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Commencement Inspiration: From Hindsights to the Super Bowl

03/14/2013 11:33 am ET | Updated May 14, 2013

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Who remembers the commencement speech from their graduation? Probably few. But who remembers the feeling they had from the speech and the commencement ceremony? Many more. College graduation is a big deal, and a commencement speaker's ability to share something of himself or herself that sticks and gives hope can play an important inspirational role.

Know thy audience is a guiding principle for any speaker, and never more important than with a college crowd. Parents want to hear that opportunities for success are within reach, as do students. But students want to sense that the speaker is there to tell them something useful on their wave length. Here is how a few of our speaker-entrepreneurs struck a chord for the graduating classes at our college.

Guy Kawasaki, venture capitalist, best-selling author, and Apple Fellow, began with, "What a great day it is for all of you. And what an honor it is for me to be your commencement speaker. That said, the implications of being a commencement speaker frightens me. This is because, typically, 'old' people give commencement speeches. When I was your age, the last person I would believe is someone who is my age." Mr. Kawasaki went on to tell everyone his 10 hindsights learned over his career, and the entire audience was hooked.

"Make change your friend and use it," said Alan Salzman, co-founder and CEO of VantagePoint Capital Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Before he began speaking passionately about clean technology, his area of entrepreneurship and expertise, he shared a couple of tips from his recently-graduated children. "They said, 'The most important thing is to be funny,' at which point I said, 'what else you got?' They said, 'Make sure that you're cool and you do stuff that the graduates can relate to.' At that point I realized that they were going to be of no help whatsoever." Everyone laughed and tuned in.

Humor is a great connector, but so is passion. Dr. Jane Shaw, then Chair of the Board of Intel Corporation, talked about striving for excellence and reaching beyond expectations. She spoke about the value of "being well-rounded" so as to have a foundation upon which to draw ideas and connect with others. She closed by turning her attention to the women graduates, and encouraged them to seek leadership roles. She had defied the odds in her journey to the Board of Directors in a Fortune 100 company, and the audience was captivated.

Steve Westly, former eBay executive and California State Controller, used the history of innovation in California including the gold rush, the movie industry, and Silicon Valley and connected it to an individual's will to succeed. "Don't take 'no' as a final answer," he said. He encouraged each graduate to do what he/she enjoys doing, and to be brave in those attempts. He acknowledged that failure is going to happen, but that determination would also lead to success. Mr. Westly's comments were a reflection of his personal experience, and the audience appreciated his candor and optimism.

This May, Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers will be our commencement speaker. As if seeing his team go to Super Bowl XLVII wasn't enough, Mr. York will share the podium with HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud '79, Chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company, KSA, international investor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, who returns to campus to receive an honorary doctorate and speak about how his college experience helped position him for business leadership. We're looking forward to the next personal success stories that inspire our students to write their own.