The best advice CEOs gave the class of 2019 at college graduations

YouTube/Tulane UniversityApple CEO Tim Cook shared advice with graduates from Tulane University.

Commencement speeches are a time for college graduates to hear from some of the world’s most successful and famous people before they cross the stage and enter the next phase of their lives.

This year, a number of notable CEOs addressed the Class of 2019 at colleges across the country, sharing stories and life advice to America’s latest crop of graduates.

In their speeches, businesses leaders from Tim Cook to Daymond John touched on what it means to be a leader, how to respond in a crisis, and the importance of listening to others when building a community.

Their advice can apply for anyone, whether you’re holding a diploma or simply subscribe to a lifetime of learning.

Here’s the best advice that CEOs gave the Class of 2019 in commencement speeches this year.


Daymond John: “Continue to do your homework. Keep your learning goals instead of your earning goals.”

Daymond John, the “Shark Tank” investor and CEO of FUBU, told graduates of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business that nothing is new and the “only thing that costs more than education is ignorance.”

“Airbnb is still a timeshare. Uber is geo-tracking with a limousine service. Facebook is a nasty chain letter. I hate to break it to you, the Snuggie is still a blanket, it just has two holes in it,” he said.


Tim Cook: “We forget sometimes that our preexisting beliefs have their own force of gravity. Today, certain algorithms pull toward you the things you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else. Push back.”

YouTube/Tulane University

“Call upon your grit. Try something,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told graduates of Tulane University.

“You may succeed. You may fail. But make it your life’s work to remake the world because there is nothing more beautiful or more worthwhile than working to leave something better for humanity.”


Robert F. Smith: “We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American Dream. And we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”

Getty Images

Robert F. Smith, an investor and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, shocked the graduating class of Morehouse College by announcing he would establish a foundation to wipe away their student debt.

In his speech, Smith also touched on the importance of small, yet intentional change.

“Don’t forget that communities thrive in the smallest of gestures. Be the first to congratulate a friend on their new job,” he said. “Be the first to console them when they face adversity.”


Julie Sweet: “Leaders who build diverse teams and advocate for all are the leaders who perform the best.”

Lauren Gehrson

Julia Sweet, the CEO of Accenture North America, urged graduates from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas to have open, honest dialogues within their communities about diversity and inclusivity. She said that “being inclusive could not mean asking entire communities to park their experiences at the door.”


Janet Foutty: “I believe the only way to move forward and make progress is to act as if there is no ‘they.'”

YouTube/NYU Stern

Janet Foutty, chairman and CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP, challenged graduates of New York University’s Stern School of Business to adopt a “we” mindset instead of falling back on “familiar excuses,” such as “They’re responsible for pollution or poverty or prejudice. They’re the ones who choose this leader. They are sexist or racist or homophobic.”

“What if there was no ‘they’?” Foutty said. “When we build a we that spans diversions and apartments, spans organisations or works between business and government, we have a much longer lasting and a much further reaching impact.”


Van Jones: “If your generation says, ‘I’m not worried about the awful people, I’m going to find the awesome people and we’re going to fix these problems,’ you will finally have a country with liberty and justice for all.”

YouTube/Daily Freemen

In a speech to Vassar College graduates, Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and the CEO of the criminal-justice initiative Reform Alliance, drew parallels between pulling together the graduation robe and pulling together people from different political and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“When you want community, you don’t start at the top,” he said. “You don’t start with the elites. You don’t start with the people who have everything already. You start at the bottom. And you start pulling up from the bottom.”


Esther Brimmer: “It is important to step up and speak up, not sit on the sidelines.”

YouTube/Pomona College

Esther Brimmer is a foreign policy expert and the director and CEO of the international education nonprofit NAFSA.

Addressing graduates of Pomona College, Brimmer encouraged students to both share their talents generously with the world, but also take time to replenish.

“Engage your head, your heart, and your soul,” she said. “Your head tells you to run with the swift, your heart entreats you to give back, and your soul implores you to find your fun.”


Jim Weber: “A curious attitude often reflects humility of your understanding of the world around you.”

YouTube/Carlson School of Management

“To avoid being a one-hit wonder, you’ve got to develop a great radar as a leader and then be willing to recalibrate because nothing ever stays the same very long,” Brooks Running Company CEO Jim Weber told graduates from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.


Mary C. Daly: “You have to bloom where you’re planted. You may not always be in control of where you land. But you can absolutely decide how you’re going to live there.”

Mary C. Daly, the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, started her career as a 15-year-old high school dropout before earning advanced degrees She told Syracuse University graduates she credited help from others and owning her situation as the keys to her success.


Tewolde GebreMariam: “During a crisis, it’s not about making money. It’s about making a difference. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time.”

YouTube/Ethiopian Airlines

After Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 went down on March 10, killing all 157 people aboard, the airline’s CEO Tewolde GebreMariam decided to indefinitely ground the company’s entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes.

GebreMariam told graduates of the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media that although his deciesion carried a huge financial risk, it was the right thing to do.

“How you handle yourself in that crisis situation and the decisions you make when things are not good will define who you are after the crisis has past,” he said.


Wendy Kopp: “You may find yourself encouraged to back off of your activism. I urge you to continue with it.”

YouTube/UC Berkeley

Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America and the CEO of education nonprofit Teach for All, urged graduates of the University of California, Berkeley to not only challenge the status quo as it relates to systemic injustices, but also the status quo of how those problems are approached.

“To create different outcomes, we need to develop different capabilities than most of us have learned,” she said. “We must learn to build authentic relationships across lines of difference, to see the strengths in those from different walks of life and different ideological perspectives, to listen and learn from each other.”

“And we must be literate with trauma – our own, others’ and the world’s – so that we can have generative conversations, even when others hurt us.”

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