Best MBA Commencement Speakers: Class of 2019

Daymond John will be the commencement speaker at Michigan’s Ross School of Business (Photo courtesy of a CNBC promotional video on YouTube)

Be sure to tip your waiter – well. In ten years, he may be your boss – or your chief investor.

That’s the story of Daymond John. Chances are, MBA students have already studied him. John was the protagonist who turned $100K of seed funding into FUBU (For Us, By Us), a $300 million dollar cautionary case on the value of partnerships and the perils of overproduction. However, most people recognize John as a shark – an investor ferreting out scalable businesses on ABC’s Shark Tank.

These days, John is known for catchphrases like “Sales cures all” or “Make it, master it, matter.” In the 1990s, he was pitching Seaside Samplers and Chocolate Waves. Long before he was tapped to deliver the keynote address at the Ross School of Business’ 2019 commencement, John was waiting tables at Red Lobster– an ambitious dyslexic who learned to connect by serving patrons and mastered fundamentals by poring over company reports. Sure enough, his biggest lesson came straight out of the Zig Ziglar playbook.


“Having the first sale is worth nothing. That’s just the acquisition cost,” he told Business Insider in 2015. “It’s easier to upsell current customers than it is to find new ones.”

Shark Tank (Daymond John is second from the left)

Alas, John’s track record –and his personal brand – speak for themselves. Come May 3rd, John will be looking to close another sale at Ross. This product is an intangible. It doesn’t come with specs, timetables, and deliverables – and the price tag will tab to whatever graduates want to pay. That’s because John invests in people and trumpets the American dream. Here, hustle and pluck run circles around muscle and bucks. In the digital age, bootstrapping disruptors aren’t just found at Stanford, MIT or Michigan. They can just as easily be your Uber driver or Staples cashier. They can be Ross MBAs too – or any MBA who’s willing to seize the possibilities by wading through the discomfort and doubt.

The time to do that, John adds, is now. “Don’t wait for the perfect time, you will wait forever,” he tells people. “Always take advantage of the time that you’re given and make it perfect.”


Daymond John is just one of the thought leaders who’ll be making the rounds on this year’s business school graduation speaker circuit. For full-time MBAs, graduation is the closure of a transformational experience – a two year sprint where they’ve emerged as a different person: more confident and capable – and ready to tackle anything. For business schools, keynote speakers are an opportunity to trot out alumni success stories or attract big names. No different than christening shiny new buildings or poaching rock star faculty members, graduation speakers are a way to highlight a program’s reach and leave a lasting impression.

Who are some of this year’s stars? Finance takes center stage with the Class of 2019. At the Wharton School, for example, Blackstone President and COO Jonathan Gray will deliver the keynote. Tim Ryan, Chair of PwC US, will do the same at the Fuqua School of Business. At the same time, William Harrison, who was succeeded as Chairman of JP Morgan by Jamie Dimon, will speak at Kenan-Flagler.

Wondering who is pulling double duty this spring? Look no further than Michael Bloomberg. Not only will he speak at MIT’s school-wide graduation, but he’ll also serve as Harvard Business School’s class day speaker on May 29th. A 1966 HBS alum, Bloomberg amassed his $55 billion dollar fortune the old fashioned way: He integrated a new technology (computer) with an established product (financial computer) to boost the possibilities (ability to analyze and manipulate data in real time electronically).

Michael Bloomberg


Of course, this breakthrough was made possible by setback: He was fired from a firm where he’d devoted 15 years. That led him to an epiphany, one he shared with the University of Michigan’s graduating class in 2016. “Whatever you think your dream job is today, don’t get too attached to it. Chances are, if the job still exists in 15 years, it will be very different – and you may have found other passions. Keeping an open mind to new ideas will be essential to your professional success, and it will be just as crucial to our collective future as a democratic society.”

Other speakers will serve as a reminder of just how much the world has changed. Take John Browne, the former CEO of British Petroleum (BP) who holds an MS degree in Business from Stanford. In 2006, Browne resigned his position after being outed by a former partner. Today, he sits on the British House of Lords and serves as executive chairman of L1 Energy, an oil and gas investment firm. Turns out, the tumultuous end of his BP tenure came with a silver lining.

“Had I stayed in the closet I think I would have remained an incomplete and unfulfilled person,” Browne wrote in his 2014 autobiography. “Coming out does not mean your life will be peace and serenity. You will still encounter people who make you uncomfortable. You will still have to make difficult decisions. However, as I have learned since coming out, you will be better able to cope with all of them.”


Browne isn’t the only alum making a triumphant return to his alma mater this spring. In April, Roger Lynch, the former CEO of Pandora, took the helm of Condé Nast. Now, the ’95 Tuck MBA is heading back to Hanover to speak to the Class of 2019 on June 8th. Three weeks earlier, Akio Toyoda, President of the Toyota Motor Corporation, returns to Babson College, where he earned his MBA in 1982. By the same token, Lori Lee, global marketing officer for AT&T, and Patrick Awuah, founder of the acclaimed Ashesi University in Ghana, enjoy their MBA homecomings at Washington University and the University of California-Berkeley, respectively.

Alas, MBAs aren’t the only graduates who’ll be witnessing star power. This year, Oprah Winfrey is heading out to Colorado College, while Pierce “007” Brosnan pays a visit to Dickinson College Not to be outdone, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” will be taking his act to Goucher Coolege, while Jennifer Garner (sans Batfleck) will speak at Denison College.

Among global leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will address Harvard’s Class of 2019. That’s a step up from Madeleine Albright, with the former Secretary of State hitting Bucknell University and U.C.-San Diego. She isn’t alone in double-booking, as Apple CEO Tim Cook is slated to speak at both Tulane and Stanford. Let’s not forget Michael Bloomberg, who recently added the University of Maryland and Washington University of St. Louis to his 2019 national tour.

Rock on, Mayor B!

Who is speaking at your school? Where can you go for information on hotels, parking, and schedules for these ceremonies? Check out our commencement list on the next pages for everything you need to watch or join these events.

University of Michigan (Ross)

Graduation Date: May 3, 2019

Graduation Speaker: Daymond John, Co-Star of ABC’s Shark Tank

Graduation Information: Ross Commencement 2019


Georgia Tech (Scheller)

Graduation Date: May 3, 2019

Graduation Speaker: Sandra Magnus, Ph.D., the executive director emeritus of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)

Graduation Information: 2019 Georgia Tech Commencement

Additional Notes: Scheller MBA graduates participate in the Master’s ceremony, which is held separately from the undergraduate and Ph.D. ceremonies. For additional details, click here.

Go to next page for graduation information for Indiana Kelley, USC Marshall, and Duke Fuqua. 

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