U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Delivers the Graduate Commencement Address at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business


Friday, May 20, 2016

Thank you, President DeGioia, for your kind introduction and for the honor of receiving this degree. It is so wonderful to be here with our esteemed graduates on what feels like the first nice DC day in weeks.

The world that I entered as a 25 year old business school graduate was a bit different from the one you are entering today.  I understand one of the new classes offered to you as students is “Strategic Management of Social Networks.” When I was in B-school, Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t been born yet. And the closest thing I had to a social network was a rolodex.

Trust me, you are so lucky to have missed the era when business operated at the speed of fax machines, pagers, and “while you were out” sticky notes.

While the business world has changed a great deal since then, the keys to success are largely the same. Each of you has earned an MBA from one of the most prestigious business schools in the country – a school whose mission is to turn you into, and I quote, “ethically responsible and effective business leaders.”

You should take pride in the hard work that brought you to this moment. But you would not be here today without your support system. So let’s take a moment to give your parents, your families, and your friends a big round of applause.

Georgetown has armed you with a strong foundation and the personal network required to succeed. But whether or not you become an “ethically responsible and effective business leader” will ultimately depend on the choices you make over the course of your working life: Do you have integrity and the awareness that every decision you make will impact your reputation? Do you have the vision to understand the long-term needs of your company and the courage to overcome your mistakes in pursuit of that vision?  Are you using your influence as a business leader to be a force for good in your community?

When I started in business, both my grandfather and mother told me: “There are only two things you take with you throughout your life: your education and your reputation. Nothing else is guaranteed.”

When you receive your diploma today, your formal education is completed. But your reputation? That is something you will have to nurture your entire life. Think of your reputation as your biggest asset. In today’s increasingly digital world – where mistakes and triumphs alike are immortalized on social media and in your Google search history – managing that asset is harder than ever.

As you begin your careers, you need to start building your reputation from day one. There is no honeymoon period. I am not just referring to obeying the law, but to the way you treat people and how you behave. If you conduct yourself with integrity, I promise you: your reputation will serve as the bedrock on which you build your career, and you will have control of your narrative.

Today, I want to tell you two stories about the power of choice, and how the choices you make will shape your life.

Let me begin with the story of my first business, which I started when I was 27 years old, two years after I graduated with a JD-MBA. Both of my parents had passed away, and I was responsible for taking care of my grandmother.

One day, I realized that there must be people like me all over the country, who not only had to care for an aging family member, but with the added challenge of raising their children. I am a data person, so I did my research and discovered that a product was missing. With a lot of help, I started Vi Senior Living.

Sounds like a recipe for success, right? Unfortunately, I made every mistake in the book. Some of the early product development was not precisely right. I hired people who did not share my work ethic or my values and vision for the company. And the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980’s made it hard for our customer to sell their home and afford our product.

Things were not going well, and I was absolutely terrified. I went to my uncle – my mentor and chairman of the company – and said, “This is not going to work. We should liquefy.” But my uncle, in all his wisdom, told me not to panic and to look at the long-term prospects.

He understood the big picture: We were about to undergo a massive demographic shift in our country as the baby boomers moved into their 70s and beyond. So we re-tooled our approach, revised the product, and hired better talent whose values were more in line with the mission of the company. 

Changing our approach was not easy. It took not just the recognition that we needed to pivot, but the perseverance to make significant shifts.  Today, Vi is an innovative leader in senior living. And the lessons I learned from that experience have informed my entire life.

Like me, over the course of your career, you are going to make mistakes. Big mistakes.

Don’t panic. Be confident. If your idea is good, don’t let it be derailed by the missteps you will inevitably make along the way.

My experience with Vi taught me to look beyond the immediate challenges, beyond the quarterly earnings report, and take the long view. I also learned that business is a team sport. And you must be intentional about the talent you choose. 

To get it right, you need to first know yourself, to know your strengths and your weaknesses. For example, I am good with numbers, sales, and tactics, but I struggle with marketing, branding, and strategy. Find a team who fills in your gaps and complements your talents, because the people you surround yourself with are the key to your long-term success.

This brings me to my second story about choice. A good friend of mine is the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. Like many companies in today’s economy, his business has a large number of job openings – but too few people have the specialized skills needed to fill those positions. He told me a couple weeks ago that he is constantly approached about hiring people who need a job but do not have the skills they need to succeed.

My friend knew that might be charitable in the short term, but would not end well and would not be sustainable for those he hired or his company. He understood that his community needs more than charity – it needs a thoughtful, entrepreneurial solution to a systemic problem.

So the CEO is considering setting up an academy to give people in his community not only the skills they need to succeed at his company, but the skills to succeed for the long-term. He wants to build this academy in the poorest part of the city, and he plans to invite other companies in his sector to participate.

Keep in mind: these businesses are each other’s competitors, who are all fighting for the same market share and the same new hires. And yet, my friend wants to bring them to the table to develop a holistic solution that actually works for both businesses and workers.

I have met a lot of business leaders in my life, and the ones who I admire and remember are those who are committed to their community. Make no mistake, being committed to your community is not inconsistent with being an extraordinarily successful business leader. In fact, it enhances your reputation – the bedrock of your success.

As you move up the career ladder, you are going to find yourself becoming more and more responsible for the wellbeing of the people of your neighborhood, your city, and your region.

As a business leader, you will have the power to become a force for good. The question is what you choose to do with that influence.

Just look at what happened in Georgia earlier this year, when Governor Deal vetoed a so-called “religious liberties” bill following pressure from Disney, Time Warner, Salesforce, and others.

Whether you spend your entire career in the private sector or take a detour into public service like I did, you will have the ability to not just affect our economy but to affect the very fabric of our nation. 

As a famous Jesuit you may have heard of and one of my personal heroes has said, let me quote Pope Francis: “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.”

Challenge yourself to a greater meaning in life. Become a force for good. Seize the opportunity afforded to you as a business leader to change our country and our world for the better.

Congratulations to the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business Class of 2016. I wish you all the success in the world. Hoya saxa!

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