Our Favorite B-School Commencement Address Of 2017

This is the season for graduation which also makes it the season for commencement addresses.

They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. But there’s one central message in every solid graduation speech: It’s a person’s life advice to newly graduated students.

This year, business schools have had a lot of big names show up on campus to deliver those life lessons. But the speech we like best so far comes from someone you may not know. Adena Friedman is the CEO of Nasdaq. A 1993 alumnus of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, she took the graduation stage and talked about the five skills she has found to be the most essential in her career.

It’s a well-crafted, well-delivered address with some very sound advice. Enjoy it.

best business school commencement speech 2017

Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman with Owen Dean Eric Johnson at this year’s commencement

Dean Johnson, faculty and friends — thank you.

It’s great to be back in Nashville. Every time I come back to Vanderbilt, it feels like coming home.

Graduates, you are 329 strong. You are 223 men and 106 women. You hail from 38 states across the United States and from 22 other countries.

But diverse as your backgrounds may be, from this day forward you are bound together as fellow Owen alums. I am honored to share this important moment in your lives.

You will remember your time at Owen for the long days and sleepless nights of hard work and discovery.

For the camaraderie of your colleagues, pulling up chairs and tackling complex problems.

For building new skills to take out into the world together.

And I’m not just talking about the social skills that you developed at the Thursday afternoon happy hours…

…Which used to be called simply the Thursday Keg, but which are now called The Closing Bell…

…And, in my current job, I fully applaud the rebranding.

Let me begin today with a bit of ancient history. Let’s walk back in time to the year that I graduated from Owen…1993.

Moviegoers were charmed that year by the story of a delightful nanny with a hilarious secret in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Meat Loaf was burning up the charts with the timeless classic “I would do anything for love (But I won’t do that.)”

Our mailboxes, the physical kind at your front door, were filling up with floppy discs offering free trials for a new computer service called AOL…and we were just beginning to understand a new service, called the internet, with the introduction of blazing-fast 28.8 baud modems. Which, for those of you in your 20s is very slow.

And finally, Wall Street was enjoying a record year for initial public offerings, led by the many innovators in their industries of the day, including Vermont Teddy Bear, Talbots, and Boston Chicken.

Looking back, that era seems positively quaint, especially compared with the challenges awaiting you on the other side of graduation today. Challenges that include:

Artificial intelligence and automation throttling us past the limits of the human brain, but with the potential to displace millions of workers;

Globalism and populism waging battles for hearts and minds in every country and every corner of the planet, creating geopolitical risk and uncertainty;

Universal and instant connectivity that makes it easier for all people to access and participate in the global economy, but that also creates digital siloes of people who read the same news, listen to the same voices, and refuse to think or reach outside their box.

But the funny thing is that the past only seems quaint in the rearview mirror. When I think back to my time here at Owen, things seemed just as fast-changing, exciting and terrifying, as they do today.

You see, every graduating class believes they are entering into a world of unique complexity and unprecedented speed.

And you know what? Each and every time, they’re right.

One of the key lessons I’ve learned in my career is that change is constant and relentless. When I first started working on Wall Street, most investors received stock quotes by reading them in the paper… the next day!

But, soon after I started at Nasdaq, in 1995, quotes went online, online brokerages opened their virtual doors, and the Internet completely changed investing and trading forever for millions of people.

As I got my start, I could have gone down two paths in response to these changing times.

The first path would be to learn and mimic the behaviors of my senior colleagues who had done things the same way for decades – and been extremely successful at it – yet refused to acknowledge that a new day was dawning.

The second road would have been to hitch my wagon to the hottest technology or company of the day.

For example, what do you think the best-performing stock of 1993 was? Apple? Microsoft? Nope. It was a company that manufactured an exciting new gadget that suppressed background noise on land-line telephones.

The lesson here is that either of those paths would not have led me very far. You can’t stand still — but you also can’t careen from one trend to another.

It is important to forge a third path. A path that leads you to a career you feel passionately about – and that will carry you through the many twists and turns that your life and your career will inevitably bring you. And only you know what that path is and whether it is right for you.

Fortunately, forging the third path leverages a timeless set of skills – which you have just spent your time at Owen learning and honing.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.