This is a copy of my commencement speech to the Computer Science graduating class in 2012. Still true in 2013.
I am honored to address the graduates, family members, faculty, and friends of San Jose State University, Computer Science.
To the graduating class:
You have worked hard to get to this point – studying, practicing, labs, tests, homework, on-the job training – and now you are equipped to launch your careers in technology. You have everything you need to be successful in this great industry in this exciting moment in time.
But with today’s economic uncertainty, you may wonder why is this such a great time, and why is high tech such a great industry?
Here’s why. Today there are 6.4 billion wireless connections in the world reaching 80% of the total population of 7 billion. 2.27 billion people have access to the internet, and this is increasing rapidly with the proliferation of smart phones in the developing world. I expect within 5 years, 80% of the world’s population will have internet access – primarily through smart mobile connections.
Technology has never reached or impacted as many people as it does today. Over 900 million monthly active users on Facebook at the end of March 2012. There are 340 million tweets per day. 6.1 trillion SMS text messages a year. And this is changing everything – the way we interact, shop, learn, bank, heal, stay healthy, entertain, and live.
Lately I have been deeply moved – sometimes to tears – seeing how technology is improving people’s lives. In Africa, I saw people for the first time feel truly empowered, and a part of more than just their village, when they used their cell phones to fight corruption. I saw child soldiers exchanging guns for mobile phones. In the Middle East I watched women activists use Twitter to fight for equal rights for women. In India, I saw a hard-working father sacrifice and save so he could purchase computers to make sure his children had a better education and better life. And I have seen literacy breakthroughs in India using the same language subtitles on Bollywood shows. And most recently, on three continents I have had the privilege of working with many banking innovators to deliver mobile financial services that empower people’s life and work.
When I was a new college graduate, the digital communications industry was just beginning. Looking back I really had no way of knowing what to expect. I thought I knew what was in store for me. I was sure I would get a “good job” with an established company and then get paid and eventually promoted. But the world and the industry changed so much so many times – there was no way I could have anticipated all that happened.
I have had a great career – big companies, small companies, brand new companies – even building a company from an idea through IPO. I have traveled and done business in so many countries I stop counting. But you should know that I was one of those people who everyone thought was average. My parents were children of immigrants – lower middle class. I was the youngest and definitely not the brightest in my family. I lacked any of the assets a “most likely to succeed” person would have. Yet my passion, hard work and this industry propelled me forward.
Like many of you, I was the first in my family to embark on a career in high tech. My parents thought the best thing was for me to be a teacher. But my passion was with technology – so I went a different way. My family didn’t have much to teach me that would help me with such a rollercoaster industry so I had to go my own way. Luckily, I lived in the epicenter of the industry.
So in speaking to you today I wanted to pass on a few lessons learned about how to best take advantage of the opportunity and Silicon Valley. Time is short so I’ll try to be concise.
Leverage the valley.
Innovation is thriving in Silicon Valley. We are witnessing a consumer technology revolution driven by companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and others. Silicon Valley is ground zero.
Leverage this valley, especially when new waves like this are happening. Seek out jobs, discussions, join teams, start companies in the new areas. Don’t get stale – become part of the new things. Don’t be afraid to join in. The culture is open to new entrants.
One big way to leverage the valley is to seek out advice and help from the valley veterans. When I first raised venture capital I knew it would be tough and had no idea how to be successful. I asked 50 people if they would advise me. Before this I thought I had to do everything myself. People would say – that is Carol Realini – she eats nails for lunch. I had never asked anyone for support – ever! I am not sure what made me do it in this situation. Probably I had employees’ salaries to pay and I had had to learn quickly and had to succeed. So I’m glad I evolved – because without their support and mentoring, I would never have been successful. WE have a rich supportive open culture. So seek out smart people whenever you are able.
Invest in your knowledge and relationships here. Go to lectures at Stanford, Berkeley, Computer History Museum, local conferences. Learn as much as you can about the emerging trends. You are in a great place to do this. And when you go, meet as many people as you can. Find out what they are doing. Build relationships.
The technology industry is constantly changing. It never stands still. When things slow down – like after the dot-com bust – people think the magic is over, no more good times. Don’t believe them. There will be other waves, there will be other bad times. Things will change.
See the changes – all of them – as bringing more opportunities to you. Even when it looks bad for you and your company, look for what is being created. Focus on this more than on what is being destroyed. And enjoy the ride.
I have started four companies, and what is always true is that we look back at the tough periods and see them as the greatest moments of the companies.
They are the good old days.
So when things seem really impossible and tough, instead of being sad or defeated, remember that the tough times may be the times you look back on as the good old days. Even the tough times are times to learn, grow and innovate. Even now when good jobs can be tough to find – use this to toughen yourself, learn more about the new trends, maybe even start your own company.
Learn to be disciplined – and undisciplined
You have learned to be disciplined – how to plan and execute technology solutions in a disciplined fashion. That is good – you will need to do that in the future. But to be an innovator, you will also need to be undisciplined. And the big challenge is to know when.
When do you stick to your plan? When do you fly by the seat of your pants? For every new company there are moments of both. Be prepared to do both, even though it can be scary.
Don’t let anyone say you are not good enough
When I started, the world was a hostile place for women engineers. There really were not very many of us anyway – so it wasn’t that big of an issue expect for the handful of women engineers who were being impacted. So early in my career I learned to remind my boss I wasn’t a secretary, to fight for each raise, and pursue new job opportunities. Once I wanted to move from technology into sales. But was told “businesses won’t buy multimillion dollar computers from a girl”.
What I learned was not to let these limited views hold me back. OK, so I couldn’t get a job in sales at that company. But I knew I could sell, so I found a company that would give me my job. This was good training for raising venture capital. Ask any entrepreneur – raising money is an exercise in extreme rejection. Expect it, and don’t let it shake you. Instead see yourself as looking for the people that will believe in you and your idea. Seek that out – don’t be discouraged by the nay sayers.
Seek the bigger prize.
Seek out jobs, companies, and ideas that resonate with you. If you love environmental causes, look for opportunities in Green industry. If you love education, go for online learn. Do what you love. Doesn’t mean ever job is a perfect match but make it a stepping stone to what you really want to do.
I will tell you a secret. Many of the super rich people are the most unhappy. The happiest people I know, do what they love and have enough money. The most unhappy people are those with too much money and no purpose. Stick with purpose.
One big prize is helping others. Be generous and support others in your communities. Take time to help someone when they are looking for a job. Be gracious with people at work – even when you have to be tough, do it in a respectful way.
Money comes and goes, hot shot companies come and go – but who you are and the people you touch, the ideas you make a reality, the teams you are encourage, the customers you serve – this will have a lasting impact – it will be forever. Things come back to you – sometimes not right away. Don’t expect it to give you immediate feedback.
Be passionate and bold in your career – and think about how to use technology to make the world a much better place. I have seen mobile banking transform lives and bring banking to those chronically underserved. Seek out these types of opportunities. Especially if it resonates with your passion.
When I graduated the mantra of my generation was Turn On, Tune In, Drop out. That doesn’t sound right at all for this generation. We are living in a very special time – your technology careers are in their early stages and everything is getting so exciting. With all this connectivity, computing power, consumer-orientation, it is a time when we will see technology change all aspects of our world.
This may be messy – innovation is always chaotic. People will laugh at you or disapprove. But believe in yourself and the power of technology to change the world. This is your time, and use it for not only having a job but following your heart and living your dreams. It’s never been a better time, you couldn’t be in a better place, and all you need is the courage to try, willingness to accept your failures, the ability to celebrate your successes and the humility to ask for help.
Life is unpredictable, there is nothing you can do about that – you are just not in control of everything. But you are in control of how you react to the unpredictability of life. So my mantra for this generation is embrace change, dream big, and pursue innovation. I invite you to embrace it. You are walking into the most exciting time in tech history. You are standing at the epicenter. Everything you need, all the tools you already own.
Take action. Go forth, and if you can help make other people’s dreams come true, yours will come true as well.