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Hundreds of McCormick Students Graduate in 154th Commencement Exercises

McCormick Undergraduate Convocation

View and download photos from the 2012 McCormick Undergraduate Convocation Reception.

Hundreds of purple-robed undergraduate students, master's students, and PhD candidates graduated from the McCormick School of Engineering on June 15 and 16 as part of a sunny and warm weekend of Commencement festivities.

The graduation ceremonies began at Ryan Field Friday morning with Northwestern University’s 154th Commencement, which featured a speech by Paul Farmer, a physician, anthropologist, and Harvard professor known for his pioneering work in global health, particularly in Haiti.

The undergraduate celebrations continued Saturday morning with McCormick’s Undergraduate Convocation, held in the Welsh-Ryan Arena. McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino thanked the 332 graduating seniors for their dedication and wished them well in the many endeavors that await them.

“As you begin your careers, I hope that you will take with you many of the lessons you learned at McCormick. The most important of all: no matter where you end up, you’re going to bring with you the thinking skills of a whole-brain™ engineer,” Ottino said. “If there is something to be learned, you will learn it. You are not afraid of anything. You can tackle anything. I cannot wait to see what you do.”

At the ceremony, three teams of students were awarded the Mickelson Prize, which is modeled after the Margaret and Muir Frey Memorial Prize for Innovation and Creativity, established by the late Donald Frey in 2002. The Mickelson Prize competition recognizes the senior who submits the best insightful, innovative, and/or creative project.

Winners of the prize included:

First prize: Sabeen Admani, Razna Ahmad, Zahra Ali, and Jin Tao for “Shoulder Dislocation Simulator”
Second prize: Nathan Davidson, Charles Hwang, John Kulesa, and Jenny Saluk for “A More Realistic Training Simulator for the Clinical Breast Exam”
Third prize: Jennifer Haag, Zong-yi Liu, Sylwia Migas, and Robin Stiller for “Medical Simulator for Second Trimester Uterine Evacuation”

Four additional undergraduate prizes were awarded. The Ovid W. Eshbach Award was presented to Samuel Winthrop Malin; the McCormick Alumni Award was presented to Kathleen Mary Bradford; the Harold B. Gotaas Undergraduate Research Award was presented to Connor Lambert Eck; and the Co-op of the Year Award was presented to Megan L. Dunham.

The keynote speaker at the Convocation was Peter Barris (electrical engineering ’74), managing general partner of New Enterprise Associates (NEA), a global investment firm focused on venture capital. Barris shared several pieces of advice from his successful career in entrepreneurship; most importantly, he told the graduates, they should take risks and be willing to fail.

“It is often said that the ‘fear of failure’ is a great motivator . . . and I subscribe to that. But it can also be an impediment to creative invention,” Barris said. “The lesson I have learned as a venture capitalist is that the willingness to fail can be incredibly liberating. It can serve to unleash creativity and productivity that would never materialize in a set of circumstances constrained by the caution that invariably accompanies activities designed to avoid failure.”

“Because unexpected things happen. Your initial beliefs are proven wrong. Any number of reasons,” he said. “It’s good to have a life plan, but it is bad to be a prisoner to it.” (Read the full text of Barris' address below.)

Following the ceremony, the graduates and their families gathered outside at a reception outside the arena for photo-taking and celebration with McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino and faculty.

Two ceremonies were held Friday afternoon in the Ryan Family Auditorium in celebration of McCormick's 398 graduating master's students and 113 PhD recipients.

McCormick’s Professional Master’s Degree Recognition Ceremony, which recognizes graduates of McCormick’s professional master’s programs, featured a keynote address by Fred Koller, vice president at the biotechnology company Intrexon and executive director of the Intrexon Institute for Biomolecular Research (IIBR), who urged the graduates to think outside the box and take risks in pursuit of their goals.

Later that afternoon, master's and PhD graduates gathered for McCormick's Master’s Degree Recognition and PhD Hooding Ceremony, where Samuel I. Stupp, the Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, and Medicine at Northwestern and director of Northwestern’s Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine, urged students to continue their relentless pursuit of learning and innovation. 

Read the full text of Barris’ address below:                                

Greetings to all of you – President Schapiro, distinguished faculty, parents, relatives and friends.  And, of course, allow me to extend a hearty congratulations to the most accomplished class to ever graduate from McCormick. 

Now I honestly am not certain that what I just said about this being the most accomplished class ever is accurate, but I was told that it would serve me well to pander to the audience early in my address.

I am both honored and humbled to be here addressing you this morning.  It doesn’t seem all that long ago, frankly, that I was sitting in my senior year Thermodynamics class – one that had a reputation back then of flunking one or two graduating seniors every year – wondering if I would make it through to my graduation. 

In the midst of those negative thoughts I could never have imagined that I would be standing before you several decades later attempting to impart some wisdom as you embark on the next chapter of your lives.

Addresses at moments like these are often laden with advice on the whys and wherefores of giving back to society, how to make a mark on the world, how to be a better person.  They are occasionally lofty and often inspiring messages.   

And while I hope I have not fallen short in any of those areas, I think those lessons are best left for others to teach. 

Instead, I think I can offer you something of equal and possibly more immediate value. Over more than two decades spent in the venture capital industry, one gains – hopefully – the skill of pattern recognition. The ability to identify “success factors” that can offer great insight as to whether a company – or an individual – is likely to fail, or to succeed. 

Now at some level, you graduates have already succeeded beyond the dreams of many.  The fact that you are here  . . . the fact that you are graduating from this world class university and in doing so have tackled what we all, as McCormick grads, know is the most demanding curriculum this university has to offer -- this all speaks to achievement.

But hopefully, my remarks this morning will assist you in extending that success trajectory beyond these university walls, and to do so in a way that you find both rewarding and filled with happiness.

While sharing my observations I will rely on some advice that I coincidentally received from a Northwestern professor.  It goes something like this . . .”You are rewarded in life for being both brilliant and brief.  And if you can’t do both then at least be brief”.

The venture environment -- the world of entrepreneurial startups --   has to be one of the best, if not the best, laboratory from which to glean lessons on the contributing factors to success.

It is an environment chock full of incredibly bright, creative and driven people who do pioneering work in exciting new areas, inventing new business models and in many cases taking on our society’s most complex problems.  And you will be glad to hear that it is a Mecca for whole brain engineering™ – a place where technological innovation and creativity intersect regularly.

It is also a world that is brutally demanding, where the number of failures far exceeds the number of successes . . . where entrepreneurs are generally competing against, not only other startups, but well established industry giants.  It’s an environment where fledgling companies attempt to forge a place while overworked, understaffed and under-capitalized.  In short, it’s about as unforgiving an environment as you can imagine.
As a venture capitalist operating in this environment a big part of my job relies on pattern recognition, both as it relates to businesses and to people.  With regard to people it is a matter of identifying those traits that make for successful entrepreneurs and identifying the people that embody them.

I would like share with you today three characteristics of successful entrepreneurs which I believe have broader applicability to success in life, regardless of the path taken.

In my estimation, a shared characteristic of all really successful entrepreneurs is that they are “passionate” about what they are doing.  They are believers!  They are on a mission! 

Our industry is littered with clever people, many of whom achieve some measure of success by outsmarting the next guy, perhaps motivated by nothing more than making a quick buck or achieving 15 minutes of fame.  But I haven’t observed a situation where an entrepreneur achieved “lasting” success without being deeply passionate about what they were doing.

I am probably not going out on a limb when I say that the vast majority of you here today got here with lots of advice and expectations coming from friends, teachers and of course parents.

My original inclination was to advise you to stop listening to your parents.  But reflecting on the fact that I am a parent . . . and that there are more parents here today than graduates . . .  I reconsidered that tactic. 

So let me say it a different way.  You need to determine what you are passionate about. It’s about your expectations, not others. 

The lucky ones here already know.  I certainly didn’t know when I was graduating. 

One of my passions, entrepreneurship, was something I only came to realize after a number of years and experiences.  When I was getting my MBA I fastidiously avoided any classes that had anything to do with entrepreneurship.  And now I run the largest venture capital firm in the world.  Funny how life can work. 

It may take you a while but begin to get in touch with your heart, not only your mind.  I am confident that all of you are talented enough to achieve some level of success in any endeavor you choose regardless of your degree of passion.  But I am equally confident that you will only achieve your highest potential after you discover what really moves you.

Another characteristic shared by all successful entrepreneurs is their willingness to embrace risk.  To embrace risk you must embrace the possibility of failure . . . a concept probably foreign to this group of graduates.

It is often said that the “fear of failure” is a great motivator . . . and I subscribe to that.  But it can also be an impediment to creative invention.

The lesson I have learned as a venture capitalist is that the willingness to fail can be incredibly liberating.  It can serve to unleash creativity and productivity that would never materialize in a set of circumstances constrained by the caution that invariably accompanies activities designed to avoid failure.

In the venture capital business we have a metric which we meticulously track called “loss ratio”.  Simplistically, it is a measure of the number of investments we make that result in some loss of invested capital – the higher the number the more losses. 

What may surprise you is that we are more troubled by a loss ratio that is too low rather than one that is too high.  To us a particularly low loss ratio means we are probably not taking enough investment risk. Our best performing fund in history, in fact, has the highest loss ratio.

Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley in no small part because it is an environment that promotes risk taking . . .  not of the stupid variety . . . but that which is calculated.  It is an environment that in some ways treats failure as a “badge of honor”.   You will only swing for the fences if you accept the prospect of striking out . . . so too in life!

The final entrepreneurial success factor that I want to talk to you about is that of “resilience”.  Every successful entrepreneur that I have worked with has demonstrated a remarkable ability to navigate the inevitable roadblocks that they encounter. 

Many of the most successful enterprises with which I have been associated have succeeded with business models that were different from the ones that we initially funded.

Why is that? 

Because unexpected things happen. Your initial beliefs are proven wrong.  Any number of reasons. 

The best entrepreneurs are the ones that anticipate these speed bumps before they encounter them.  Their prescription for success is really quite simple.  They are aggressively inquisitive.  They are sponges for knowledge.   They constantly test their theories . . .  and here’s the important part . . . they are willing to quickly change direction . . . to go off plan. 

It’s good to have a life plan, but it is bad to be a prisoner to it. 

And for people who don’t aspire to entrepreneurship, I want to emphasize that these success factors can apply wherever you bring that passion, that ability to take risks, and that willingness to fail – as a teacher, as an engineer, and as a parent.

Wherever you go, you will likely be faced with challenges you didn’t anticipate and opportunities you never imagined.  Be open to new paths.   And as you consider them remember to embrace risk and to follow your heart as well as your brain.

And through it all remember the old saying that it is about the journey, not the destination.

In closing let me offer one final piece of advice.  Cherish the friendships you have made during your time at Northwestern.  Stay close to your friends . . .  if for no other reason than they have a ton of photographic evidence.

Congratulations.  Best of luck.  Go make us proud.