My friend Krista Marks (now at Disney – which acquired her first company – Kerpoof) sent me a copy of the graduation speech she gave at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering and Computing on May 8th. Krista graduated 21 years ago and her speech embodies the amazing wisdom she’d gained over the years. I asked her if I could reprint it here – it’s applicable to any engineer or future entrepreneur, not just recent college graduates. Enjoy and be inspired! *
Twenty-one years ago I sat exactly where you sit today. In 1989, I graduated with degree in Electrical Engineering from the USC. Since then, I am proud to share that I have accomplished some extraordinary things. I have helped develop a highly effective treatment for cancer – designing custom electronics for true 3D radiotherapy. I have helped further our understanding of the physical universe by developing state of art data acquisition systems for high-energy physics experiments. Most recently, I was the CEO and co-founder of an Internet Startup – called Kerpoof – an unrivalled platform for creative software for kids – a company that was bought after 2.5 years by The Walt Disney Company.
But here is the truth. If you had told me 21 years ago that – that this would be so – that I would have such a career and such and impact – I would not have believed you. At 22, I felt uncertain about what was next – what it would actually mean to work as an engineer.
Today I’m going to share with you three things that I wish someone had shared with me then – three things that I have learned to be true.
The first is to learn from your success.
There is a belief that failure is somehow good – somehow beneficial. You hear people say, failure builds character, or fail early fail often. This is not only wrong – it is dangerous. What you learn from failure is limited at best – you learn what didn’t work. It tells nothing of what will. In contrast, what you learn from success is how to succeed. This is infinitely more valuable.
A perfect example is the success you celebrate today. How many people do you know who started with you, but aren’t sitting next to you today? How often did you have a friend or roommate who would moan and whine at the one or two times during the semester that they actually had to work hard, long hours – knowing that as an Engineer this was your daily reality? This is significant.
In fact, you now know one thing for certain. You know that with talent and determination and hard work, you can accomplish what few others can. You succeeded. In the future, taking on truly hard things – things that seem impossible – you will not be in uncharted waters. On the contrary, you will build more success.
That’s key. Success breeds success. It is not a question of whether you will achieve more success. The question is what it will look like.
The second that I know to be true is build value.
There are many many ways to create value using an Engineering degree.
Let me just tell you a story about my Grandfather and how engineering helped to fix his knees. You would be forgiven if didn’t immediately make the connection, since what actually fixed his knees was an injection.
My Grandfather has always had a hunger to learn, a passion and zest for life. He is spry, vibrant, and alive, and makes others feel the same. At 88, he received what was for him was terrible news. His knees were failing, and he would probably in a short time be limping at best or needing a wheel chair at worse. When he exclaimed that this couldn’t be, his doctor was pretty unmoved. “He was 88, for goodness sake.” “What did he expect?” My Grandfather was frustrated and sad. He went home and started searching on the Internet. Maybe someone else knew something his doctor didn’t. And in probing around, he found a clinical trial that was showing promising results. It involved shooting an experimental drug in his knees, over a period of time. He immediately ran to his doctor and together they figured out how to get him in the trial. Today he is 93 and still walking.
I first thought about this connection when my Mother out of the blue said to me, “don’t you ever wish you made a difference in the world?” At the time, I was leading a team designing 10G interfaces for routers and switches – a technology that is enables what we today view as high-speed Internet. I thought about how only a short time ago, prior to the Internet, my Grandfather simply wouldn’t have had access to this information. That it was my work that at least partly what made his story possible – what made his life better.
That, in fact, more broadly it was entirely because of engineers – that in our life time we have seen the democratization of information – a revolution only rivaled in impact by the printing press.
I suddenly realized that I didn’t only make a difference; I was part of a profession that by its very nature makes a differences. A profession that at its core is about building value – from iPads, to Electric cars, Google, MRI machines – this list just goes on and on.
So my advice here is simple – keep being an engineer – keep building value. In doing so you will not only make a difference, but you will have the kind of satisfaction that can only come from doing truly valuable work. And you will find that this kind of satisfaction will far outweigh any of the other benefits that may come from your career.
The third thing I know to be true is to follow your heart.
Often this means doing what is hard. Choosing a path not because it is easy, but despite that the fact that it is very difficult.
I know this well. Since I was 22, I have dreamed of being an entrepreneur – of creating and leading my own company. This is what my father did, and probably to a degree some of my dream is linked to my admiration for him and what he has accomplished.
Regardless, for years it was no more than a dream. I was simply not brave enough to pursue it. I had good jobs that just kept getting better. I was building great value, being rewarded with promotions, and high pay. Why would I leave? Why would I risk failure, when I already had what most people viewed as success?
Well, when I was 37, three things happened. First, I read Guy Kawasaki’s, “Art of the Start” – an inspiring guide to becoming an entrepreneur. The thing that hit me the hardest was that he said the ideal time – the peak time – to be an entrepreneur was between age 28 and 38. I was about to turn 38. I was about to miss the optimal window.
Second, I met Jerry Fiddler on a ski trip with mutual friends. Jerry is an engineer and an uber entrepreneur – an entrepreneur who, among other things, grew a software start-up in his garage to a multi- billion business. But it wasn’t just meeting Jerry. It was that after getting to know me, he said, not just that I would be a great entrepreneur, but that I would be a great entrepreneur and CEO. And it seemed liked he believed it.
Third – and most significantly – I knew three extraordinary engineers who wanted to create a company too. And together we founded Kerpoof. We wanted to succeed, but we didn’t just want to succeed. We first wanted to build value – we believed if we did that the rest would come. We had a vision to transform the computer for kids – to ensure that it wasn’t just a dumb box and extension of the TV – but a powerful platform for creative expression and design.
I have never worked as hard as I did for Kerpoof. And I’ve never been happier.
Follow your heart. And like all great loves, you’ll know when you find it.
And don’t worry if you don’t find it right away. Because here’s another myth – the myth that life is short. Or maybe it is true for some people, but not for you. I don’t even have to know you, just the fact that you sit before me today, tells me with 100% certainty that you will do many things.
And if you are lucky, your life will sometimes be messy, confusing, and downright terrifying. It might lead you down surprising paths – paths that cause others to think you’re crazy. But I promise you this, if you keep learning from your success – if you always seek to build value – and if follow your heart, your life will not only be long, it will be rich, satisfying, and deeply rewarding.
* Krista asked me to include two additional acknowledgements. The first is that when she wrote the speech, she was reading “Rework”, and loved the idea that it is infinitely more powerful to succeed than fail. Second, she watched Steve Jobs give a commencement at Standford, and he said “follow your heart, and like all great loves you’ll know when you find it” which she thought was awesome.
I gave a talk yesterday to a class of soon-to-graduate MBA students at CU Boulder yesterday. It was their last class in the course that had been filled with a bunch of interesting VC and entrepreneurial guest lecturers. We did Q&A for several hours, covered a lot of ground, and had plenty of fun (or at least I did.) At the end, the professor asked if I had any final words of advice to the room full of MBA’s who were about to graduate. I thought for a moment and then said an abbreviated version of the following.
Imagine that you are 45 and are looking back on your last 15-20 years. Is your work, and life, full of meaning?
Don’t worry about money right now. You can always get a job that pays you plenty of money. Don’t worry about your resume. Don’t worry about “am I positioning myself the right way for something five years from now.” I know way too many 45 year olds who have plenty of money, have done all the right career things, yet are unhappy with where they are in life, where they live, and what they do. Don’t be that guy or gal.
Start by choosing the place you want to make a life. If it’s Boulder, figure out how to stay here. If it’s New York, there’s an easy United flight that gets you there in under four hours – take it the day after you graduate. San Francisco? That flight is only two hours long. Just go and figure it out when you get there. Don’t talk about “I’m going to live there some day” – go get in the middle of wherever it is that you want to build a life. Oh, and Boise is a pretty cool place, as is Austin, Seattle, Miami, DC, and at least 95 other cities in the United States.
Next, choose a domain that you want to dedicate your life to. If you’ve dreamed of being an investment banker or consultant to Fortune 1000 companies since you were 10, then Goldman Sachs or McKinsey is looking for you. If you want to be an entrepreneur, working at an investment bank or consulting firm for a while is pointless. Be an entrepreneur starting now. Pick that domain that turns you on the most – start at a high level (e.g. software, Internet, clean tech) but then pick a thing that you really care about and a set of problems you want to solve. If you aren’t technical, go find a technical co-founder right now – there are hundreds of them on this campus. Get your ass out of your chair and just get started.
Finally, make sure you are living your life. You are young and hopefully have plenty of time on this planet. But don’t wait because you never know when the lights are going to go out.
Ok – that’s more cogent than what I probably said in real time, but it’s what I meant. And I think it applies to anyone about to graduate with an MBA. When I graduated from MIT Sloan with an SM (they didn’t have MBA’s back in 1988) I was already following three of these – I hadn’t focused on where I wanted to live until 1995 when Amy and I moved to Boulder. But when I look back, I didn’t care about money (and subsequently made plenty of it), I focused all of my energy on building a software company (which evolved into helping create software / Internet companies), and I lived my life every single moment – the ups, the downs, the dark depressed days, and the euphoric moments.
Go do something important right now, whatever that is for you. The world needs it and your chances of living a meaningful, happy, and fulfilling life will increase dramatically.
I feel strongly that the one of the important elements of building a sustainable entrepreneurial community over a long period of time is for the entire existing entrepreneurial community to be extremely welcoming to young college graduates. For the folks with a knee jerk reaction to call me ageist, please note that I said “one of the important elements …”
There was a solid article yesterday in the Northern Colorado Business Reporter titled College grads make their own jobs. If you follow this blog, follow TechStars, or have read Do More Faster, you know that I have put a lot of energy into the Boulder entrepreneurial community, but have also spent a lot of time helping other entrepreneurial communities that I invest in (such as Seattle, Boston, and New York.) And, like Caine from Kung Fu, I’ve recently been wandering around the US (next week – Upstate New York) spreading my views, philosophy, and advice on creating and sustaining entrepreneurial communities. I continue to study and think hard about the dynamics of entrepreneurial communities around the US and believe that there are at least 100 cities in the US that can have strong, significant, healthy, 20 year plus sustainable entrepreneurial communities.
In the short term, welcoming young college graduates into your entrepreneurial community has a huge impact on local economies. If young college grads start up new companies rather than take jobs at existing companies, they create obvious short term job growth. If any of these new companies grow, they create additional job growth. In addition, it keeps smart, well educated people (college graduates) in the local community.
This is not a zero sum game – these recent college graduates are not taking jobs away from other companies, especially entrepreneurial ones. Instead, they are creating entrepreneurial job expansion in the local community. As a result, existing experienced entrepreneurs and everyone around the local entrepreneurial ecosystem should welcome the young college graduates into the entrepreneurial community, mentor them, give them low cost excess resources (such as let them camp out in your office if you have extra space), and help them by being an early customer or partner. Namely – make a bet on them of whatever kind you can.
I’ve seen this play out in Boulder for over 15 years. It’s just awesome to watch it build – there is a strong cumulative effect. Many of the 22 year olds that I met in the mid 1990’s are now in their mid to late 30’s and are playing key roles in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. And the folks like me who were in their 30’s in the 1990’s are now in their 40’s and 50’s and are continuing to play it forward aggressively to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Oh – and it’s a ton of fun. Don’t ever forget that. As a 45 year old, while I might not be able to stay up until 2am anymore, I love hanging out, working with, learning from, and mentoring 22 year olds.
If you want to participate in building a long term entrepreneurial community in your city, spend a few minutes right now figuring out one thing you are going to do for one upcoming college graduate in the class of 2011 and put it in motion today.