2022 WRA Commencement Speech
Western Reserve Academy, Hudson, Ohio
May 29, 2022
Thank you Headmaster Buck for inviting me to speak. Thank you to the Board, Faculty, Parents and especially the students, the Class of 2022. Congratulations to Arthur Johnson for a truly impressive speech that has wisdom beyond your years. It’s a tough act to follow. Your speech and mine will be apt bookends for this commencement: yours rooted in the present and mine from the vantage point of 41 years after graduation.
This week I have been grieving. For Uvalde, for Buffalo. As a parent, as a neighbor, as an American.
It brings to mind a parable. One day, two people are sitting on the bank of the river. Suddenly they notice a child floating down the river, drowning. One jumps in to save them. Then they notice another, then another. The drowning children keep coming. The two are cold, exhausted and frustrated. Suddenly, one gets up and starts walking up the riverbank. The other asks, “where are you going?” The one walking turns and says, “to find out who’s throwing them in the river.”
No one wants to be the victim. Many want to be rescuers. Some have found a source of the problem and are trying to persuade everyone else that it’s the right one.
In the meantime, the river flows.
Just 41 years ago, I sat in your very seats and if you are like I was then, you are asking, “Who is this person? He’s the last 20 minutes between me and the rest of my life.”
Last year I ran for Mayor of New York City, the largest and greatest city in America. I ran because over my past 41 years I have found many paths along that proverbial riverbank and thought maybe, just maybe, I could persuade people to walk upstream with me.
I obviously didn’t become Mayor but that’s what I want to share with you. It’s not the end. It’s a new beginning.
“Commencement” means “The Beginning,” so why does it come at the end? You and your parents have spent your entire life focused on this happy moment. What great training! Knowing how to envision an end is an essential skill and even more difficult to execute. You made it! Congratulations!
Everyone talks about endings, the goals. That’s actually the easy part. Few prepare you for new beginnings and the many paths to get there.
You may have decided to become a doctor, a lawyer, an architect. And your path might be as straight as an arrow. But very few are. Instead, you are likely to change, and change again. And to do that, you will need to know how to begin, and begin again, and again, and again.
I’m sure you are far above average, and your parents would certainly agree, but math is awfully tough to resist. Based on the data, you are 80% likely to change majors and then to change at least two more times. 33% of you may change colleges. The average American worker has 12 jobs and multiple careers . The younger you are, the more likely you are to change. And it’s a good thing. Job hopping and career changes are linked to higher salaries, titles and professional satisfaction.
Nothing will lead you to success more than the ability to succeed at new beginnings. The pace of change is accelerating, driven by technology and consumer behavior, as well as war, the economy and Supreme Court decisions. If you think you can just go back to school every time you need to figure things out, you can just forget it. An additional degree or two can be truly helpful, but you will need to figure stuff out without it, because no degree will teach you how to do this. I should know.
I have lived a life that is more likely like yours could be than your parents. I have had over 30 jobs in 15 industries in too many roles to count. And the only academic preparation I had was my MBA in finance, which led me to investment banking. It was a marvelous year, but it was one and only one year.
So let me give you a picture of the ten years of my life after Reserve, the ten years after I sat in your seats, the ten years that laid the foundation for who I am today.
Every story has a backstory and mine is no different. When Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,” it wasn’t obvious to me that I would be a survivor.
In 1977, I was a freshman. I came from public school in Akron, only 15 miles but a world away. On my first day, I walked into Ellsworth Hall for breakfast and the room fell silent.
Was it because I am Korean? My parents survived war and tragedy, only to put me in an all-white public school where I experienced the many downsides of being racially different.
Or maybe they could tell I didn’t have money? My parents sent every extra penny back to their families in Korea.
Or was it because they could smell my fear? I grew up in domestic violence where I too often worried for my mother’s safety. But standing here, I suddenly had a new, hair-raising, stomach-churning sensation.
The prospect of failure loomed so much larger than success. Coming to Reserve was the first step in my mother’s mission for me: Harvard, then Harvard Medical School, then Korea to rebuild a family fortune lost after her father was assassinated during the Korean War. But I didn’t come here to just start this mission but even more to run away from my childhood. And now, I was looking at the base of the immense mountain I was to climb and couldn’t see any signs of a path.
I looked out into Ellsworth Hall. I looked at myself. I looked at the students. I looked at myself. OMG!
I wore my one and only suit. It was baby blue velour with wide lapels and bell bottoms, a western print shirt, a blue polyester tie and brown earth shoes. I had longish hair and big glasses with brown lenses. What a sight I must have been!
I can laugh today. That weekend, some teachers and kind parents took me to the thrift sale in the First Congregational Church parking lot and transformed me into a preppie — at least on the outside.
When I was a child, I could tell instantly if someone saw only my skin and Asian features or if they could see me. I had a special affection for my few Black teachers because they not only saw me, they understood me.
The head of Reserve’s Music Department, Bill Appling, a very large, very black and very opinionated Black man saw me in my entirety: my fear, my rage, and my potential. If Reserve were a mountain, there were so many times I wanted to jump off. The fact that I am here to speak to you today is because of Bill.
It took more than a minute, but once I adjusted, Reserve was a cornucopia of interesting things. I think I tried everything. Really. And once I experienced this joy and freedom it was impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
At Reserve I started to develop my own expectations and to explore my own path. I took gambles and risked failures, but I owned those decisions. They were mine and mine alone. Luckily, my biggest gamble paid off. I got into my dream school, Yale.
Sitting where you are now, I made it, or so I thought. I was so focused on the end that I forgot lessons I should have learned from my beginnings. How little did I think about what was to come. How unprepared I truly was for the next ten years.
At the start of my freshman year at Yale, I had a hard choice. I made Varsity lacrosse but I also had to make money. So I gave up lacrosse. There was nothing to be done. But this paid its own dividends: I worked in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History designing, then building exhibits and furniture.
I changed majors. My first day at Yale, I was confident I’d graduate as a pre-med with a powerful liberal arts background. But as it does with so many, organic chemistry woke me up to the reality that I loved people in society more than the biology of people.
Against overwhelming advice to the contrary, I became the second man to graduate in the Women’s Studies major. I’m so glad I did. It gave me tools to understand my own life experience, an architecture for analyzing humanity, and in what would be a hallmark of the rest of my career, put me at the cutting edge of a new field.
Then, my parents announced that they would no longer support me financially. Yale wasn’t Harvard, and Women’s Studies certainly wasn’t medicine. The Yale financial aid office suggested that I drop out for two years to establish my financial independence. I feared that if I did that I would never return.
I evaluated the size of this mountain: $5,000 a year for my share of tuition, about $15,000 in today’s dollars. Plus 12 months of rent and groceries, books, clothing and entertainment. There were so many bets that all had to work. I bet that I could trade my AP credits for a semester’s worth of Yale credits, giving me the summer and a Fall semester to build up my savings. I bet that I could find a job as a waiter, the highest paying job without a college degree. I bet that I could pass my courses by lowering my standards for academic performance, prioritizing learning over achievement, choosing one course per semester to excel at.
When the going gets tough, you have an opportunity to reach deep and then deeper still to find what you can really do. I slept four hours a night and too often not at all. I ate so poorly that I became ill. I was constantly forced to reevaluate my priorities and refine my strategies.
Yale was key to my future success, but not in any conventional way. When I received my diploma, I didn’t only graduate with a Yale degree, I worked in nearly every job in restaurants, from dishwasher to line cook to waiter. I worked a second job in architecture, and had a design built before I graduated. Most important? I learned that every industry and every organization speaks different languages. Success was dependent on not only learning new spoken dialects but also the invisible languages of distinct cultures. Graduating wasn’t a solo effort; it was thanks to the people I worked with, the friends I made, the community I built. And this collective effort made it all the more my own success.
To this day, when I see frontline service industry experience on a resume, it goes to the top of my pile.
In 1985, I moved to NYC with $400 in my pocket. As a fresh college grad, hip hop and Spike Lee pulled me to Brooklyn. I really struggled. There’s nothing like the harsh reality of having only $10 in my pocket day after day. But I had no choice. I couldn’t give up.
I got my first break when I was offered a job at a startup that tried to bring energy efficient Swedish building technology to the US. I started as a temp, then became permanent, then promoted to head of department, and finally promoted to head of operations. All within two years. Then the company was sold to its Swedish partner.
It was 1987 and I was 24. With funding from investors in my former company, I started my first business, Archetype Studio, a design-build firm, to address the conflict between owners, architects and contractors in building projects. A celebrity client hired us. I built a million-dollar business that went to my head and I failed to take advice or heed warning signs. By the time reality slapped me in the face, it was too late. I lost everything. I was only 27.
I was lucky. I had a mentor, Reginald Hough, who truly believed in me and convinced the great architect I.M. Pei to hire me. During the day, I helped I.M.’s team realize his architectural visions. In my other hours, I worked on filing for bankruptcy.
Every crisis is an opportunity too good to waste. Going bankrupt was one of the best things to happen to me. I got an incredibly detailed and deeply personal understanding of how finance, tax and the legal system work together. And more important, it forced me to step outside myself and ask fundamental questions: “who am I? What kind of person do I want to become? What impact do I want to have on the world?”
I decided as any sensible, bankrupt, Women’s Studies grad would, to set as my goal to become a venture capital investor. In retrospect it sounds so audacious as to be laughable but it made sense to me. I loved innovation, leadership, selling big ideas and building a business. I wanted to put all that I learned through tough experience to work. And I wanted to have an impact on the world.
So I created a five-step strategy. First, get a more conventional job in a more conventional industry. Second, gain experience with large investments. Third, obtain an MBA or law degree. Fourth, work in finance. Fifth, start a tech company and sell it. I gave myself 10 years. I figured 10 years seemed reasonable, because that’s how long it was since I graduated from this school. So my story of the 10 years after graduating from Reserve ends with this new beginning.
What happened to my plan to become a venture capital investor? It worked! I followed the strategy and hit every milestone. 10 years later, I got that job, then realized I no longer wanted it. But that’s another story.
You know the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none?” People leave out the next line, “Better than one.” I spent the next 31 years making things happen and paying it forward. Things I’ve worked on now have lives of their own. I started companies, sold some and closed others. I brought innovation to life in giants like JPMorgan Chase and in giant industries like software, music and government. I helped to bring about lasting improvements: to the NYC waterfront, to child welfare, to voting and running for office. My community continues to grow. And watching the lives and careers of those I’ve mentored over the years is a joy.
Remember that parable I started with? Now, I’m taking everything I’ve learned over the past 41 years to start a company that will provide the critical infrastructure for the people at that riverfront, those who rescue the drowning and forge new paths upstream. I can’t be more excited!
I have two sons who are slightly older than you, 22 and 19. Ben attends St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Elliott attends Reed College in Portland, Oregon. When I decided to accept the honor of giving this speech, I messaged them for advice. I got a response within milliseconds.
“U owe ur success to ur children.”
It made me laugh, but it also forced me to reflect about success. What is success? How do you measure it?
One day, when I was about 8 years old, I looked around me and decided that the world was crazy. What did I do to deserve hatred because of the color of my skin? To live in a family who so violently hated each other? To see my mother, among the first Korean women to graduate from medical school, prevented from practicing her profession because of my father’s abuse? To shrink from the touch of an adult for fear that it might be a beating, not a hug? As an 8 year old, I knew I was powerless to change my present, but vowed that I would pay it forward. All of it.
My greatest satisfaction comes from the goals I set for myself when I was that child, to fix the things that were broken by doing them right as an adult.
I’m so proud that my personal community is inclusive and diverse.
I’m so proud that I organized my life and priorities to support my wife Allison in every way I could. As a result, she has had such an amazing career that has benefited our entire family. I love you so much.
I’m so proud that my sons have the freedom to choose their own paths, to own their own successes, to learn from their own failures, to have and give unconditional love, and to figure out their own way to have a positive impact.
When I have time with our boys and can share in their successes and challenges, then, yes, I can say I owe my feelings of success to my children.
I have learned to forgive and hope that others forgive me. Forgiveness allows me to move on from the past and to go forward freely into the future. In a changing world, mistakes will happen and you will need to forgive yourself and others more than you can imagine.
I am filled with gratitude. My parents risked everything to come to America and did the best they could with the tools they had. They were highly educated. They set the highest standards for me and expected nothing less, because they thought I was capable. The rest, I have forgiven. Having gratitude gives me strength from my past, confidence for the future and empathy for everyone.
I am grateful for the hardships I endured, which gave me a “mind-out-of-body” perspective that enabled me to survive and adapt, to develop vision and to move forward, always moving forward.
I am so grateful for my Reserve experience, which set me on my path just as you are being set on yours. And just as I have, you will find that this community will support you for the rest of your lives.
I have come to believe that the more different you are, the richer you are. The more difficult your path has already been, the more tools you will gain. So strive to be uncomfortable. To have new beginnings. To forge new paths. Hold your standards high! Always move forward! And, once in a while, celebrate yourself.
Originally published at https://www.chang.nyc on May 28, 2022.