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Kim Polese (Photo: Stephanie Secrest)

Kim Polese's commencement remarks

  • June 11, 2011

Thank you.  It is a great honor to receive this degree, and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you today.

I’d like to congratulate each of you on your outstanding achievement in reaching this milestone.  Yours is a remarkably diverse and accomplished class. The majority of you are first-generation U.S. Citizens, and also the first generation in your families to graduate from a four-year college. Most of you have been balancing a combination of work, family and other commitments while earning your degree – no small task.  Some of you have had to overcome major obstacles to arrive at this day.

In addition to your achievements, I’d like to congratulate you on your timing. Because there has never been a better time to be graduating from college.

Some might disagree. There is no denying that we continue to confront a tough economy with more uncertainty ahead. And we face some major national and global challenges.

But in turmoil, opportunity abounds. In 2011, old industries are being transformed and, new ones created. You can turn an idea into a movement in the space of 24 hours, launch a company from your living room, and you are a few keystrokes away from virtually anyone in the world.  

Never before have we had the capacity and tools to solve problems with the scale and efficiency that we do today.   Societal-scale challenges require innovative solutions.  And Business is how ideas turn into action.

At the same time, with so many options, and so few guideposts, building a career can be daunting. As I reflect on my 25 years of starting and helping build companies in Silicon Valley, a few thoughts stand out.  I would like to share them with you, hoping they will be of value as you embark on the path ahead.

 

1.  First, stay curious. Never stop learning.

Read. Dig deeper. Surround yourself with the smartest people you can find. And don’t be afraid to ask “dumb questions”.

After graduating from college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was a tough job market then too, with double-digit unemployment. 

I scoured Bay Area job postings, and then discovered a company making Artificial Intelligence software – expert systems – in Silicon Valley – they were growing fast and hiring technical support people. 

I didn’t know anything about AI, but I read everything I could about it before I showed up for the interview. I got the job. And then I found the smartest people at the company and hung out around them, soaking up as much as I could.  

I went on to work onsite with large companies that were using our products. I learned about their businesses, and how they approached solving their biggest problems. I was a sponge.

I went on to do this at every subsequent job.  I’m still doing it. And when I hire, I look for employees who do it.   

2. Don’t let the fear of failure paralyze you.

An ancient Japanese proverb says, “Fall down seven times, and stand up eight.”  I live by these words.  

After my first job, I joined Sun Microsystems as a product manager. Then I found out about a small team of some of the company’s top engineers working on a secret software project.  I realized that it had the potential to revolutionize computing.  The team needed a product manager, and I signed on. Primary among my responsibilities was to figure out the business model – in other words, how to take this promising technology and turn it into a market success.

But our mission was not merely to release a successful product. It was for our product to achieve ubiquity – an audacious goal. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility.

We had repeated setbacks. Our initial attempts to launch into the market didn’t work, because our software was advanced -- and mobile devices at the time were too costly and not ready for prime time.  

The team was exhausted. But, we stuck with it.

And then, finally, we had a breakthrough:  the University of Illinois released the world’s first Web browser, called Mosaic.  We downloaded it, and the light bulb went on.  We realized that we could introduce interactivity to the Web. Up till then, browsers could only display text.

We released our software, which we named Java, and along with it, the world’s first interactive browser, on March 14, 1995 on the Internet.  It took off like wildfire and Java remains the lingua franca of the Internet today, embedded in millions of devices.

This is actually a typical story in Silicon Valley -- or anywhere that innovation happens.  The common theme is persistence. I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of persistence. And to resist buying into the naysayers.

As Einstein said “It’s not that I’m so much smarter than anyone else. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

3. Create your own Brain Trust, your network of mentors and advisors.  

I received a great education at UC Berkeley, but no education could have fully prepared me for how to be a Product Manager, or a CEO for that matter. I had to just jump in and do it.  For a time, I kept looking for a mentor.  But I kept coming up empty.

Then I finally realized that no one person had the answer, and there were lots of people with different knowledge sets and unique experiences, all valuable. So I got up my nerve. I started reaching out to people and asking them to coffee to let me pick their brains. And to my amazement people said yes. Pretty quickly I realized that this was a mutual exchange … I was providing some value back to them, too.

This is the essence of how Silicon Valley works.  It’s a virtuous cycle, a continuous exchange of insights and ideas, with no quid pro quo beyond the opportunity to learn and share. I found out that most people are willing to be sounding boards, if you just ask.

4. Whatever you do, make sure it’s worth doing.

There’s no point in spending most of your waking hours feeling uninspired and unrewarded. I have found that a good yardstick of whether something is worth doing is to ask myself the following three questions:

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    1. Do I respect and like the people I work with?
    2. Am I learning?
    3. Do I start every day feeling I’m moving things forward in some way -- large or small – solving a problem, creating something I’m proud of, making the world a little bit better?

If the answers are “Yes” to these questions, it’s probably worth doing.

Fancy titles and external accolades can’t compare -- nothing beats the satisfaction of being on a mission with people you respect, working on something that you find worthy.  In losing yourself in the work, you find your reward.

 

5. Trust that the dots will connect, eventually - even if your path is not the conventional one. 

Steve Jobs tells the story of how, before discovering computers, he studied calligraphy in his early 20’s simply because he loved it - not knowing where this skill might lead. Years later, his passion for fonts resulted in the desktop graphics that helped propel Apple’s success. Steve talks about connecting the dots backward.  

So, dig deep to identify what you are truly passionate about and find a way to do it. Don’t worry about where it fits into your grand plan, or even having a grand plan. Trust that fate will make it all clear later.

 

6. Quiet your mind.

Whatever you love to do – whatever restores you, renews you -- find a way to keep doing it. If you discover something you’re passionate about, find a way to keep it in your life.

For me this is dance. I discovered dance at age 14 and never stopped. Throughout everything, dance has been there for me. When I step into the studio, and the music starts, the world melts away and my mind calms. And I find that I can handle whatever comes my way with greater ease.

7. As a good friend of mine puts it: “Get over yourself”.  

Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Worry less about whether you look good, and more about how good you are.  Your title doesn’t matter, but reaching your potential does matter. Worry less about your resume and more about your obituary.

Find a problem to solve, or work on creating something you’re proud of. The reward will come in doing the task, and in the difference you make in the lives of the people around you.

So … those are seven ideas that I hope might be helpful as you navigate the uncharted territory ahead.

Yes, it’s an uncertain world. But in that uncertainty is opportunity. All around us, the potential for disruption and impact is everywhere.

In transforming existing businesses and industries for the better.

 In finding problems to solve, starting new ventures and creating value.

In building new kinds of companies that combine doing well while doing good -- attacking social challenges and delivering previously unimaginable solutions.

Conventional wisdom says this is a tough time to be graduating.  But I love the way the author Wayne Dyer puts it:

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. 

Congratulations once again.  I wish you the very best on your path ahead.

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