Commencement Address

Sue Wagner ’82 addressed the Class of 2014 at Wellesley’s Commencement Exercises under the tent on Severance Green.

(Watch it on video.)

Thank you President Bottomly, Provost Shennan, fellow trustees, esteemed faculty and staff, proud families and friends, and especially Wellesley Class of 2014. I am honored and—thanks especially to my kids—humbled to be here. You see, when I told my son that you had asked me to be your commencement speaker, he insisted I must have been forced upon you. And when I sent my daughter the link to the announcement, she texted back asking if there was rioting in the streets. Despite their teasing, my family is here, and I am truly thankful for their support today and always.

Commencement is a time for new beginnings, but also for reflection. So much has happened during your time here. Natural and man-made disasters ranged from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan to Hurricane Sandy, from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the Euro Crisis, and the Boston Marathon bombing. New leadership assumed power in China and most recently was elected in India, the world’s largest democracy. We mourned the loss of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs, celebrated a royal wedding and the selection of a new pope, and cheered confirmation of the first woman chair of the Fed.  

You’ve been busy, too! This year alone, while finishing your coursework, writing theses, doing research, finding jobs, applying to grad schools, pursuing fellowships, and partying (at least a little), you:

  • joined the call for action on climate change;
  • unwittingly engaged a nation on the emotional impact of art and academic freedom;
  • raised consciousness about perceived inequities;
  • showed your resilience with the biggest scream tunnel ever;
  • commemorated the 100th anniversary of Wellesley’s Great Fire and participated in planning to renew and reinvent this campus once again; and
  • decorated the science center with a giant purple octopus.  (What was that? A metaphor for feeling a little at sea?)  

You were the biggest and most diverse class ever to arrive at Wellesley, and you leave here one of the most accomplished. Over the past four years, you learned to use your outsized voice, and you have definitely left your mark! Future Wellesley women will be better for it, so from all of us: Thank you!

True to my Wellesley training, when I was asked to give this speech, my first instinct was to do some research. I have become something of a YouTube commencement speech expert. I even tried to crowdsource advice for you. Your dean tried to give me a glimpse of your collective character. I spoke to a few faculty members who politely but firmly warned me not to Google quotes to read to you. But the best advice came from members of the senior class, who encouraged me to share thoughts on my time at Wellesley and my journey since. So that’s what I’ll try to do.

Over 30 years ago, I sat right where you are, under the tent on Severance Green, festooned in purple (since I was part of another great grape class), having celebrated Stepsinging and Hooprolling (won by the mother of your Hooprolling champ), listening to my commencement speaker, Maya Angelou, whose death we and a nation are mourning this week, nostalgic already about leaving this beautiful campus and my professors, sad to be leaving my friends, and anxious about the future.  

As I reflected on my life after Wellesley, I was struck by the thought that this is just one of many times you will be at the end of one thing and the beginning of another.  I’d like to share some thoughts with you on the never-ending cycle of preparing, pursuing and succeeding—activities that will mark your many journeys ahead.

Preparing

You may feel like you’ve been preparing your whole life to get to this day, because you have. You also may be worried about taking the “right” next steps as you leave the Wellesley bubble. You are not alone.  One hundred and thirty-five classes of graduating seniors, including over 35,000 living alumnae of Wellesley, have had exactly those thoughts.

Like you, I declared my major at the end of my sophomore year. Mine was English, and my father was horrified! He couldn’t fathom how I would ever support myself. I was undeterred. I loved studying Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, and Pound—treasuring the economy and beauty of their words, debating their meaning, researching historical allusions and social context, developing my own ideas and attempting to present them in papers worthy of my professors’ respect (or at least a good grade). My father was an accountant. It’s not hard to see why that seemed esoteric to him. But I loved it. 

That foundation—knowing how to ask questions and find answers, undertake critical analysis, and present effectively—was equally relevant across disciplines. I remember taking one econ class in which we had to read an academic paper a week and write a two-page synopsis. The assignment required you to parse the prose and the equations, zero in on the central argument, dissect the author’s approach, and concisely present your analysis. Same basic skills, applied differently. 

And of course, I used these same skills throughout my career. Think of this as applied liberal arts: reading broadly and listening well, analyzing trends, interpreting changes in the industry and markets, considering different perspectives, developing strategies, and negotiating transactions. My studies made me more interested in and sensitive to different cultures, which helped me work well with clients and colleagues around the world as we built a global business. (And I could write one mean memo!)

It has been my experience that the skills gained through a liberal arts education translate directly to any activity that requires working through arguments and considering multiple perspectives. Which is virtually anything you can imagine doing. I couldn’t know this while I was here, but I came to appreciate it over time.

When I was here, I loved the campus, the intellectual environment, the bus to Boston Katie talked about, and especially my friends. When I got to graduate school, I learned many important things, but I missed the intellectual rigor and respect that characterized Wellesley. When I started working, the combination of my analytical skills and communication skills were differentiating. Happily, my dad’s fears turned out to be for naught. 

Much later, I came to believe that my wide-ranging interests, determination to tackle problems, and willingness to challenge myself and take risks were all underpinned by a sense of confidence gained right here. It’s the Wellesley effect! You recognize it when you meet other alumnae, and others see it in us too. Recently, I was approached about the chairmanship of a large nonprofit. The head of the nominating committee asked me to tell him about my background. As soon as I mentioned Wellesley, he blurted out, “What is it about you Wellesley Women?!”

As Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. Your liberal arts education has prepared you in ways you can’t comprehend. You will prove it with everything you do. You will lean on the skills without being conscious that you are. In that way, you will reinforce its value and strengthen the resolve of those who will follow you in their studies. Combine that with an intense curiosity, a drive to learn new things, and the quiet confidence that comes from knowing that you have already succeeded here. Trust in yourself. After all, you are women who will… figure it out.

Pursuing

Popular advice on pursing a career is to find your passion and having a plan. I have to say... not so much. In my view, finding your passion is too overwhelming a goal, and having a plan is too rigid. I would like to suggest instead: Know what’s important to you, be open to the world, and be flexible in your goals.

When I was at business school, I thought I knew two things for sure: I did not want to go into investment banking and I did not want to live in New York. And then I accepted an offer from Lehman in New York. There you have it, best laid plans! I didn’t worry about the fact that finance was one of the most unfriendly industries for women. I thought that if I didn’t go then, I never would. I knew that it was a great opportunity to learn from really smart people, and that was what I cared about most. 

After the training program, I went into mortgage finance. I barely knew what a mortgage was, and I definitely wasn’t passionate about them! What was important to me was to be with smart people doing challenging and creative work. I immersed myself, developed expertise, and applied my knowledge and energy with no particular goal in mind other than to keep learning and add value. I wanted to be respected by my colleagues and clients, and rewarded equitably in ways appropriate to the business: title, opportunity, and money (yes, money—it’s not a dirty word, and you will have bills to pay). Looking back, that work was preparing me for the next opportunity, though I could never have predicted what it would be. 

In 1988, I left Lehman to start BlackRock with seven partners. Our vision was to help investors understand and manage the risks they were taking. We had a business plan written in crayon, a working capital line from a venture capitalist, and no experience in investment management. Somewhat paradoxically, that lack of experience turned out to be a great advantage. Because we had no preconceived notions, we relied on common sense and did what we thought was right, forging rather than following industry norms. 

How did I know that starting BlackRock would be a risk worth taking? I didn’t. What I did know was that I believed in our idea, I trusted my partners, and I didn’t want to look over my shoulder and wonder, what if. I thought that even if the company failed, I would learn a lot and I would be able to find another job. 

It worked out OK. Our timing was good, but you should never underestimate the amount of hard work that was required. Thanks to our constant paranoia, we resisted the hubris that comes with success, instead challenging ourselves continually to consider the landscape, understand what our clients needed, and reinvent ourselves. We were firmly focused on our mission and fiercely protective of our culture. In 25 years, we went from being a start-up bond manager to the largest investment management firm in the world and, much more importantly, one of the most respected. 

So as you pursue your future, rather than belaboring the issue of passion, focus instead on knowing what’s important to you. Let that be your guide to finding work you like and people you trust and respect, because together those will give you the fortitude to persevere. Have goals, but don’t be wed to a plan. The future will be filled with paths you cannot see today, so be open, work hard, embrace your paranoia, take risks that will cause you to stretch and grow. Have confidence in your ability to figure it out.

Succeeding

Finally, I want to talk about succeeding. In some ways, this is the topic du jour—lean in, own your ambition, bridge the confidence gap, fight the system. All of that might feel just a bit grandiose at this point, and there’s no need to start with a chip on your shoulder. This is not the time to stress about whether you can have it all, whatever that means. Just get on with it. Do the best you can. Keep going when the going gets tough.

Not long after we started BlackRock, my husband and I started a family. I didn’t think about it as “wanting it all.” It was the most natural thing in the world, and I truly believe that your children are your most important legacy. As Robert Frost would have written had he been a woman, two roads diverged in a wood, and I took both, and that has made all the difference.

Once we had kids, life became very busy. I now had two more-than-full-time jobs! I quickly learned there is no such thing as “balance,” or, as Katie's wise professor said, "Balance is bull." Every day is different and you have to flex. A few times over the years, I asked my kids if I should retire. Their immediate response was, “No way! Don’t bring that type-A personality home to us!” So I kept doing both. 

Thankfully, my kids are thriving, and BlackRock grew and flourished. That success raised the company’s profile, and mine as well. Eventually, being a role model and using my personal capital to pave the way for future generations of women and men at BlackRock consumed more of my time and gave me enormous satisfaction. I believe it will be an important part of my legacy. 

And then, it was time to start again. Leaving BlackRock was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I am incredibly proud of my work there and the platform we built, and the people who will carry on what we began. BlackRock was my baby, but it was also all-consuming. I reached the point where I wanted to see what else life might hold for me. So I nervously stepped away from the day-to-day.

So far, so good. My family still likes me. I’m meeting amazing people (like my fellow trustees), reading tons for pleasure, working out more, learning new things, giving back. I haven’t completely left the business world, but now I’m involved in a different way. I’m beginning a new cycle of preparing, pursuing, and succeeding. It never ends.

You can’t talk about succeeding without defining success, and you must do that for yourself. Also know that your definition will change over time, and that’s as it should be. Don’t be put off just because something seems too hard. It will be hard, and sometimes it won’t be fair, but you have to keep pushing forward. 

Life is neither linear nor binary. It’s rarely about doing this OR that. The reality of the human race is that women must do this AND that, at least as long as women are the ones having the babies. And that too will be hard, and there will be days that you can’t please everyone (or anyone) and you will feel like you’re failing. Compromises will be necessary; regrets are not. Only you can decide where the dividing line is between those two. Be willing to accept help as much as you’re willing to give it. That’s not failure, that’s life. 

Remember that you have many beginnings and endings ahead of you, many iterations of preparing, pursuing, and succeeding. Whatever paths you choose, keep stretching. Don’t let yourself get too comfortable. As Meryl Streep said, “There is only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.” The future is uncertain, but you are well equipped to navigate. As Maya Angelou told my class, "Today, your joy begins, today your work begins. You are phenomenal."

Now all you need is to have a little courage, believe in yourself, and trust that you are women who will figure it out… tomorrow. Today, go celebrate! Congratulations!

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back in 1982

The Real World When Wagner Graduated


1982: Equal Rights Amendment fails state ratification

1983: Unemployment rate = 9.6 percent

1984: Median income for women = $8,675 (only 4 percent earn more than $28,000)

1985: Women earn $0.55-0.57 per each $1 a man makes