Class of 2021, Good morning! Can you believe this day has arrived? I’m thrilled to see you all again and I couldn’t be happier that we’re together here at Fenway Park. Congratulations to you all!
To Chair of the Board and Interim President Paul Condrin and to the Bentley board of trustees, thank you for this tremendous honor. For 11 wonderful years, I had the opportunity to read those citations and place the hood over the shoulders of many deserving individuals. Never did I imagine that I would receive this honor, from a school that means so much to me.
Setting the stage
This past year has forever changed our world. We are lesser as a nation and lesser as a global community. We’ve experienced an untold loss of human life; felt economic and financial hardship; experienced social unrest and a needed reckoning around race and social justice; and saw a deepening political and social divide at home and abroad. But here today, in spite of or perhaps because of these challenges, we stand stronger. Class of 2021, you are stronger.
I’m sure you well recall the extraordinary—unprecedented, unbelievable, improbable—downright terrible feelings that arrived in the spring of 2020. The air around us, in an instant, became the world’s most terrifying poison. We hoarded Clorox and Lysol, and yes, toilet paper. We washed our groceries and mail. We created at-home offices to juggle work, life and class, all from the spare bedroom down the hall from parents, our spouses and kids, all adapting to a remote, quarantine lifestyle. We thanked heaven for Netflix and on-demand delivery. We were forced to suddenly think about how close, or how far, we must remain from just about everyone.
It’s worth pausing to remember: each of us here today has experienced some form of personal loss over the past year, and some more deeply than others. But, you are here today. And you are stronger than when you began this journey.
Four years ago, I welcomed many of you undergraduate students to Bentley under the tent on the library quad at convocation.
I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly good at predicting the future, but on that day, I kicked off my remarks with this sadly prescient declaration: “[Let me] begin with an obvious statement that some of you may already understand and all of you eventually will come to appreciate: Life is difficult. The world, at times, can be tremendously unfair.”
So allow me to start today by saying: “While events have proved me right, I’m so very sorry!”
And now let me quickly add a very different promise this morning that I believe will also come true. Each of you graduates today—with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and PhDs—ready to make a positive impact on the organizations you will join, and I believe, ultimately, on a world that so desperately needs your empathetic, inclusive leadership.
There was one more important topic I discussed that day: resilience. I could not possibly have imagined how universally important that word would prove to be for people and organizations in 2021.
At that time, I spoke about resiliency in the terms of how a Bentley education would demand that you to analyze, evaluate, justify, defend and explain your ideas to professors, colleagues and friends. Sometimes you’d be right, but other times, you’d be wrong. But that was the whole point—to learn and grow while building your resiliency muscle. “The purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs. It’s to evolve our beliefs,” says organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton, Adam Grant. And evolving, most of the time, requires all of us to get outside our comfort zone and grow from the curve balls—or knuckleballs, sinkers, or sliders—that life continues to throw our way.
Resilience has taken on even greater meaning in our lives in 2020 and 2021. But even as we begin to emerge from this difficult year, there remains much work to be done. Let’s admit that a post-pandemic journey to build a better and more resilient world will not be easy. The notion of returning to shared goals and values, to finding common ground as we move forward seems harder than ever in a country and world marked by political, cultural and social polarization at every level of society—including, sometimes, at the family dinner table. But this is what your Bentley education has prepared you to do. Professor Grant shared one additional piece of advice for these pivotal times: we should argue like we are right but listen like we are wrong. What a remarkable idea that’s worth repeating: Argue like we are right, but listen like we are wrong.
Why does Bentley Matter?
Despite some of the difficulties of the world, I firmly believe that, more than ever before, the post-pandemic work world you will enter, or re-enter, post-graduation, is committed to nurturing your growth and helping you achieve your goals. It’s one that more than ever wants what you learned inside and outside the Bentley classroom, as well as your generational thinking, values and leadership.
Bentley was an early adopter of “people, planet, profit” triple-bottom-line thinking, which is, increasingly, the underlying philosophy of most successful businesses today. While many companies embraced stakeholder capitalism before the pandemic, the extraordinary events of 2020 dramatically pushed “people and planet”—the environmental, social and company governance matters better known as “ESG”—further into the mainstream.
The extreme health and economic impacts from the global pandemic; continuing gender workplace inequities; the resounding call for racial justice following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among far too many other Black Americans; the widening political and cultural divide; the ongoing quest for equality for our LGBTQ+ community members; and increasingly dire climate impacts have only further exposed the imperative that companies address these societal issues head on. Today, like company financials, addressing ESG issues is increasingly seen as core to enterprise strategy, operations and long term sustainability.
This is the 21st century mindset of the business world that you are now part of; this is the mindset you millennials and Gen Z’s are seeking to accelerate. It’s an evolution that also has been championed in recent years by some of the U.S.’s and world’s largest investors and corporations, and again, it’s one that Bentley University has long been at the forefront of. With your Bentley degree in hand, you graduate today deeply understanding the multilayered meaning of “good business” and the value of an economy that truly serves all.
While I’ve had the good fortune to have an especially rewarding career and life, I’ve faced many challenges as well. In thinking about our time together today, I’d like to share with you five professional and personal lessons that have served me well in the hope that they may help you avoid a pitfall or two in the years ahead.
First, when it comes to your careers, more than anything else, I hope you pursue those opportunities that bring the most meaning to your life. Knowing what most motivates you, what gives you a sense of purpose, what brings all your talents and capabilities together, can turn work into a higher calling rather than simply a job. At the same time, I believe there is tremendous value in embracing the unplanned and being open to change in those carefully crafted career plans when unexpected opportunities arise.
Just before graduation from law school, I ditched my decision to go to a large Washington law firm, instead opting for a role running a statewide legal service program for low-income elderly in Virginia. It was an exhilarating, albeit low-paying, experience that taught me organizational skills, gave me immediate responsibility, and fueled a lifelong interest in public policy work. While I could not have known it at the time, my last-minute decision later opened the door to a series of equally unanticipated opportunities in government, the non-profit and private business sectors, and ultimately to Bentley. Most successful careers come with unexpected curves and each new job doesn’t have to be that seemingly logical next step up the workplace ladder.
Second, I hope you will bring a consistently positive attitude to the workplace, while adopting a realistic view of mistakes and challenges. Both will help you move forward productively in even the most difficult of circumstances. Because I’ve always been a “glass 90% full” optimist, I have had to learn to take off my rose-colored glasses and take a more pragmatic approach to problems. Your ability to see the facts as they are while retaining a positive mindset will allow you to take ownership quickly, assume responsibility for finding solutions, and then move on to other matters. While you will face career setbacks, as I have, most problems can be resolved and optimism is a key ingredient of personal and organizational success.
Some 20 years ago, I was responsible for overseeing the construction of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport. In the face of months of mounting criticism from the public and the media related to potential cost overruns and project management issues, my team and I decided to take control of the situation and call my own press briefings to candidly explain our challenges and proposed fixes—right up until the day we ultimately finished that billion dollar project on time and on budget. Throughout my career it’s proved important to not let stress and negative feelings, mine or others, get in the way of making the decisions needed to address tough challenges and then rely on positive energy to move ahead.
Third, mentors, sponsors and networks really do matter. You haven’t gotten this far alone and continuing to build strong connections over time will be as critical to your future success. Seek out the support you need. Early in my tenure at the Federal Trade Commission, one of the rare women in federal government leadership at the time, Pat Bailey, proved to be a wonderful mentor and role model for me, having already successfully cracked the glass ceiling for women in Washington. Pat would later recommend me—sponsor me—for a top role at the FTC, which eventually opened yet another door to a Cabinet role with Governor Bill Weld here in Massachusetts. Her example inspired me to later launch Bentley’s Center for Women and Business, as well as the Massachusetts Conference for Women, organizations dedicated to ending bias and equalizing the workplace support that both women and men need today. I hope you will all make it a habit to build deep relationships and broad networks, both inside your companies and through community based volunteer work. And I also hope you will pay it forward, serving as mentors and sponsors for others when the opportunity arises.
Fourth, I hope you will affirmatively ask for new opportunities and take bold risks throughout your careers. In my case, doing so meant facing down some of my own worst fears and lack of confidence when it came to requesting big assignments, career development opportunities, and promotions, or even offering my opinions in a crowded conference room. Many people believe their excellent work product will speak for itself, and while that can indeed happen, far more often it requires your active engagement to ensure that both your performance and your potential are fully acknowledged.
While working with Governor Weld, I almost lost a major opportunity when he called me into his office to ask who I thought might replace the outgoing Secretary of Economic Affairs. I named three or four other people, too intimidated to mention myself for a post I had long wanted. He finally stopped me and said that while he had thought I was the right person for the role, he was now pretty sure he had made a mistake. Embarrassed, I gulped hard, asked for a few minutes to make my case, and ultimately he gave me the job—one that proved to be one of the most meaningful of my career. I vowed then that this was a mistake I would not repeat and several years later, when I was approached to become a candidate for the Bentley presidency, as totally improbable as the prospect seemed, I jumped at the chance to learn more and make my best case. It’s your life, so please don’t allow self-doubt to keep you from the career opportunities you have earned.
My last piece of advice is less about careers and more of a few thoughts about the importance of finding your way to a rewarding and happy life—something we want as much for all of you as the rewarding career that comes with a Bentley degree.
Life beyond the office is critical to personal well-being. The good news is that your generation has for some time exhibited a far better appreciation than prior ones for building in the restorative time and activities that are needed for overall resilience and providing the personal, often psychic rewards that a career rarely can. That is a positive development for the world and, given the blurred work/life lines and burnout of the past year, it’s one that I pray improves in a post-pandemic, hybrid world.
This will be a lifelong, personal balancing act as your career grows and increased demands follow. You will, at times, need to pause, reflect and change course in order to do what’s best for you and your family.
Last April, shortly into the nationwide lockdown, I had an unexpected refresher course in this lesson. While everyone else seemed to be acquiring pandemic puppies, my husband Allen and I lost two of our three much loved Labrador Retrievers, 16-year-old littermates, Harry Jr. and Teak. Six weeks later, Allen was diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of throat cancer, requiring three months of daily radiation and weekly chemo treatments. While I continued my daily work-related Zoom meetings, overnight my main charge became helping Allen through this difficult time, joined by my teammate, our remaining Lab Sally, who proved to be a far more competent “nurse,” always at Allen’s side. In October, after the treatment cycle was complete and my husband started to regain some strength, Sally suddenly became ill and passed away within two days later. It turns out that she’d had cancer the entire time Allen did but had masked any signs of discomfort while in her therapy dog role.
Having been down in South Carolina this entire time, far longer than we planned, we packed our bags and returned to our home on Cape Cod. We decided in an instant that a house without a dog under these circumstances was simply too sad. Looking for an older Lab to adopt, I went to the website of a recommended kennel, finding only 7½-year-old Sally, the spitting image of the Sally we’d just lost three weeks earlier.
With our decision obviously made, we arranged to meet the new Sally and while there, the breeder introduced us to littermate Olive almost identical to our other late female Lab, Teak. Needless to say, we immediately adopted the two sisters. Two months later, we learned that Allen’s treatments were showing a positive trend that’s been further confirmed by additional tests.
The truth is that we’ve all suffered losses of varying kinds and degrees over the past year, some related to the pandemic; others involving different life challenges; many so much worse than ours; all likely made more difficult because of the isolation and stress associated with the pandemic.
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s our ability to bounce back, to recover from adversity that matters—our resilience. I witnessed tremendous resilience in my husband through his treatments. Wonder Dog Sally showed amazing resilience throughout as well, providing the daily comfort Allen’s needed, only succumbing to her own illness after her job was complete. Of course, I was forced to re-examine my resilience muscle as well, working to remain optimistic by checking off the days of treatment on a large calendar; through weekly Zoom sessions with family and friends; and taking daily walks with Sally that also included chats with neighbors, all at a socially correct distance. Oh—and one more thing: I binge-watched all 80 episodes of Schitt’s Creek, realizing what a gift laughter has been over the past year.
Like millions of others, Allen and I couldn’t wait to leave the “giant dumpster fire” of 2020 behind, entering 2021 with improving health, Sally and Olive as our new “pack,” and a positive mindset, as well as the cautious optimism that comes from the distribution of vaccines, positive economic signs, and fervent hopes for the healing of some of our most difficult economic and social wounds. We also entered 2021 with a huge dose of personal gratitude, giving thanks for all we’ve been given over so many years and so much happiness—so much of which comes from our time at Bentley University. More than anything, we wish the same for all of you, both now and on the road ahead.
I started this morning by reminding all of you that life is difficult. The world, at times, can be tremendously unfair. Indeed, it can be. But with resilience and with gratitude, I’m confident that we will rebuild and change the world for the better.
You will go out and make the world a better place. You will exemplify the resilience this world needs. You will be the positive business leaders that the world needs to thrive in the years ahead. You will face challenges and overcome them. And you will never forget that you are not alone in this journey. You are traveling this path together. And for that reason, you are stronger and more powerful than you will ever imagine.
Class of 2021, I can’t wait to see what you all do next. You’re a powerful reminder of all that is so great about Bentley University. Thank you and congratulations to you all!