’m recalled back to my childhood when I was just starting elementary school.

At that point in time, the Supreme Court had just ruled that public school districts could pursue desegregation by using forced busing to achieve racial balance in their schools. In fact, I started my own education as a first grader being bussed to a school across town, even though my father was a principal at a school five blocks away. Although I was a live subject in one of the nation’s most controversial legal debates, I frankly didn’t really know what the big deal was about because these kids who didn’t look like me sure acted like me.

But desegregation was a big deal to my parents. Leaders of their generation knew great change was in store and the right thing to do. And they often met with resistance, and often violent resistance.

But, because of their struggle, their sacrifice for education, I had received a great gift. That’s the gift to dream big. I knew my history. I remembered the pride of my mother telling me how she had brought my brother and me back to Washington, DC, and held us close, me at nine-month-old during the March on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., laid out his dream for an equal, harmonious, and meritocratic America.

Dreaming big to me meant knowing my history, but not being bound by it. It meant harnessing the past to drive me into the future. It meant grounding myself in who I was and where I came from so I could soar into who I wanted to become.

So, to me, the first part of running your own race is dreaming big. The second part is about challenging yourself and being persistent.

I went to the same high school in east Denver as my father did: Denver East High School. I remember taking a computer science course and at the time they introduced this thing called a transistor, which is the building block of computers, for those who don’t know.

Transistors were invented at this place called Bell Labs, which had a facility about 20 miles from our home. After that lesson, I went and dug up the phone number for Bell Labs and called them. I said, “Do you have summer internships?” They said, “We absolutely do.” I said, “Fantastic.” They said, “If you’re between your junior and senior year in college.” I said, “Hey, I’m a junior in high school. I’m taking advanced math classes and computer science, getting all A’s. Just like college.” They said, “ No, it isn’t.”

So, I called back every day for two weeks straight. The HR director, of course, stopped taking the calls after the second day but….I left a message with my phone number. Then I called every Monday for about 5 months, and every time I called the receptionist just chuckled and she took my name and she said, “We’ll get back to you if there is an opening.” I kept at it, and to my great surprise, the human resources director called my house – in June and said, “Listen. An intern from MIT didn’t show up. We need have an extra slot. We aren’t promising you anything, but why don’t you come on in and interview.

Now of course I knew I was the highest qualified candidate for this job. And the truth is, I went in. I interviewed. I got the job. Now, it probably wasn’t because I was the most qualified candidate. It is probably I was the only one they had a valid telephone number for. Because this was before the age of cell phones and messaging systems. So the important thing I want you to think about here is the persistence to get that job led to me working at Bell Labs for the next four years, becoming a co-op student and ultimately finishing with a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell. — All from being persistent.

That’s where the next part of running your own race is important – I call it discovering the joy of figuring things out.

When I got to Bell Labs they shared offices. And I happened to share with a PhD in chemical engineering, and this man had patents that were probably 30 pages long and he’d become one of my first mentors.

On my first day at work, as we got settled into his office, he turned his chair around and he kind of looked me up and down and he held this computer chip in front of me and said, “This is an operational amplifier. It’s failing in our Merlin systems out there in the field. You need to figure out why it is failing so we can fix it. if you have any questions, ask me.” Then he turns around.

So, you see, unlike today’s technically sophisticated High School students, I had no idea what an operational amplifier was; what it was supposed to do; what this one didn’t do. And so, before the days of Google and Wikipedia, we had this thing called a library. And I went to the library, and I pulled every book on operational amplifiers I could find. I talked to every one in the halls who would listen and I asked questions. By the end of the summer, not only did I have an idea about why this wasn’t working, but I had built a system to simulate the conditions in the field that caused them to fail….and then, with my mentor’s help, we fixed the problem. My guess is, even now, I’m probably the most knowledgeable intern at Bell Labs in the history of that company.

The important thing was the challenge from my mentor – was more than to teach me something about this obscure integrated circuit. It’s a challenge that has reaped rich dividends for me over my entire career. It is the ‘Joy of Figuring Things Out.’ And so, as you depart today, I hope that as you embrace life and engage in complex problems that you actually discover that joy of figuring things out.

And as you are listening to and as you’re out there challenging this world, start to listen to your own voice. That’s the next lesson: running your own race demands trusting yourself even when others don’t.

Because guess what, there are lots of people – good people. People who love you; who trust you; and who you love and trust, who want the best for you. And you’ll come to them with some ideas about what you want to do and how you want to do it and they’re going to say, “that’s just crazy.” Just like when I left my first engineering job at Kraft and was telling my grandfather I was going back to business school. And he said, “That’s a great paying job, that’s crazy.”

When I finished business school and decided to join the tumultuous world of investment banking, my family and friends spoke up with concerns about my sanity.

When I left my post at Goldman Sachs just after we had gone public to set up a private equity firm called Vista…my mentors and colleagues at Goldman Sachs thought I was crazy.

And to top it all off, when I told them, I’m going to start a firm and we’re going to focus on enterprise software, and not be diversified like all other private equity firms. I was going to hire a team of smart, young, talented people who’d never done this before – Everyone knew I was certifiable. And I did this, of course, in the spring of 2000, about two months before the entire tech bubble crashed.

Well, all I can tell you is I’ve never been mad at those folks. In fact, I’m grateful for their advice and their concern. Because, in their caution, I found my courage. In their doubts, I found my resolve. In their warnings, I found my voice and chartered my own journey.

I’m proud of the Vista story. We take risks. We do things differently. We listen to our own voice. We run our own race.

And it has worked. We are now considered to be the #1 private equity firm on the planet and have been so for the last decade. And while that may seem like a charming story, a one in a million type story, our approach is quickly shifting the landscape from exception to rule and from option to necessity as people are realizing the way we do it, is a better way to do it.

That changing world that I live in, that you live in, has important implications for you. To distinguish yourself today, you have to run toward change, not away from it. You have to embrace it, and not shirk from it. And you have to run your own race and embrace the rapid change that characterizes our modern world.

The world we inhabit today is fundamentally different from the one in which I grew up in when I was your age. For instance, my undergraduate year the big thing on my campus freshman year was an ATM machine. Wow, you mean my parents can deposit money across the country and I can take it out with a four digit code and I don’t have to call them to justify it? That’s pretty cool if you can keep that train going. But we didn’t trust these machines of course, ….so…you took every receipt and every month you figured out if the bank took an extra 50 cents out of your account, which mattered at the time. But today you all can sit in on your smartphones and you know, leverage your parent’s balance sheets without them even knowing it.

But that’s a small example. I think what’s important is, the world is changing so rapidly that the dynamic of change has changed itself. That world I live in, in enterprise software, the speed of change is mind-blowing. Words, thoughts, and ideas now move at the speed of light across the planet. The dynamic of human intention can impact millions in seconds… and mobilize millions in minutes. And you can touch billions over the course of days.

So, what does this mean for you? It means that the purity of your intention, the integrity of your purpose, has the utmost importance not only for you, and everyone around you but for billions of people you’ve never met.

Your every action and intention reverberates across the world, joining with other reverberations to form a seismic wave of impact. Your intentions have to be thought through, because their implications ricochet around our world at the speed of light.

This has profound significance for what you will need to succeed going forward. The pace of change in the world today demands originality. It demands that you run your own race. You have to look ahead, not behind. Convention won’t cut it anymore. To succeed, you need to step up and be original, to overcome fear and not escape it.

And as leaders, you’ll need a system of support to gather and analyze information, and help you make difficult decisions. You have to prepare yourself and your colleagues for the new normal of accelerated change, and to anticipate shifts before they occur. You have to lead our world as it rapidly evolves.

But the single most important part of succeeding today – the single most important part of running and winning your own race – is to recognize that you are enough. You are enough.

It does not mean that you should not have humility. What it means is that you have a destiny.

I’m here to tell you that, by virtue of your being here today and walking across that stage means you are enough.

Because of your time and the foundation you have received at SIS, you are enough to lead in a new way, to design elegant solutions to the world’s biggest, most complex problems.

You have the instinct to serve, and the skills to succeed. In fact, you have skills across a number of areas. And the important part of integrating these skills is to integrate those skills. The future will be written by those who integrate their whole being. Today that’s a big part of your challenge that you must embrace.

Now, I’ve taken you through what I have found to be the most important parts of running your own race:

  1. Dreaming big;
  2. Challenging yourself and being persistent;
  3. Discovering the joy of figuring things out;
  4. Listening to your own voice; and
  5. Racing toward and embracing change.
  6. Recognize that “You are Enough”

That’s the recipe. Here’s my call to action. You must use your skills and your knowledge, and your instincts to serve – to go change the world in only the way that only you can. Grab hold of your noble intentions. Let them expand into the universe of action.

A life contained is no life at all….You are enough to create ripples of change that bend the arc of humanity closer to justice.

With the events that unfolded in Baltimore – 38 miles from here – now more than ever it’s clear that reaching your potential…no matter who you are and where you come from…matters. In fact, in 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited South Africa and made a very powerful speech about the injustice of apartheid. Rather than deliver a discourse of despair, Senator Kennedy used his words to invoke the power in every human spirit… the power we all have within us to shape our better world.

As he put it:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,…. but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped…

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring….. those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Senator Kennedy’s words echo across the ages and ring as true today. With the transmission of technology, and the rapidity of change, your ripple moves far more quickly in today’s world. Every intention, every action, every word counts. So at the conclusion of today’s ceremony, each of you will receive a copy of Bobby Kennedy’s Ripple of Hope speech as a gift from me. I want you to frame it. I want you to learn it. I want you to live it. Remember, you are enough. In fact, you are everything. We need you, we are counting on you to become, each of you, one of a kind. And let the race you run become a ripple of hope that cascades out into humanity, as a symbol of hope and strength for the world.

Thank you very much for having me today.