Illinois 2019 Commencement Speaker Larry Gies: “Find your why”


Congratulations Class of 2019!

What an awesome day. What an awesome day for your family. What an awesome day for all of you.

I remember how proud my parents were when I graduated. My dad was the first in his family to complete college. My mom was a Holocaust survivor, orphan and someone who never finished eighth grade. They were beaming with pride.

But I will be honest, it was a minor miracle for me to be graduating. I was from a small farm town in Illinois. I had never been on a plane and had only traveled through four states. My first day on campus, I looked out my dorm room window and I realized that I had never been in a building that high. It was only on the ninth floor. The guy in the room next to me asked how many AP credits I had. I will never forget the horror on his face when I asked him, “What’s an AP credit?”

About a week later, I turned in my first rhetoric class paper. And after reading it, my teacher asked me if English was my second language. He was serious. After a few minutes of utter confusion, I walked out my first day of calculus because I honestly hoped I had mistakenly entered the wrong class. It was the right class, which created hours of disillusionment.

But this is the University of Illinois. And as you know, the people here are very special. My rhetoric teacher said writing is “oxygen for the mind” and critically important in life. He met me on the Quad every day for weeks, teaching me how to structure a sentence and construct a paragraph, so I could truly write. If not for an amazingly determined TA who often extended office hours for me, I never would have mastered the language of calculus.

What began as a humbling start to college led me to the seat you are in today.

And I had so many mixed emotions at my commencement. The pride of getting my diploma from the greatest university on the planet, yet the knowledge that tomorrow I would be leaving.

And then there was the Bronze Tablet. Stand up. All you Bronze Tablet folks stand up. Congratulations. Give them a hand.

Look at that video screen. Isn’t that cool? That cord on your left shoulder signifies that you are the top 3% of your class. And you know what the honor this is. This is huge. Your name will be inscribed on the Bronze Tablet in the Main Library for eternity. The story gets worse from here so take a seat.

I will never forget visiting with Dean Cammack days before my graduation and asking him why I had not made Bronze Tablet. With two slips of paper, he carefully covered the names on the GPA list above and below mine. This revealed a bright red line with my name just below it. I was the cutoff for Bronze Tablet. Yes, I am the first non-Bronze Tablet recipient of the class of 1988. And they don’t give an award for that. And Chancellor, I have to ask you, is it too late to petition? That’s kind of what I thought.

At my commencement, I also had a question on my mind that I just couldn’t shake: Why? Why was I on the career path I was on? That very next Monday, I was starting a great job that would pay the bills. This is exactly what people in my major were expected to do. But deep down, I had no idea why I was doing it. I couldn’t get my arms around why this path I had chosen was important to me. I am wondering if some of you feel the same way today.

Finding your “why” is critical. It’s the ability to connect the dots between what you do each and every day and a higher purpose. Something beyond going to work or doing a job. Our why is what drives us, inspires others and allows us to persevere in those difficult moments. To put it simply, when you find your why, you love what you do!

Graduates, given that you are going to spend about 60% of your waking hours in your profession, this is pretty important. According to a Deloitte study, half of you are already expecting to leave your first job in the next 24 months. It’s not just a millennial thing. A recent Gallup poll showed that nine of 10 Americans do not find meaning in what they do for a job. Ninety percent of us.

So how do you find meaning in what you do? How do you find your why? Let me tell you about my journey to find my why. My first job was going OK until I upset our largest client. I wrote a memo that laid out in painstaking detail why our client’s CEO had a severely flawed strategy. To say that memo didn’t go over well would be an understatement. Apparently, the CEO of the ninth-largest company in America didn’t appreciate a 24-year-old’s opinion on how to run his business. After that memo, my days in my first job were numbered.

So after that debacle, I found myself in school again. Shortly after that, I was running a manufacturing company. To be honest, I ran it quite poorly.

But with this brilliant track record at the ripe age of 27 years old, I decided that I had all the experiences I needed to buy my own business. My goal was to fund the purchase of this business myself. So I maxed out 10 credit cards, took a loan from a high school buddy, and my lovely wife worked three jobs. Very entrepreneurial of me, but also very flawed. It wasn’t nearly enough money.

I had to find investors to purchase my first company. We built so much trust running that first company that the investors continued supporting me. With their backing, we purchased a number of companies. Given that these purchases were investments, we would eventually sell each company. We created a lot of money for our investors and rang up some of the best returns in the industry.

But I found myself unfulfilled after selling a company. I hated parting with them because we put so much of ourselves into building the companies and developed such deep relationships with the teams that ran them. I wanted to find a way to keep the businesses forever.

So that day I got our entire management team together and asked them to do something a bit unorthodox. I had them write their eulogy. I know, it sounds kind of dark. But, I needed to know what they wanted to be remembered for 20, 30 or 40 years from now. We all wrote our eulogy and read them out loud to each other. My teammates spoke of family, making a positive impact on the world and doing good. But when they spoke specifically about how they wanted to be remembered for their professional lives, nobody mentioned making a lot of money for our investors. Shockingly, nobody was excited about having on their tombstone, “We had the best returns in the industry.” But what they did talk about was building a company that would long outlast us! Something future generations would be proud of.

That day we formed Madison Industries. Which meant that our highly successful business of buying and selling companies was headed for the trash heap. And as hard as that was, we were excited to be building something that will be here 100 years from now. Future generations are counting on us because every product we create and every service we provide makes the world safer, healthier and more productive.

Building a company that will long outlast me is a big part of my why. Now I want to describe the other part of my why: education.

It started right here on this campus when I met the most incredible person in my life. It was 1987, and my roommate was visiting his now-wife and I luckily happened to be with him. That is the day I met Beth, the love of my life for the last 32 years.

Whoever yelled, I thank you so much, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which Beth is going to be very happy with me. Thank you.

I remember seeing her for the first time on those steps just outside her house which is right across from the Quad. I leaned over to my roommate and whispered, “Who is that?” After the chance meeting, I had great difficulty waiting the obligatory three days before calling her. Finally, the third day arrived, and, thankfully, she picked up the phone. A few weeks later, she took me to tutor at the YMCA right here in Champaign. This was the start of our passion to educate that has continued to this day.

In fact, shortly after receiving my diploma and starting my job, a work colleague asked me if I would help him that evening tutoring at the Martin Luther King Boys & Girls Club. After one evening, I was hooked. The children I worked with were amazing. Especially David, who had that gleam in his eye that you hope to see in every child. David was bright, energetic and we had a blast together. I began working with the kids two to three times per week, and I loved it.

The club is located on the city of Chicago’s west side and it can be a dangerous area. One afternoon, I was driving to the club and I saw a crowd had formed across the street. And I think, deep down, I knew what I was about to see, but I never thought I would have to see it. As I got out of my car, I started to hear the screams, the weeping and the anger. My worst nightmare was confirmed. He lay motionless in two people’s arms. It was David. He was just ten years old.

That day, I promised myself I would do everything I could to find a way out for these bright and promising young kids. A way out of the blight, the poverty, the years of neglect, and the hopelessness. That by fifth grade, you would begin to be approached by gangs. The same gangs that killed David and hundreds more that year.

My solution for a way out was a great education. Specifically, I wanted to build a school that was 100% focused on children from Chicago’s west side. With small class sizes, extended school days, longer school years and the resources they needed.

I felt so strongly that a great education was the way out that I took my idea to a rich and powerful guy in the city of Chicago and I asked him to help me. He said, “Kid, you are wasting your time.”

But I knew I wasn’t wasting my time. Making a great education accessible not only changes the child’s life, it changes the trajectories of families for generations. A very good friend of mine and educator once said to me: “Education is a vaccine. It works. We should inoculate everyone, not just those who can afford it.”

Today, not far from where David was slain, stands an amazing school that we have built and nurtured for 14 years: The Chicago Jesuit Academy. Where 30 passionate teachers, four of whom are Illini, are changing the lives of nearly 200 boys every day. These courageous and determined third through eighth grade boys enter the doors of the Academy each day to create a promising path for themselves.

The shootings? They still continue. A few weeks ago, one of our students was shot blocks from our campus. During class prayers, the children often pray that their walk home from school will be safe.

The statistics for the area around the Academy are not good. Three in 100 men receive a college degree. Just three percent. Only 37% of the young men in the area have a job. But at the Academy, there is hope: Nearly 90% of our alumni are in college or have a job.

One of our students at the Academy wrote to me this last fall. He said: “I think education is important because it’s a way for everybody to become who they want in life… to be a better person and achieve their dreams. No matter how old I get, I will never stop learning… and I can learn so much from the generations before me.”

That is from a fifth grader. And that is why my mission is to make a great education accessible.

Like we started doing here at the University of Illinois! I want everyone in our state who has a passion to learn to have the same opportunity that I had. Because making our school and our phenomenal educators accessible to them is important. Nobody should ever have to say, “I want to be an Illini, but I can’t afford it!”

If tuition hadn’t been $624 a semester back in 1984, I would not have left a farm town two hours from here and drove to this amazing place. A place that opened my eyes to the world and changed my life forever. I am proud to say that my hometown high school has four of our finest graduating from the University of Illinois today. A big congratulations to Amy, Relaina, Thane and Wyatt. Way to make our hometown of Mendota proud!

If not for the University of Illinois, I never would have met all the wonderful Illini I work with every day at Madison, or all the wonderful Illini I work with in education. I never would have met my wife — my best friend of 32 years.

Beth wanted me to give a shout out to all her fellow ACES grads. ACES graduates, congratulations to you!

I love our university! Sometimes when I am in my Chicago office, I sit back and close my eyes and I imagine being two hours to the south: on the Quad; sun hitting my face; the crisp smell of spring; smiles; laughter; strewn backpacks on the ground; a Frisbee hitting blades of grass just in front of me.

In the years ahead, you may find yourself doing the same from time to time. I hope it leads you to come back to campus. Because that has been one of my greatest experiences. I have been lucky to have guest-lectured here nearly every semester since 1988. I have learned much more from the students than any wisdom I have ever imparted. Because over the three decades, the students have changed. One day they started asking me “Why?” Why I do what I do. And that forced me to finally answer the question I had at my graduation.

Without this University before and after graduation, I never would have answered my why and had the impact I am having on the world today.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t tell them what I do. I tell them why I do it. I am making the world safer, healthier and more productive, and making a great education accessible. This is my why.

What is your why? If you are like I was and had no idea on graduation day, I think it’s awesome. I really do. Because you have so many experiences ahead of you.

The eulogy story I told you about occurred just six years ago. I was 47 years old when we formed Madison Industries. It took years to find my why. For me, it wasn’t like the movies, where one day I had that dramatic and magical “aha!” moment. I had to work really hard, with many sleepless nights and long hours of detailed work that often didn’t feel all that inspiring.

I would love to give you a checklist today to help you find your why. But life can’t be reduced to a checklist and, quite honestly, that would make for a boring existence.

Sometimes unexpected roadblocks appear. Seventeen years ago, I was told the three words you never want to hear: “You have cancer.” I had a five-year-old son, a three-year-old son and a baby daughter on the way. My 100% focus, my true north, was making sure they had a dad who was there to raise them. My goal was simple: live long enough to get them to college. Because that day I realized that we are not on Earth for ourselves; we are on Earth for others.

So Scott, Ryan, Morgan. You’re supposed to look at me more confidently than that. I’m starting to cry. Thank you for the strength to fight through what now seems like a minor speed bump. I did that for you. Now, go find your why!

There will be times when your next step is not clear. These are often the most trying moments of your life. But also, they could be the most pivotal. Because there is an amazing experience in the making. At these junctures, don’t be lulled into safe and familiar. Don’t wait for something to happen. Go find that next great experience.

Let me give you an example. One of my sons took this semester off from college because he wasn’t finding meaning in his studies. He had worked hard to get into college, but once there, he could not find passion and purpose in what he was doing. So, he struck out on his own and took a job as a chef with no long-term plan. As parents who believe strongly in education, you could understand our concern. One night as he was leaving the restaurant, he was approached by a homeless man who asked him for a few dollars. He started to fish some money out of his wallet, but then stopped and asked the man why he needed it. The man said he just wanted a hot dog. Instead of giving him the money, our son took him to a late-night diner to have a real meal. That night, he heard the man’s life story. In the process, he realized that this man, and so many others, needed help.

A few weeks ago, our son told us he was re-enrolling in school. He said, “Dad, I had more joy serving this homeless man than I could ever get from serving the 60 paying customers that night. I want to learn how I can help thousands like him.” He took a risk not knowing where it would lead and clearly not anticipating the path he is on now. Sometimes, that is what it takes to find your why.

We are all unique. Make sure to find what moves and inspires you, not what others say is the way. If people are questioning the wisdom of your choice, you just might be on the right path for you!

When I decided to strike out on my own and buy a company, my friends felt sorry for me. They didn’t understand why I would give up a career, the salary, vacations and the security that I had. My mom cried. Some people openly laughed at me. But I want to tell you, when I decided to do my own thing, it was one of the happiest days of my life. It was liberating!

I will never be on a Bronze Tablet. But quite often the most impactful moments in your life don’t have a medal, honor or citation attached to it. In the next few months, take a small risk and try something new. Had I not gone to tutor one night when I was 22 years old, would I be making a great education accessible today?

Your life ahead of you is a blank canvas. The University of Illinois has given you a brush, the paint and an easel to begin painting those broad strokes which will be a collection of your experiences to find your why.

You are the Class of 2019! Your impact in life will be measured by how you change the world and those you touch along the way. So, don’t ask yourself, “How much money will that job pay?” But do ask yourself, “How can I connect the dots to a higher purpose, not just for me, but for all those around me.”

Ask yourself, “How will I make the world a better place?” Do I have a revolutionary idea? Can I bring awareness to a little-known disease? Or create wealth that can be directed to those in need? Will I expose corruption? Is there a way to bring food to the masses? What about writing a poem that will be read for decades? How about some software that helps us solve for cancer? Can I change the course of a child’s life? Or capture the emotions of millions with a movie or commercial or maybe a musical that sweeps the nation? Should I rebuild a village on a hurricane-stricken island? Can I disrupt an industry? Or can I just help someone in need?

Don’t expect to have the answer today. Remember, it’s a journey and by all means, enjoy it. But do keep that burning passion you have today. Embrace it, feed it, develop it. Make what you do meaningful to you by finding your why.

Congratulations, graduates! It’s a great day to be an Illini! I-L-L!