NYU STERN Commencement Speech: The Art of Knowing What you Don’t Know

Embrace Serendipity, Establish Your A-Team and Trust Your Instincts

It was the fall of 1995. That was the date I first used my newfound NYU knowledge. I wouldn’t have my degree until 1997 but as the graduates in this audience are aware, the journey starts that very first day of class.

So there I was in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as Dayton Ohio. At the time I was working as a Management Consultant for Deloitte & Touche, known today simply as Deloitte.

Our team was working with a retail client on a bankruptcy and restructuring. Ok, for the family members in the audience this might get boring, for the recent grads you might find this interesting and…Do I have any Statistics professors in the audience?…Professor Tenenbein?…I am hoping you will be riveted!

Where was I? Oh yes, I was conducting an analysis of my client’s inter-store inventory transfers. In retail, anytime your inventory is not on the sales floor it’s not working for you. Having the proper balance of stock and the proper stock in each store is critical. We believed the sheer amount of transfers that were occurring between stores was a contributing factor for their financial crisis. We knew they were wasting many dollars on these transfers but I needed to know the total value of the inventory that was being transferred for me to make any observations and hopefully recommendations.

So I entered a room that contained every inter-store transfer from each of their 37 stores over the past 12 months. The room, a windowless bunker, was filled from floor to ceiling with banker boxes, each box contained hundreds of pink handwritten inventory transfer slips — yes really pink-slips. Interestingly, I knew how many total transfer slips there were in the room that day but I had no idea of the total retail value of all the inter-store transfers. Some slips had amounts on them that were less than $100, others had values over $500, and yet others were less than $50 bucks. That’s when the light bulb went off. Wow! I need to use statistics!

Amazingly, I just had Professor Tennebein’s statistics final a few days earlier — BTW I looked back at my transcript a few days ago and I had managed a respectable B+, not too bad.

So here I was, ready to use my newfound statistics skills. I was very proud of myself! I remembered from class when designing a study, the sample size is an important consideration; the larger the sample size, the more data you have, the more data you have the more precise your results will be. I needed to determine how many of these pieces of paper would represent a proper sample size. I knew I wanted a high level of precision, but I had forgotten how to calculate the sample size needed and I certainly didn’t want to go through every box in the room and add up all these pieces of paper. Now remember I had just taken the final. Basically,

I had forgotten the information I was tested on a few days earlier.

So what did I do? Totally embarrassed, I swallowed my pride and during an Ohio snowstorm I called Professor Tenenbein. He was elated to hear from me. Right then and there on the phone he walked me through what I needed to do.

What’s important here is not that I forgot what I had just learned — at least that’s what I say to myself — what was important was I knew where to go to solve the problem. Or as I like to say,

I now knew what I didn’t know.

The art of knowing what you don’t know can really sum up my MBA.

Do each of you remember everything you learned in Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, International Trade, Change Management, Corporate Finance, eCommerce, Marketing, Statistics, maybe you do? For me there is much I retained, some I forgot, and other areas that I have expanded on over the past 20 years. When I forget something, I now know where to go — either an old textbook [HOLD UP MY OLD STATISTICS BOOK], a dedicated professor [POINT TO PROFESSOR TENENBEIN] or, if I am really desperate, Statistics for Dummies [HOLD UP BOOK].

Similar to the story I just told you, I’ve have had the incredible benefit and pleasure of taking what I learned in the classroom one day and then immediately applying it the next day. This started during my years as a Management Consultant, continued when I launched two start-ups, expanded with my work for the largest Out-Of-Home media agency in the world, and now with my work as the President of a 108-year old non-profit.

When I reflect on my education I think about various moments in time, the friendships I made, my study group, that conversation with Professor Tenenbein, cigars in Hong Kong with Professor Bob Guth, our many class trips including visiting Boeing in Seattle, Airbus and Reims Aviation in France, and Microsoft in China, all of those endless classroom hours at Doral Arrowood, the amazing support from NYU EMBA staff (back in my day it was Norman Berman, Sheila Worthington & Mary Jane Boland had just started), my EMBA backpack…I still have it — not bad 20 years later! [HOLD UP BACKPACK], and of course I always remember that 1 annoying classmate that would always ask a question just when class was about to end; for us it was always the same guy.

Perhaps most important, my MBA taught me how to look at things differently. I have a broader understanding of various business tools & techniques, types of analysis, a deeper understanding of resources that exist not just within our Stern community but around the world.

Stern’s entrepreneurial approach and participation of students from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds strengthened my abilities domestically and internationally.

Ultimately, my MBA gave me a different and expanded set of optics.

So you might have thought your classes were over, but I wanted to extend your classroom experience one last time with the three most important lessons I learned when getting my MBA:

Lesson #1: Embrace Serendipity

I need to make a confession, approximately 20 years ago when I was in the program I took my lunch break and didn’t come back that afternoon. Yes, I cut classes.

An EMBA classmate and I spent the afternoon talking about an idea we had for a business, a concept that would combine his entertainment background with my retail and consulting background. That afternoon set the stage for what would become an award-winning business that we would then later sell to the largest media and communications company in the world.

An opportunity can come from a classroom session, a chance meeting, an introduction, a mistake. Some of the best business opportunities I have had have come when I have least expected them. This was equally true when I started my company. The secret is recognizing these opportunities.

That fateful day 20 years ago shaped me in ways that were unexpected. So my first lesson is Embrace Serendipity. Try and recognize opportunities and just go with it, not everything in life needs to be structured or will be found in a textbook.

Lesson #2: Establish Your A-Team

There we were, Gate 7 at LaGuardia airport getting ready to board a short flight for a meeting in New Hampshire with Timberland.

Both EMBA grads, this was the moment we had been working towards for almost 3 years — we were going to have a meeting with Claire Spofford, the head of Global Marketing of Timberland. It was our “Proof of Concept” moment. The reason we both left our safe, lucrative jobs and instead were chasing our dreams.

Right there in the terminal, my EMBA graduate now turned business partner drops our brand new laptop with the presentation on it. The entire screen now looked like an Etch-A-Sketch that had been given to a 5-year old. There were black lines everywhere against the silver backdrop of what used to be a screen; amazingly my business partner also managed to crack the entire side of the computer, how I will never know.

This was before flash drives were common. We had put our back up on a CD, which was in the computer, but now that everything was cracked we had no chance of getting the CD out. This act of breaking the computer was the perfect analogy for our partnership. Rich, my business partner was the whirling dervish, the crazy creative, the guy who would always break the laptop. I was the problem solver the calm one the pragmatist — it would prove to be a great blend of skills and personalities.

When we learned the computer was a total write off and our entire future may have been wiped away we went into Plan B. We knew the presentation, we had done all the due diligence, we had rehearsed, we were ready. Yes, this was a setback but we had a Plan B.

But you know, the thing about having a Plan B is who you are in the trenches with. That day, I was in the trenches with someone who was not only my new business partner, but someone that would have my back, someone who was (and continues to be) a true creative force and someone that would help me chase my dreams.

Being in the trenches with the right team is critical.

I always prefer, ALWAYS, to have an A-TEAM with a B- Plan vs. a B-Team with an A Plan

This is my second lesson for today.

Do we have any Game Of Thrones fans in the audience? Don’t worry if you are still catching up I don’t have any spoilers. Again any fans?

Well if you are a fan, you would know that in this fantasy world one of the central and most important characters, Daenerys Targaryen, also known as Khaleesi and Mother of Dragons, has taken 6 seasons to carefully assemble her A-Team, all with unique skills, their own experiences and their own set of optics. If you aren’t a fan you should definitely start watching. Unfortunately, HBO is going to make us wait another 8 months to see if Khaleesi’s A-Team can get the job done.

This A-Team lesson is just as important in the real world. Again, I want to repeat, I always prefer to have an A-TEAM with a B- Plan vs a B-Team with an A-Plan.

In the real world, I am very lucky to be surrounded by an A-Team within my current career at Spence-Chapin. We literally spend each day, week, month creating families! People know us as an adoption agency. While central to who we are, adoption is a small piece of the services we deliver. In the past year alone we have achieved some amazing milestones:

  • Within New York City Foster Care: We implemented a new model for pre- and post-adoptive clinical services. In just 14 months, working with the most difficult cases, this pilot program has directly impacted 34 children and 22 families.
  • Our Award Winning International Granny Program was launched for the first time here in the US. To improve outcomes for children living in pediatric facilities, Spence-Chapin’s “Granny Program” provides volunteer caregivers, otherwise known as “grannies” from the local community. These special volunteers give needed one-on-one attention to children on a daily basis. Our inaugural U.S. program was launched with the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center right here in Yonkers. Elizabeth Seton serves the most medically fragile children in NY State, many of these children never have visitors — we changed that — all 100% volunteer and donor supported.
  • Our Healthy Women Strong Families initiative just surpassed the 32,000 women impacted mark; this is the number of women that have been given free, non-judgmental options counseling by Spence-Chapin over that past 100 years
  • And just 3 weeks ago we had a huge milestone when we facilitated the first-ever South African adoption by an @LGBTQ couple

These milestones are wonderful but they all exist because we have an A-Team at Spence-Chapin.

And now for my final and perhaps most important lesson:

Lesson #3: Trust Your Instincts

Physically, we had lived through 9–11. Emotionally, the country and in particular New York City were at a standstill and everyone was in mourning.

That Stern Graduate business partner I mentioned earlier, both he and I were not only concerned how we were going to make payroll, we were concerned if we were still going to have a company. Our company, had done well for its first year — we got that Timberland account I mentioned earlier — but true startups need approx. 3 years to get off the ground. 9–11 had an adverse effect on many small businesses. We were not being turned down for business, we understood clients wanted and needed our services, there was just an air of indecisiveness. No “Yes’s” were occurring.

It was now 5 months after 9–11 and we were at a critical time, we were not sure we could do more waiting. We had an unusual meeting, it was mid-February; remember how I said you need to recognize opportunities.

We were meeting with three incredibly talented individuals– Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff, and Robert DeNiro. We were meeting with them to talk about their vision for a NY-Based film festival.

They had discussed the concept for a number of years, but now, post-9–11, they felt more of an urgency to get this done. They wanted to rebuild downtown NY, create something that would help the community, involve families and bring desperately needed revenue to local downtown businesses. They wanted to rebuild the spirit of the city, they believed their idea could be transformative and used as a platform to help with that rebirth. We continued to discuss their idea and they said they were thinking about launching it in May.

So here I am in my head thinking…Ok May, that would give us about 15 months to secure sponsors, and get this off the ground…very aggressive but doable. “Oh no” they said not May of next year, May of this year!

We had a little under 3 months to get this off the ground. Every school lesson I had learned (SWOT analysis, competitive intelligence, market research techniques, go-to-market strategies, workplans, etc.) combined with my almost 6 years of Deloitte consulting knowledge and general business knowledge told me this would not be possible. My formal and informal education was telling me this was a Herculean amount of work and would be nearly impossible to pull off .

One of the reasons we, a start-up, were at the table was because other well established Sponsorship, Marketing & Communications firms did not want to take on the risk — reputational risk, as well as the financial risk associated with all the work that needed to be done within incredibly compressed time-frames and no assurance of success.

You can probably guess at this point that that we not only took on the assignment we were also successful. That concept became what is known as the Tribeca Film Festival. That day we went with our gut instincts; everything else was telling us this could not happen but deep down we believed it could. Our schooling and respective careers ultimately helped us to be successful. In that short period of time we helped to secure the founding sponsor of the festival — American Express. This wasn’t just blind luck, we conducted the proper research and used our Stern-taught negotiation & strategy techniques. All of this helped us to secure American Express. The rest is history. We trusted our instincts and it paid off.

So to recap:

· Embrace Serendipity
· Establish Your A-Team
· Trust your Instincts

In closing, I want you all to think of the choices and the sacrifices you and your families each made in your lives to be here today.

Do I want to go back to school? How will this affect my personal life and my professional life? Why am I doing this? Do I want to do this? Should I do this? What’s driving me? I can almost guarantee the tapestry of decisions that brought each of us here today were all different.

What’s interesting, is that there is one decision we all have in common, that choice was to go to this amazing school in one of the best cities in the world.

Whether it was 20 years ago, when I went through the program, or today when you each receive your degrees, we all share that same choice to pursue greater knowledge and our MBAs at NYU.

So now what? You know it’s funny I had this vision that somehow this knowledge would come down and be imparted on me the day I received my MBA. To be honest, the end of my formal classes at 44 West 4th was, in some ways, anti-climactic. You get your degree and it’s over just like that.

What I learned from the day I graduated is it’s not really over, it’s really just the beginning for each of you, or to use a famous quote,

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can — Arthur Ashe

Congratulations on an amazing accomplishment!