Motivation for Innovators: 2012 University of Texas School of Information Convocation Address

I was going through some old files and found the convocation address I delivered to the University of Texas School of Information graduates back in May of 2012. I think it applies to entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs as much as it does for newly minted graduates. Enjoy!

2012 University of Texas School of Information Convocation

“The Journey”

Thank you very much. Good afternoon. I am humbled and honored to be here to deliver the 2012 convocation for the University of Texas - School of Information. Without a doubt, I am with the smartest graduates on campus.

I would like to first acknowledge the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances – anyone who had a hand in your son or daughter earning a degree.

Your son or daughter has earned a Master’s Degree or PhD from one of the top universities in the world from a top 10 School of Information. Not too shabby! Well done and congratulations!

Next, I would like to acknowledge the most talented students at UT sitting before me hoping this address doesn’t take too long.

You have successfully completed your classes from “Information in Cyberspace” to “Privacy” to “Data Collection” to “Managing Information Organizations” to “Usability” and all the papers and presentations and exams in between. Well done and congratulations!

Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the professional staff, the faculty, the Advisory Council and Dean Dillon. Thank you for your outstanding efforts in delivering a premier education to the brightest students on campus. Without you, none of this would be possible. Well done and congratulations!

So you may be wondering, who is this guy? I am not a University of Texas alumni. I do not have Master’s in Library Science. I am not a librarian. And I wasn’t even born in Texas!

I am the Director of Research at Austin Ventures and serve on the School of Information’s Advisory Council. I was born and raised in Illinois and went to Illinois State University and studied Marketing and later, went to Western Illinois University for my MBA. I’m a Midwesterner.

After graduate school I entered the technology world and started as an analyst at Western Digital followed by strategy roles at both Dell and HP. I later commercialized technology at AT&T Knowledge Ventures – which is a fancy way to say I found cool patents, trademarks and copyrights and tried to license them around the world. From there I landed at Austin Ventures, a venture capital firm here in Austin.

I am a Redbird through and through. It is the cardinal mascot of Illinois State University. There was thought there would be some confusion with the St. Louis Cardinals so they decided to go with the generic Redbird – been causing confusion ever since.

I am here because I value what these graduates can do. I believe in the University of Texas’ School of Information.

During my career from research to strategy to venture capital I have always tried to tell a story with information – that is what these graduates can do better than anyone else.

They can find meaning in it. Categorize it. Preserve it. Transform it. Archive it. Let me cut to the chase, I value them so much - I hire librarians! If fact, I have two working for me right now! Now mom and dad are listening!

What to say?

Before I wrote this address I did some basic research. I talked to my friends and sought out advice on what would strike a chord with all of you. The feedback was terrifying. In general, it went something like this:

“These kids don’t need any advice. They are much too savvy for that. They are too smart. Do something unique. Maybe dance. And whatever you do, don’t talk longer than 15 minutes! Good luck!”

Really? Maybe I should seek out different friends! What the heck am I going to talk about? I wanted to make sure this address lived up to UT’s reputation and standards. Even as a Redbird I knew about UT’s standards.

So after several long workouts it occurred to me to take a chance and speak from the heart ignoring pop culture references and pop psychology anecdotes. That said, I’m afraid there is going to be some advice that follows. It’s inescapable. But the good news is there will be no dancing!

This afternoon I would like to speak with you about three things: your personal value, working hard and the journey of success – and how all three of these are intertwined, for not only do you have value, but there is value in hard work and in the journey itself.

Value because it important for you to know where you came from and how your career was started – here at the great University of Texas – one of the best schools in the world. We are in the age of information and all of you are uniquely qualified to benefit from it. Don’t ever forget you have value.

Work because I’m pretty sure all of you know how to have fun – I don’t know a young person who doesn’t. So I would like to share some views on working hard. I know you have all been told to take chances, risks, and follow your dreams. You all already know that. But those dreams don’t just happen. Work makes it all come together.

And the journey of success because, quite simply, life is a mysterious gift filled with wonder. If you let it, the journey unfolds its riches to you with love, laughter and abundance. It may be messy at times, but that’s okay.

Let’s start with value.

Value

Please know that you have value. You have earned a spot at the table. You are no longer at the kiddie table boys and girls you are now lumped into the 5% of the population that has completed graduate studies. You have completed a Master’s or PhD Degree at the University of Texas. These skills are useful. And valuable.

Remember…and this is key, it is not that you are smart; it is HOW you are smart that matters. That is the differentiator for everyone in this room. You have critical thinking and problem solving skills the average bear just doesn’t have.

My quick tip to realize value for all of you entering your first salary negotiation is to go big on the salary (of course do your homework). The goal is to ask for an amount that takes the hiring managers breath away and causes a look that is a cross between horror and pain. You are worth it. Ask for it.

Now I would like to share some stories with you about work. As a Midwesterner, I still believe in the value of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. I still believe in handshakes and hard work. There is dignity in pushing yourself to do a good job. And a job worth doing is worth doing well.

Work

I am going to tell you my formula for luck or more specifically: where opportunity meets preparation. That’s what luck is. Opportunity meets preparation. The luckiest people I know are the hardest working.

My formula for luck:

1. Work hard.

2. Work smart.

3. And work with the right people.

Say it with me. Work hard. Work smart. Work with right people.

You will find value in working hard and through work you can find your passion AND your purpose. I know it’s popular to tell folks to find their passion. I encourage you to do more – find your purpose as well. In finding both you will be on a journey of success.

Work hard.

My first story is about working hard and it is about my grandmother.

She was a feisty, no-nonsense lady and fiercely competitive – how competitive you might ask? As children, when we would play Chinese checkers with her, she would not let us win. Ever! It wasn’t until I was in high school that I beat my grandmother at anything! And we were so happy when we did it.

I know that in today’s pop-psychology-laden world, many would say this is damaging to a child’s self esteem and would eventually cause irreparable harm. Bologna! She simply made us work for it and not only did it make us stronger, it made us better appreciate the journey. When we beat her we knew we had earned it. A subtle but important lesson that taught us we had to work for it.

In your careers and life you are going to have to work hard for whatever you desire. Contrary to what some may believe, no one is going to let you have it. Work hard for it.

Work smart.

But working hard is only one piece of this puzzle. You must work smart. And all of you are very intelligent – I would expect nothing less from this bunch.

My second story is about working smart. While I was in strategy at one of those computer companies’ years ago we had to respond to Apple’s iMac color parade. You may remember that Apple came out with a series of colors for its iMacs. We met in a large conference room to strategize and decide what to do.

Being a practical Midwesterner (a.k.a Captain Obvious), I commented to the plethora of research and strategy folks that we should just come out with the same colors (maybe slightly change the hue a bit) and call it a day. I was looked at with distain. Crazy they said.

What did we do? Our response was to spend lots of money traversing the globe asking people what color of computer they would like. Then we did it again to figure out the shade of gray to go with the computer. Yes, we did research on shades of gray. I’m not proud of that.

Amazingly, after 8 weeks we came up with very, very, very similar colors (actually from memory I think the hues were slightly changed) AND the original gray we started with. Lesson learned. Work smart, people. Work smart. There is no need to waste time and money on the obvious solution.

But working hard and smart will only get you so far. You need to work with the right people.

Work with the right people.

My last story is about working in venture capital. My team, and I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to understand various companies, markets, value chains, and technologies. We analyze the market creating “market maps” in order to ascertain the competitive landscape and key dynamics of the areas we choose to invest in. But something many folks may not realize is we spend a lot of time understanding people.

Yep, the people. I’m in venture capital telling you we research the people as much as we do the markets, technologies and companies. We find talented entrepreneurs and team them with the right people. And when we get it right – you can have tremendous success.

One successful outcome for a private company is to go public or IPO – (initial public offering like Facebook or Google) which allows them to sell shares of stock to the general public. That is generally a good thing for all involved.

In your careers don’t ever underestimate the power of working with the right people – a key aspect of our business is doing just that. Find them and network with them. And if you are with the wrong people – find new ones. The right ones make all the difference.

If you work with the right people, amazing, seemingly insurmountable things can happen. Create a culture of winning. I know it’s not popular these days to talking about winning but I ask, “do you really want a culture of losing?”

The Journey

Lastly, I would like to talk you about your journey. We have talked about your personal value and working hard, smart and with the right people But there is more.

There is something else I want all of you to know.

Drawing from the “Road Less Travelled” and “Further Along the Road Less Travelled” by M. Scott Peck we learn that life is difficult and complex.

We live in a culture where things are supposed to fit in a nice little box with a bow. Everything is supposed to be easy - instant gratification. I’m here to tell you that box and bow do not exist and some things in life are hard and take time.

I’m not trying to depress you – I’m trying to enlighten you. I want you to have a clear vision of what may be in store for you from those that have come before you. When things get hard and messy you may be on the right track. Now, along those lines leverage your value and skills appropriately.

Don’t be a fish trying to climb a tree – that’s not working smart people - that’s just silly.

In venture capital, the companies we fund seldom follow the perfect forecast for revenue. It’s up, down, flat, negative - all over the map.

In short it’s messy. And many times they fail. But as a result that process of realizing value and hard work - challenging, creating, and stretching – and working with the right people, the ingredients for success are there. It’s part of the journey. And every now and again it leads to an IPO.

And folks forget how messy it was the 7 years before that.

You have to be willing to realize that from this day forward you are going to be pushed and challenged in ways you haven’t even imagined yet.

It’s going to be messy. It may be hard. Really hard. But that’s okay, because you have an advanced degree from the University of Texas. That has value. You have value.

Success in life (just as business) is filled with lots of failure. It seldom goes up and to the right like beautifully created bar chart.

Michael Jordan came into the NBA in 1984 – it wasn’t until 1991 that he won his first championship. There were coaching changes and head office changes as well as player trades. People forget that. It was messy. But he prevailed.

Many people know that Abraham Lincoln lost a few elections before he was president but some may not know he had to fire 11 Generals (one twice) during the Civil War to find the right one to do the job. I’m going on a limb here, but I’m guessing that was hard, frustrating and messy. Still, he prevailed.

Life is messy. Success is messy. Families can be messy too. But that’s okay…it’s part of the journey. It actually defines the journey.

Closing

So in closing - thank you all very much for the opportunity to share some hopefully useful advice with all of you this afternoon. Twenty years from now you may not remember the details of today, and that’s okay.

But I do hope you embrace your personal value; remember to work hard, smart and with the right people. And that success is messy and that’s okay. That is part of the journey.

If you embrace these things, your journey is bound to be a success filled with love, laughter and abundance.

Thank you and congratulations once again graduates!