May
18
2009

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This past Saturday, our Chairman, Steve Case was invited to give the commencement speech to George Mason University's graduating class. In his speech, Steve reflected on his career path, as well as those of President Obama's and George Mason's, and how they've all applied and utilized what he views as the keys to success: people, passion and perseverance.

We wanted to share his speech with our audience; not only is it applicable to graduating college students ready to embark on their first careers, but everyone in the different sectors - public, private, and nonprofit - can glean some value from his remarks and from learning more about his, the President's and George Mason's careers.

But, of course, in a fashion true to his interactive passions, Steve started off his speech with a few tweets:

@SteveCase: Another photo from podium at George Mason commencement. Congrats to all graduates! http://yfrog.com/5bwwjj

@SteveCase: Graduating class at George Mason University: http://yfrog.com/5er5dj

@SteveCase: At George Mason for commencement. Will start in a few minutes. Plan to begin my speech by tweeting photo of students. Hope it works!

The following is a full transcript of his speech:

Good morning!

It is an honor to be with you. I’d like to congratulate each of you on this exciting day – and also congratulate your parents and all those who have sacrificed to help get you to this point. They are no doubt proud this morning to be celebrating your achievement.

Frankly, graduation day can be tough for parents. More than you might imagine, it is a time of transition and change for them as well. They woke up this morning as your parents – but they’ll go to bed tonight MORE as your contemporaries. So I hope you’ll go easy on them as they adjust to this new reality.

Commencement speeches are kind of an odd concept. The expectation is the speaker will dispense some profound thoughts – preferably briefly! -- as newly-minted graduates set forth on the next chapters of their lives.

Needless to say, this commencement comes at a somewhat unique time. While we gather to celebrate your achievements – and look to the future with great hope and enthusiasm – we also gather at a time when there is tremendous anxiety in the nation, and throughout the world.

I suspect for some of you, today is a little bittersweet. You’re delighted to have completed the requirements to graduate, proud to be getting your degrees, and excited to be embarking on the next chapter in your lives.

But at the same time, you may be a little nervous. You have your diploma, but you aren’t quite sure what the future might hold for you.

I don’t have any simple answers for you – indeed, it is always difficult to generalize about the hopes – or the fears – of thousands of people, each of whom are so unique.

But I do have a thought for you. I think there’s an excellent chance that this challenging environment will turn out to be a good thing for you.

Traditionally, people have locked into a career path when they’ve graduated, and generally stayed on that track for most of their lives. While there’s nothing wrong with this, all too often folks wake up when they’re in their 40s or 50s and wonder if they should have taken a different path, perhaps a road less traveled.

So while I recognize some of you may have anxiety about your futures, I am reasonably confident that this period could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you – as it may very well force you out of your comfort zone, and lead you to consider challenges and opportunities in other fields, and perhaps in other countries. And those experiences might turn out to open new vistas, and unleash new and more exciting dreams and opportunities.

To highlight this, I’d like to remind you of the path that our new President, Barack Obama, took to the White House. He graduated from Punahou high school in Hawaii – we were actually classmates, as I was a senior at Punahou when he was a freshman.

Then he moved to California to attend Occidental College. He didn’t feel it was the right place for him, so after a couple years he transferred to Columbia University and moved to New York.

After graduating, he worked for a small company in New York and edited business newsletters. Then he moved to Chicago, and became a community activist.

A few years later, he attended law school at Harvard. During summers, he returned to Chicago and interned at law firms – which proved to be a good move, as that is where we met his wife Michelle. Next, he became a professor at the University of Chicago. A few years later, he ran for local office, and for 7 years served as a state legislator in Illinois.

That was the path Barack Obama’s life took in his 20s and 30s and even his early 40s. An interesting, eclectic, rather circuitous, seemingly random walk.

Five years ago, When he was 43, he was asked to speak at the Democratic convention. His speech catapulted him to national stardom, he won his Senate election, and he became one of the most closely watched politicians in America. As we all know, he then decide to run for President, even though few thought he could win – and he is now the President of the United States.

In retrospect, while Barack Obama’s first jobs tended to be of the off-the-beaten-path variety, it now seems pretty clear that his ability to lead, and communicate, and bring people together, were all forged in those varied eclectic job and life experiences he had in his 20s and 30s.

If he had taken the safe path, and after graduating from Columbia went on to join one of the major law firms in New York, or perhaps joined a major corporation, he would have likely had a successful career, but not had the opportunities he later had. That eclectic set of jobs he had proved to be instrumental in shaping him – and inspiring him to lead.

So if you have it all figured out, have locked down that job you always wanted, and are already on the career path you are certain is right for you, I say great, congratulations!

But if instead you’re a bit uncertain about your future, and are tempted to try something a little unconventional, I say to you – go for it! Those first steps you take, however halting, may turn out to be the beginning of a great journey – and lead to a much more interesting, varied set of life experiences.

But no matter what you end up doing, no matter what path you choose to follow, there are a few things that I hope you’ll remember. Specifically, 3 things - what I like to call the 3 P’s. They are: people, passion and perseverance. I have found they are the keys to success in whatever you choose to do – so I wanted to share them with you this morning.

The first of the P’s is people. No matter what you do in life, your ability to succeed will be largely dependent on your ability to work with people. Indeed, it has often been said that what you do is less important then who you do it with – that the people you surround yourself with, whether a spouse, or friends, or co-workers, will ultimately be the principal determinant of the course your life will take.

So don’t just focus on the job descriptions, or the brand name of the organization you’re going to join – also focus on who you’ll be working for, and with. And as you move up the ladder and have positions of greater responsibility, it is essential that you remember to spend the majority of your time on people issues – recruiting, motivating, directing and inspiring. You’ll soon learn that no matter how bright you might be, or how hard you’re willing to work, your ultimate success or failure will largely be determined by how you galvanize others to work with and for you.

The simple fact is this: each of us can do a little, but together, we can do a lot. So the first principle to focus on is people – and I’d urge you to check in with yourself from time to time in the years ahead, to be sure the people you’re surrounding yourself with can in fact lift you to achieve more then you could on your own.

The second P is passion. There are a lot of things each of us is interested in, but few things that we are really passionate about. I’d urge you to focus on the things that you are passionate about – that you get excited thinking about and talking about – as those are the opportunities you should organize your life around.

Frankly, I got lucky – I became passionate about the Internet almost 30 years ago, when I was graduating from college. I read a book by a futurist, Alvin Toffler, called the Third Wave, that talked about the concept of an electronic frontier. At the time, nobody was online – indeed, the PC had not yet been invented, and the World Wide Web was more then a decade away from being created. But there was something in the idea of interactive services that captivated me.

After graduating from college, I ended up in entry level jobs at a couple of companies, but all the while was obsessing about this interactive world, and trying to figure out when and how I could make a move to be part of what I saw as a coming revolution.

That search led me to move to Northern Virginia in 1983, some 26 years ago. I joined a small company based in Tysons Corner called CVC, which was about to release a product called GameLine.

At the time, although very few people had home computers, a lot of people had Atari video game machines. So CVC created a game cartridge that included a telecommunications modem, and when you plugged it in, you could download games and other services. Most thought this would be the next big thing – but the fact of the matter is GameLine failed miserably. Indeed, at a board meeting a few months after I arrived, one of the venture capitalists looked at the terrible sales figures and said: Geez, you would have thought they would have shoplifted more than that!

The failure of GameLine taught me the importance of the third P, perseverance. As GameLine struggled, most people – including my parents – suggested I put aside my entrepreneurial impulses and passion about interactive services and get back onto a more normal career path. But I stuck with it, as I believed that someday, somehow, interactive services would be a huge market.

I decided to start a new company with Jim Kimsey and Marc Seriff, two of the people I met at GameLine, and we launched that company, initially called Quantum Computer Services, in 1985, when I was 26 years old. Frankly, Quantum also struggled. we had lots of ups and downs, and went through several painful layoffs, in our first few years. Indeed, the creation of the now iconic brand name AOL itself came out of a crisis.

We had established a partnership with Apple Computer and created a service called AppleLink - but then they changed their mind and insisted that we remove their brand, so we had to make up our own name. That led to us coming up with America Online, which quickly was nicknamed AOL.

When we went public in 1992 – we were actually the first Internet company to ever go public – we had less then 200,000 customers, after nearly a decade of being in business. But we kept at it, interest in the Internet exploded, and by the year 2000 we were the leading Internet company – and one of the most valuable companies in the world.

As I look back on AOL’s rise, I attribute much of our success to the 3 Ps: people, passion, and perseverance.

The people at AOL in those early days were phenomenal – super excited to be pioneering a new medium, eager to come to work and work endless hours, happy to be part of a team that was hellbent on changing the world.

The passion we all brought to bear was incredible, and infectious. Even though most people thought we were crazy and believed consumers would never use interactive services, we plowed ahead, constantly evangelizing the endless possibilities of email, ecommerce, instant messaging, online education, and other interactive services.

And it was perseverance that saw us through those difficult days – the times when our hopes were dimmed by external events – when the naysayers around us – including often our friends and families – were urging us to give it up, and pursue a safer career path. But our band of brothers and sisters believed – in each other, in the possibilities of the Internet, and in our ability to break through any impediment that stood in our way.

For us – and for me -- it really was all about people, passion and perseverance.

So as you leave George Mason, I hope you’ll remember those key attributes – the 3 P’s – and constantly reassess your own lives – and your own choices – to be sure you’re working with and for the best possible team of people, you’re rabidly passionate about whatever path you choose, and you have the perseverance to stick with it through the tough times, so you can be there when things finally break through.

Before I end, I want to say a few words about George Mason himself.

When you look at all that he accomplished, you might say that he also lived by the 3 Ps.

For example, two of George Mason’s closest friends were George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, who called him, “the wisest man of his generation.” You get the impression that Mason chose wisely when it came to the people he surrounded himself with.

George Mason was passionate about the rights of individuals in the new nation, and concerned about the amount of power being given to the new federal government. He was so passionate about this, he refused to sign the Constitution, because it did not explicitly include a statement of rights.

Surely our founders knew that those signatures would be honored and celebrated for all time, so you might imagine the temptation to just "go along," and you can imagine the pressure he might have felt from others trying to scare up as many signatures as they could. You can almost hear his fellow founders saying at the time, "C'mon, give it up, George. Just sign it!"

But in the end, it was George Mason’s passion and perseverance that shaped the Constitution into a better, stronger document. Indeed, Mason's efforts finally paid off, with the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791.

So today, instead of being just another signature on the Constitution, George Mason is known as the "the Father of the Bill of Rights" – he has this university named after him – and we celebrate today in a place appropriately called the Patriot Center.

In the end, George Mason’s focus on people, passion and perseverance made a difference for all time.

So when you leave today, don’t just take your George Mason diploma with you as you set out on this journey called life – also take the values and the three P’s of George Mason with you – and try to live a life that would make George proud!

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. It has been an honor, and a pleasure.

Congratulations on this momentous occasion – and best of luck as you open the next chapter in your lives!

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