Business Schools

Graduation Talks Accentuate the Positive


Despite a tanking economy, MBA commencement speakers are expected to remain upbeat in their comments to graduating students

After two years of hard work, seemingly endless interviews, late nights, and lots of coffee, full-time MBA students are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Graduation is just around the corner, and students have one last lecture to look forward to: a commencement speech.

This year, influential alums will return to their alma maters, and high-profile business leaders like Jeff Immelt, chief executive officer of General Electric (GE), and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com (AMZN) will step up to the podium to deliver commencement addresses at top-ranked U.S. business schools. But despite a gloomy economic outlook, the speakers and the schools that are inviting them say, for this day at least, the message will remain upbeat.

"The advice I plan to give the MBA graduates will deal with life lessons I've learned by surviving 26 years as a serial entrepreneur here in Silicon Valley," said William Starling, CEO of Synecor, a venture capital firm focusing on medical devices, in an e-mail. Starling, who received his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will deliver the commencement address May 11 at the university's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Work-Life Balance

Although the speakers come from diverse backgrounds and have forged different paths to business success, they all plan to come to commencement armed with advice—and often a challenge—for new grads. The topics of the commencement addresses range from detailed tips for grads about managing their new careers to discussions of economic ideologies and life philosophies to finding the ever-elusive work-life balance.

And of course, there's the economy. "The glass is half full, not half empty," said J. Peter Simon, son of the University of Rochester business school's late benefactor William E. Simon, for whom the school is named. Peter Simon will address MBAs at graduation on June 8. "When you're speaking to someone and they're taking the negative view, try to flip the conversation or at least flip the discussion in your mind to what is the positive side of [that] view," said Simon, co-chairman of William E. Simon — Sons.

Keeping things positive is generally what the schools want. While top business schools often court well-known executives to speak at graduation, for many administrators the search for the perfect speaker shouldn't overshadow the real purpose of the ceremony—the students. "A lot of people think that it's great to have some politician show up or somebody that's going to give some big political speech, but this is all about the kids," said James Ellis, dean of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "This is the students' day, and it needs to be somebody who's going to connect with them."

Most importantly, when looking for a commencement speaker, Ellis said that he tries to find someone who will be memorable for students. This year the school selected Robert Rodriguez, CEO of First Pacific Advisors, to give the speech. "He's a good supporter of the school, and he's very passionate about having received his MBA here," Ellis said. "He knows the value of that degree, and he can convey that to the students and say, 'I understand that this is a difficult economy. Let's figure our how we can make this work best.' "

Holli Budd, associate dean for MBA administration and external affairs at Rochester's Simon school, agreed that students should be a priority. "We hope that our students will remember their commencement and will remember whatever words of wisdom our commencement speaker imparts upon them," she said. "It's a time to celebrate their success and their future."

Kelly Bronk is an intern with BusinessWeek in New York.

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