Text of remarks by Devin Wenig
Thank you Dr. Dvorak for the introduction. Thank you President Ainlay, Board of Trustees, faculty members, staff, and parents. Thank you for having me. It’s an incredible privilege to be here today.
To the Class of 2015—congratulations! This is a proud moment. Today is all about you, and it means a lot that you have allowed me to share a little bit of it with you.
It is great to be back in Schenectady on this glorious day.
I remember that in my senior year, after four years of waiting, I finally got the biggest room at the Lodge. What no one told me was that the bed was nestled into an angle right under the roof, and there was no insulation in the roof and your face was about six inches from outdoors. In the Schenectady winter, you know, half your face would literally freeze. It was so cold I got a space heater, and I put it six inches from the other side of my face. All night, I would have to keep flipping over, to alternate from frostbite to third-degree burns on each side of my face.
Frankly, it seems like it was just yesterday when I was in your seat, full of anticipation for what was ahead. Twenty-seven years ago, to be exact.
Sitting where you are today, I thought I wanted to be successful—but only had an abstract notion of what success meant, what it cost, and what would really make me happy. Life goes so unexpectedly. No matter what you think or do, or plan, there are twists and turns at every bend.
Today I want to share three things that I have learned over the past 27 years, since leaving the Lodge and leaving Union. They are: Pursue Your Path; Build Something Meaningful; and Enjoy the Journey.
Let me tell you how my experiences have shaped my belief in these things.
My career path was not the straightforward one I had planned. When I graduated from Union and entered the job market, I was faced with a big choice: join a well-known law firm—what I had always planned—or help save a struggling biotech company, which my father co-founded.
You see, before I even started the job with the law firm, my father passed away, unexpectedly. And, my family and the Board turned to me, to help run the company and stabilize it.
As far as I was concerned, I was simply in the wrong place at the right time.
I was 23, with a BA from Union College and a law degree. I knew nothing about biotech and just as little about running a public company.
It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I had an obligation. I helped stabilize the company while it was in transition. Then I stepped away. I built my own career my own way. I followed my own dreams.
I realize that not many of you will be asked to scrap your plans and run a company at age 23, but all of you will have tough choices to make at one point or another. You will face choices that will take you down an unplanned path.
My choice defined me. My early experience taught me to have the courage to follow my heart. I learned to live life the way I wanted to live it. My father’s company was not my passion. I am not a scientist. I didn’t want to inherit my career.
There is no one that I know that had a career plan coming out of college that ended up exactly following that plan. You will probably not be the first. Be prepared to blaze your own trail.
Coming out of school, you may be tempted by a big paycheck, or feel peer or family pressure to follow a particular career path. But understand the path to happiness is often not money nor is it taking the expected path—it’s meaning.
The happiest people I know are pursuing what they love and building things that they are proud of. I see creators every day. It’s easy to point out the billionaire founder of a company, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about people who work in big companies and small, who have a passion …to serve customers, build great products, and change the world with new technologies.
I know artists, architects, writers, who have spent their lives building and who have found passion, purpose and peace. And here’s the secret—many of them make more money in the long run, because if you do what you love, you tend to be more successful at it.
Throughout my career I have focused on building—building a business, building a strong technology and media company, building a platform that creates economic opportunities for small businesses around the world.
Today, you are entering the world in one of the most exciting times mankind has ever seen. Supercomputers are in every pocket, incurable diseases are being cured, self-driving cars are a reality, people will be on Mars soon, and entire cities are running on renewable power. In the next decade, artificial intelligence will begin to approach human cognition.
We are living in a world of warp-speed innovation that I couldn’t have even imagined when I was finishing college.
The challenge for this graduating class is to not accept what is, but to imagine and create what is possible.
You will build our future. You are the ones who will wake up in the morning and think about what we should invent and create. You are the ones who will fight through the challenges and contend with the cynics and establish the world that billions of people will live and work and play and love in.
But here’s the thing: just as important as what you do, is why you do it and how. What kind of future will you create? Will the future be pro-humanity? Will it make humans connected, and happier, more included, more just? Or will technology make the planet a more unequal place? You’ll decide if we live in a world of drones and algorithms or whether we live in a more human world where tech ends up serving humanity and making the planet smaller, more interconnected, and more equal.
I have the great expectation that you will make the world a brighter place, a better place. Your Union education, and your liberal arts background have prepared you to do so. With its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking, Liberal Arts adds the crucial and too often ignored artistic touch to the science of engineering. If you’re an engineer who also took poetry and pottery, that’s great. You don’t see things only in 0’s and 1’s. You know there is often times more than one answer. That’s essential.
One of the reasons that I went to Silicon Valley is because it’s a place where the entire culture drives Creation. Creation of new businesses; new platforms; new apps; new ways of making the world connected; even new industries.
I am not telling you that you should only go into tech. A spectacular future is not created simply through technology. It comes from many sources.
Building something you are proud of is great. Building something you are proud of, and that also makes others lives better is greater.
Class of 2015, you are about to embark on an incredible journey and everything up to here has prepared you for that. Life happens in chapters.
Coming out of Union, I was always thinking, “I gotta get to there. I gotta get to there. If I could only get to there.” Eventually you realize that you never get “there.” Because there’s always another “there”. There is no end game.
Let me tell you how it played out for me over the last few years. When I was leaving my last company I had no idea what I would do next. Then I got a call from, the CEO of eBay, asking me to have lunch with him. The moment we started talking, I knew this was the next step for me. I knew that I had the opportunity to build an enduring business and help create economic opportunities for people all around the world.
In a sense, I was back where I started – contemplating another unexpected path. But I've learned that you can't plan for everything, and sometimes the uncharted paths are the ones that lead you to the best places.
I moved across the coast and across industries. I convinced my family to uproot our lives, to change our path. At that time, my son was just starting high school. And by the way, my son just graduated from high school two weeks ago. He starts his own journey.
In going to eBay, I was going to work not only in a different industry but in a different world. And let me tell you, working in Silicon Valley is unlike working in the New York business world. For one thing, I dress a lot worse now. My first week at eBay, I had a Board meeting, and I decided to dress down by wearing a suit with no tie. And then I walked into the boardroom, and our Chairman was wearing ripped jeans. I’ve adapted pretty quickly, although I draw the line at wearing flip-flops to investor meetings.
So, here I am, again, embarking on the next journey in my life, pursuing my passion. I have a new role at an iconic technology company that I am humbled to lead. And I am spending a lot of time thinking about what I want to create, what impact I want to have as CEO of eBay.
So the journey never stops. I am starting a new chapter. My son is starting a new chapter. You are starting a new chapter.
You are graduating after four years of epic learning. But what’s next is an even bigger learning curve. You will learn and grow tremendously in your 20s and 30s, and face unexpected turns. Part of embracing the journey is realizing that you will be lost sometimes. There’s joy and excitement, and ultimately peace in finding your way.
When you are needed, jump in. Don’t stand on the sidelines. Don’t worry about the unknown. Because somewhere in that new universe lies something incredible: Opportunity.
Happiness is in the journey, and I wish you luck as you set forth on yours.
Nurture your optimism, your idealism. Let it lead you.
Build something you are proud of, solve problems, create the future that we will all be proud of.
Congratulations Class of 2015. Thank you.