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Ginni Rometty's McCormick Convocation Remarks

The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science held its Undergraduate Graduation Convocation on Saturday, June 19 at the Welsh-Ryan Arena on the Northwestern University campus.

The convocation speaker was Ginni Rometty, senior vice president of IBM Global Sales and Distribution. In this role Rometty is responsible for revenue, profit and client satisfaction in the 170 global markets in which IBM conducts business. Previously Rometty served as senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services, where she led the integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting -- the largest acquisition in professional services history.

Rometty is involved with the Women in Technology Council and the Women's Leadership Council and is one of the senior sponsors of the Women's Executive Council at IBM. She has been named to Fortune magazine's "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" and Forbes magazine's "World's 100 Most Powerful Women."

She graduated with high honors with a bachelor's degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Rometty’s remarks were as follows:

Greetings to all of you – distinguished faculty…parents, relatives and friends of the graduates…and, most important, to you, the members of the class of 2010 whose graduation we are celebrating today. It is an honor for me to be with you today. As this is the first time I’ve given a commencement speech, I got a lot of advice and was reminded of what Gary Trudeau, the author of Doonesbury comics, aid about commencement speeches:

“They were invented in the belief, that outgoing students should never be released into the world, until they have been properly sedated.”

Dean Ottino – like a well trained engineer – I read all the background material you sent me – I noticed everyone opens their talk – noting the time you have given have to speak – two years ago the speaker had 12 minutes, last year 10 minutes – and this year Dean Ottino has given me 8!   Dean, even I would struggle to sedate you all in 8 minutes.

Now, I’m thrilled that my first commencement speech is taking place here, because I am also a very proud graduate of this school.  

Of course, things have changed a bit since my time at Northwestern. Back then, thirty years ago:
-    A notebook meant a pad of paper.  
-    If you wanted music in your dorm room it meant dragging your turntable and speakers here in your parents’ station
-    Writing home required a stamp and an envelope.

But one day, thirty years from now, you’ll too come back here. And perhaps, like me, you’ll reflect on what’s transpired since you left.

I never would have guessed, when I was sitting where you’re sitting now, that I would be fortunate enough to meet with hundreds of corporate and government leaders every year, travel millions of miles, and now lead an organization with revenues that are higher than the GDP of three-quarters of the countries in the world. Much of what I have accomplished, I owe to this great institution. And as I sat here, 30 years ago, I don’t think I was fully aware of the great esteem in which this school is held both in this country, and around the world.  

Today, you become part of this reputation.  

So, what I thought I’d do with my remaining six minutes, is do one of my favorite things “Paint Reality, and Give Hope.”  Paint some reality about the world you’re heading into … But then also provide real hope – hope in knowing, you’ve been perfectly prepared to succeed in the world you’re entering.  

First, a dose of reality. If we were sitting here two or three years ago, many of you would likely have been considering careers in high finance. Applying your skills to designing the latest exotic financial instrument. But now, over $1T of toxic assets later, that particular axis has somewhat shifted. The world has changed a lot in past 2-3 years, as we’ve battled through the worst recession since the Great Depression. I see it every day, as I meet with those business and government leaders around the world.  

For starters, many of those government leaders themselves are new.  We’re looking at new political regimes in many major countries around the world, not least of which is here in the U.S. Many of these new leaders bring with them new reform agendas, whether it’s healthcare reform, financial market reform, or environmental reform.  

Those reform agendas are based on a growing consensus that we need to revise our thinking – and focus on the most serious issues facing society around the world today. And in the world of business, regimes are changing too.  Just here in the US, over the last 2 years, more than 2,700 CEOs of listed US companies have been replaced. We’ve never seen numbers like that before. These leadership changes are happening because we have a renewed sense of what’s important.   

Remember, when you think about what is important, we live in a world where:
-    One in 5 people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water.  Yet, at the same time, the global agriculture industry, one of the biggest consumers of water, wastes about 60% of the 2,500 trillion liters it uses, every year.
-    Similarly, in a world where a billion people are undernourished grocers and consumers in the US alone throw away $48B of food each year.
-    Here in the US we spend more per capital on healthcare than any other country.  And yet we still can’t crack the list of the top 20 countries for mortality rates.    

I could go on, but you get the point. Everyone wants to do things differently to address these kinds of deep business and societal problems. Now let me give you some hope. While this may feel like a world of uncertainty and volatility, it presents you, with some unique choices and opportunities.  

When I look back on my time here at Northwestern, and then through the course of my career, I recognize that the most valuable thing I learned here was how to solve problems.  Not just engineering and science problems. But more importantly, how to apply myself to any type of problem.  In a word, I learned how to step back and “Think.”

I believe that is a unique value of this great institution.  Developing both your left brain and right brain and teaching you to apply yourself as part of a team – the Dean calls that whole-brain learning™. And it is something that should give you tremendous confidence and hope. You have the skills that can be applied to some of the world’s most significant challenges.   

I know that is what has always drawn me to, and kept me at IBM.  Coincidently – or call it fate --  IBM’s long-standing mantra is “Think.”   And, while IBM is rightly vaunted for its technology innovations, what has always made IBM a fascinating and compelling place for me, is the passion of the company, and its people, to apply technology and scientific thinking to major societal issues.  

Every day I get to “Think” and work on everything from:
-    Digitizing electric grids so they can accommodate renewable energy and enable mass adoption of electric cars
-    Helping major cities reduce congestion and pollution
-    To developing new micro-finance programs that help tiny businesses get started in markets such as Brazil, India, Africa.  

After 30 years, I’m genuinely excited to get up and apply those problem-solving skills in ways I would never have imagined, when I was sitting where you are.  

This is a trait that IBM shares with the students and faculty of McCormick.  And I think it’s more than a mere coincidence – that IBM and McCormick – are celebrating their 100 year anniversaries within a year of each other – both founded at an inflection point in the development of modern technology.  The 1900’s were a great time of invention and both great organizations were born out of that boom.   

Now let me come full circle back to you.

I’m told by the Dean that this centenary class is an exceptional graduating class.  Not only in terms of core academics, but you stand out in other ways:
-    You have an entrepreneurial spirit, while at the same time being socially conscious.  
-    You are team-oriented.  
-    And, you are not only focused on problem-solving, but perhaps even more important than that, you are focused on identifying the right problems.  

So I am reminded of a question -- John D. Rockefeller was once asked, “How much money is enough?”  To which he replied, “Just a little bit more.”  

I think that’s an attitude that characterized ambition for many people in the first few years of this young millennium. But today, I do believe, many of you have much higher ambitions.  And society will increasingly value those new ambitions. And remember, even Rockefeller changed his tune in the end.  He spent the last 40 years of his life devoted to philanthropy. So, you are very fortunate to be graduating from this great school at a time when business and society will value your skills and characteristics in completely new ways.

I hope that you will:
-    Take the time to appreciate and understand your unique value in this new world.  
-    Think and apply your problem-solving skills to the challenges and opportunities that you are passionate about.  
-    And, be determined in pursuing those interests.
If you do, I can guarantee you that when you do come back here 30 years from now, you will do so --- in the context of a life well lived -- and of promises fulfilled.

My eight minutes are up --- time to wake up. I join everyone at Northwestern University -- your family and your friends -- in congratulating you and wishing you the greatest possible luck in applying your enormous talents to help make the world a better place.  

Thank you.