The following is excerpted from Jerry Speyer’s 2008 MBA recognition ceremony remarks. (download pdf of full text)
There must be a great deal on your minds today. I could be wrong, but I’d venture to guess that more than a few topics are vying for your attention right now. The economy, job losses, wondering if the job you’ve accepted is the right one, student loans and the inevitable apartment search are probably all preying on your minds.
These are some of the same concerns I had back in May of 1964. Back then, the business climate was challenging, to say the least. The market was down, jobs were tight and competition was fierce. America was also fighting a war that was polarizing the nation. Sound familiar? It was, like now, a challenging time. How do we go forward in challenging times?
I want to tell you how a friend of mine dealt with the devastating reality of change in his own life. One of my college roommates was Sandy Greenberg. He was a drycleaner’s son from upstate New York, and a full scholarship student. . .and a truly brilliant scholar. Everybody loved and admired him.
During our third year of college, Sandy got glaucoma. The doctor told him he was going to go blind within weeks. Sandy left school, and moved home to Buffalo.
It was tragic! In Buffalo, Sandy was advised he could learn to cane chairs.
Here’s how he responded. The next semester, Sandy returned to school. He was blind and deeply afraid, but he said he had to try. He quickly developed techniques that allowed him to return to his former high standards of academic performance. He also deftly adjusted to his new life.
One day, our other roommate Art asked Sandy if he wanted to join him to take the subway downtown to run an errand. Sandy went along, but when they got there, Art said, “Alright then Sandy, I’ll see you back at the dorms.” Art walked away. Sandy had not been on the subway alone since he’d gone blind.
You or I cannot even imagine how Sandy felt at that moment, but he summoned something inside of himself, some untapped courage, and figured it out. Unbeknownst to Sandy, of course, was that Art never left him that day. When Sandy made it back to campus, Art tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I knew you could do it. . . I wanted to be sure YOU knew you could do it.”
I’ll leave out Sandy’s exact words to Art in that moment, but suffice it to say, they laughed about it later.
Sandy went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Columbia and to receive a Marshall Fellowship and a PhD from Harvard. He married his high school sweetheart, was appointed a White House Fellow, became the father of three, an inventor, a corporate CEO, a venture capitalist, an advisor to the president and the White House and business manager for a goofy, long-haired singer named Art Garfunkel, who at that point he had forgiven for abandoning him on the subway. I tell you this story because it has remained with me for over 48 years. I tell it because I am moved and inspired by perseverance in the face of setbacks. I tell it because it is a gorgeous example of something that I hold dear in life, and in business: Don’t be afraid of failure, and dream big dreams, and most importantly, don’t let adversity get in your way.
The world needs you now. It’s waiting to embrace you and your new ideas in the energy sector, in the protection of the environment, transportation, technology, healthcare, infrastructure, media, finance, and yes, even real estate. It needs your bold ideas, your energy and your passion. It needs doers and dreamers and optimists. It needs people who believe that things can get better, and people who are willing to work to make them better. It needs you not merely when the market is up, when money is easy, when the banks are only too eager to lend, but now, ladies and gentlemen, in difficult, challenging times.
How do we live in difficult, challenging times? Well, that is where I leave you. It is your decision, for the future is yours to create. Thank you, and congratulations.