MBA graduates won’t be the only ones taking a victory lap this spring. Sure, commencements are the culmination of a life-changing journey. For business schools, they’re also serious affairs.
While graduates and loved ones are donning their Project Runway attire, the schools themselves are showcasing their Sunday best. Ceremonies are a means to convey their traditions, values, and dreams. While graduation is a moment for students, these events are also designed to tout a school’s wide influence and deep prestige to future students and potential patrons in the stands. And nothing captures imagination and produces word of mouth better than the graduation speaker.
This year, MBA programs have truly outdone themselves. From decorated CEOs to sports heroes, the Class of 2016 will have plenty to reflect on after graduation. If there is a theme to this year’s speakers, it would be homecoming, as MBAs return to their alma maters to share their life lessons to those who’ll soon be stepping into their shoes.
MARY BARRA, RUTH PORAT AND TOM TIERNEY RETURN TO THEIR ALMA MATERS
At Stanford GSB’s diploma ceremony in June, Mary Barra, pride of the Class of 1990, will rock the mike. The CEO (and now Chairman) of General Motors, Barra was ranked by Fortune as the Most Powerful Woman in Business in 2015. Two years ago, she took the wheel at General Motors with a clear mandate: Innovate (i.e. Increase fuel efficiency and integrate tech; embrace (i.e. Implement changing global and generational tastes); and compete (i.e. Raise market share and keep GM out of Chapter 11 again). And you can expect Barra’s address to touch on areas important to all MBAs: Building collaborative cultures, adapting to change, and finding a balance between work and family.
Wharton’s speaker, Ruth Porat (’87), symbolizes the school’s growing shift from finance to high tech. A year ago, she was one of the most influential women on Wall Street. Over 28 years, she had climbed the ranks at Morgan Stanley to become the firm’s Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. What role could possibly top that? Try being the Chief Financial Officer of Alphabet, Inc. – the parent company of Google. Long known for her plain talk and mad work ethic, Porat is certain to bring the Palestra down with her take-no-prisoners candor. A sample? Here is one of her hard truths that can cut close to home. “One of the biggest problems women have is they work really hard and put their heads down and assume hard work gets noticed, and hard work for the wrong boss does not get noticed,” she writes in her book, How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life. “Hard work for the wrong boss results in one thing — that boss looks terrific, and you get stuck.”
And let’s not forget Harvard Business School, which welcomes back Tom Tierney (’80), co-founder of the famed Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor to philanthropists and social enterprises. Tierney described himself as a “social misfit” who “struggled through business school” in Stewart Friedman’s book, Leading the Life You Want. Despite this, he eventually emerged as the Chief Executive Officer at Bain & Company…before leaving it all to follow his heart and launch a business to help those who needed it most. His peers thought he was crazy. “They honestly thought I’d received bad news from the doctor,” Tierney told Friedman. “To leave this company that was growing thirty-five percent per year, with twenty-two hundred people in twenty-plus countries? It was going well – I had all these perks.” In the end, he found his purpose – and an outlet for his desire to serve others. In turn, Tierney provided a blueprint for MBAs to do the same. “That serving bit was just as important to me,” he adds,’ and I wasn’t going to just leave it for the dessert at dinner. I wanted it as part of the main course.”
SPEAKERS RANGE FROM GE CEO TO SEATTLE SEAHAWKS QUARTERBACK
When it comes to graduation speeches, 2016 could be described as the year of the woman. Several prominent schools are welcoming back female graduates who’ve pioneered paths for their peers to follow. Columbia grads will be treated to Shelly Lazarus (’70), who helmed Oglivy & Mather from 1996-2008. The University of Texas will host Holly McMullan (’04), Head of North American Business Development at Apollo Global Management. At Minnesota, the graduation speech will be delivered by Barbara Mowry (’75), who held senior leadership roles at Oracle, Comcast, and United Airlines before becoming CEO of GoreCreek Advisors. Other prominent alumni returning to campus to speak include Kellogg’s Bill McDermott (’97), CEO Of SAP, Ohio State’s Jesse Tyson (’76), President and CEO of The National Black MBA Association; Kenan-Flagler’s Brent Callinicos (‘89), recently retired CFO of Uber (and former Vice President and Treasurer at Google); and the University of Chicago’s Michael Polsky (’87), Founder, President and CEO of Invenergy LLC.
This year’s slate also includes some star power. New York University has brought out the big guns, landing General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt as its speaker. Who knows – maybe Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, can deliver his remarks at Duke in under 140 characters. Of course, you couldn’t have graduation without sports heroes. Mitch Kupchak (’87), General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, is set to speak at Anderson’s commencement. Considering everything on his plate – a retiring superstar, feuding young players, a coaching search, and a franchise-defining draft pick – Kupchak’s MBA training will certainly come in handy. At nearby USC, Coach Pete Carroll proves that you can come home again, as he will address the Marshall MBA Class of 2016 (who have long forgotten the recruiting violations that occurred at USC under Carroll’s watch). Speaking of Carroll, his current quarterback, Russell Wilson, will be the graduation speaker at the University of Wisconsin.
Of course, a few graduations bring a local flavor to bear. At the University of Michigan, Ross has enlisted Mark Fields, CEO of Ford Motor Company, to speak to the graduating class. At the University of Washington, the “other Howard” – retired Starbucks President Howard Behar – will be the featured speaker for Foster grads.
Looking for dates, schedules, parking info, and accommodations for your favorite schools? Wondering where you can livestream the graduation for yourself? Check out our list of commencements on the accompanying pages to access all the information you need to watch or participate in the festivities.