My Commencement Speech — Life at Your Crossroads

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

Crossroads

Cal Poly Pomona! What’s up!?! I’m so grateful to be up here addressing you today. Today you’re either here to graduate or support somebody graduating. A graduate is at his or her first major crossroad in life. You are faced with decisions about which road to take. That is the theme of my speech today. My 8 tips for the crossroads you will face.

I heard that your school is 5th in the nation at helping lift people born in the bottom 20% income levels into the top 20%. That’s an amazing statistic and reminded me of my family’s journey.

My dad was an immigrant from Colombia. He moved to the US for medical school, the first in his family to ever do this. His father, my grandfather, ended up in South America after fleeing Jewish oppression in Romania. His crossroads were literally life or death decisions, as they are for millions of people around the world today. My grandfather.

HIS grandfather grew up in an era where there were no crossroads. There were no planes, no cars, no easy access to colleges. His grandfather and his grandmother grew up in an era of arranged marriages as much of the world did back then. Even today more than 50% of the world has an arranged marriage. There were no crossroads.

As you face the burden and the weight of your choices please try to recognize what a blessing it truly is in life. It only feels like burden because we live an Instagram, FOMO world where everybody else’s choices seem better. They aren’t.

Choose your path with conviction. Don’t regret the road not traveled. Regret causes anxiety at every level of success or wealth. I promise you that the more people earn or acquire they are no happier than any of you if they are worried that they chose the wrong roads in life.

If you find happiness on the roads you choose, whatever the sirens of the other roads tell you, you will be happier in life.

So my 8 tips for a successful career as you make choices at your crossroads. I will publish them all online so don’t worry that by the end of today you won’t remember these.

[note: a video of this speech was recorded separately after my commencement speech and I’ll publish it when it’s released]

One. Networks.

They say it’s not who you know as much as what you know. But what you know is a function of who you know. You learn so much more in life by surrounding yourself with talented people. The right company and colleagues are better than the perfect title, role or brand name. Many of the friends you made at Cal Poly Pomona will be friends for life. The same is true of the jobs in your 20s and 30s. Find your tribes.

Two. The world works on a pull model.

The best opportunities in life come from people who PULL you into them. When people are building teams and looking for talented, hard-working people they break down walls to pull you in. It is rare in life for even the best people you work with to PUSH you into success. So you need to build a network even outside of your company. I always tell people, “take 50 coffee meetings.” People are uncomfortable asking for meetings with people they don’t know. But if you ask you friends to introduce you to people just 5 years ahead of you in their careers and you meet one / week for coffee by the end of the year you will know 50 new people. You won’t stay in touch with all but you’ll get along with some and if you nurture those relationships over time you’ll find that people will start pulling you in. And pulling you up.

Three. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

It’s not good enough to know people. In order for them to pull you in and pull you up you need to ASK. I always wanted to work in Europe but it was hard to ask for a sponsoring company to pay for you to come over. I used to work at Accenture as a programmer. I called every person I knew in Accenture Europe and asked for advice to get transferred. I even visited and made friends and went out every night with my peers. They all told me the person I needed to meet was Cory Van Wolvelaere, but I didn’t know him. I knew asking on the phone wouldn’t be compelling so I asked a friend who worked with him to tell me when he’d next be in the US. I found out he had a trip scheduled to Chicago. I sent him a message telling him I’d be in Chicago on such-and-such dates. I scheduled these to be when I knew he also would be flying out. I wasn’t lying — I technically WOULD be in Chicago. I just didn’t say it was conditional on his meeting me. He agreed to meet for a beer at the airport so I booked my tickets and flew from LA completely on a lark. After a pint of beer I asked him if he would transfer me to France. I told him I knew people in that office, my peers. He told me he didn’t need more Americans. I told him I would work hard. He told me that business wasn’t good enough. I told him that I would make sure I’d get my costs covered by clients. He told me no again. So after 20 minutes of back and forth I looked him in the eyes and said, “Cory, you’re literally the only person standing between me and my dreams. You have the power to change the course of my life and if you do I promise I’ll work so hard you’ll never regret it.” Then I stopped, stood quiet and looked in his eyes. He sighed and said, “Mark. You’re a real … pain in the ass. Uh. Ok. Fine. You can come.” And like that I spent the next 11 years working abroad living in 5 different countries and working in 9.

Four. It is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission

After 5 years in Europe I decided I really wanted to work in Japan. By now I knew the world worked on a pull model and that I had to ask. But I was struggling to find somebody to bring me to Japan. It was 1999 and I had valuable Internet skills. So I found a project in a database at Accenture looking for somebody with my background. They were trying to sell a project to the board of Sony. Again, I bought a ticket completely at my own risk. I showed up in the Tokyo office unannounced and said, “I’m here for the Sony project. I understand there is a kick off next week.” They looked at me like I was crazy. Ok, maybe I was. But I figured the worst that could happen was they’d send me home and I’d have to eat the price of my airfare and — hey — at least I got to visit Japan! They called the partner in America responsible for the project, Grieg Coppe, put him on the phone and he said, “what the hell are you doing there?” I told him I must have made a mistake and I’d fly home but since I’m here if he wanted my help for a week I’d be happy to do so. I stayed, worked my ass off and by the time he arrived the local team asked if they could keep me. Thus, I began my work and my life in Japan. I assure you if I asked I never would have made it. Sometimes asking alone isn’t enough. Decide which rules are acceptable to break.

Five. There’s a time to learn and a time to earn.

You just finished your education so you know the value of investing in yourself and your knowledge. Your first jobs should be like this, too. I recommend that you maximize the value of what you will learn on your jobs over fancy titles or arguing over compensation. Learn tangible skills that will be valuable in your future. If at some point you decide it’s time to “earn” — then you can move into a role designed to maximize your potential income. If you really want a shot at wealth creation at some point you may need to bet on yourself or your close friends and colleagues. I left Accenture a year before making Partner. I cut my salary in half and started my own company. After 9 years on the job I knew if I didn’t leap then I never would.

Six. Be politely persistent.

Follow through is 90% of life’s success formula. People come to me to raise money all the time. If I never emailed anybody back after our meeting I can tell you something that would shock you. More than 50% of people I meet with don’t proactively push for more meetings or interactions. You can’t get mad if people don’t return your emails or calls. Every person worth meeting is so busy they can barely get through their day’s work. Success comes to those who follow through and do so with grace and humility.

Seven. Get your foot in the door.

I built two startup companies and sold both of them. I decided I wanted to be a venture capitalist. I found a firm that was interested but they told me they hadn’t raised enough money yet to pay me a full salary. They told me after they raised a fund they’d be ready to hire me. But I figured once they did that they could talk to hundreds of people with my skill sets. So I told them, “No, I’d like to join now. By the time you raise a fund I’ll be working somewhere else. I’ll make you a deal. Pay me half salary and if we raise a fund together you can pay me back.” I figured if I were willing to bet on myself and take away their objection to hiring me I would have my foot in the door. And once in the door it was up to me to perform. That was 12 years ago. After just 4 years I become managing partner of what is now the largest venture capital fund in Los Angeles.

Eight. Build a personal brand. Be known for something. Develop your voice.

The world is filled with people who look and sound the same. They have the same experiences, they wait in line to get promoted and they become part of the system. Every now and again somebody figures out how to communicate a unique message to an audience and become known for something in a field. Developing an audience gives you a bigger network, bigger knowledge and more power to get ahead. I would ask you to look at Alexandria Occasio-Cortez. She is just 29 and is a member of the US Congress. Whether you agree with her politics or not I can tell you that as a newly elected member of the House she has 4 million Twitter followers and 3.4 million on Instagram and this gives her leverage in her work. You may never have this audience but even niche networks create power.

Crossroads.

Take some risks. I have. Take the time to experience new things in life. Take hard forks in the road and don’t worry about what the other path held. As you age your crossroads narrow. Remember that your hard choices in life aren’t burdens, they are gifts handed down to you by your parents and grandparents and their grandparents. Your choices, your forks in the road, are what they worked so hard for. Take chances. Ask for the crazy promotion with a sly smile on your face. Show up in an unexpected place. Every now and again beg for forgiveness. Taking risks is, by definition, risky! But nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you make the most of your crossroads and live without regret, your relatives will smile from the beyond knowing their hard work gave you the freedoms of choice that you now enjoy.

Congratulations, Cal Poly graduating class!

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