Home » Robert F. Smith’s Commencement Speech at Morehouse (Full Transcript)

Robert F. Smith’s Commencement Speech at Morehouse (Full Transcript)

If you are African American, you’re more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be issued a ticket when you’re stopped, more likely to be threatened with force than when you were white. That’s our reality. This is the world you’re inheriting.

Now I’m telling you things as I don’t want you to think that I’m bitter, nor do I want you to be bitter. I call upon you to make things better. Because the great lesson of my life is that despite the challenges we face, America is truly an extraordinary country and our world is getting smaller by the day and you are equipped with every tool to make it your own.

Today for the first time in human history, success requires no prerequisite of wealth or capital, no ownership of land or natural resources or people. Today success can be created solely through the power of one’s mind, ideas encouraged. Intellectual capital can be cultivated, monetized and instantaneously distributed across the globe.

Intellectual capital has become the new currency of business and finance, and the promise of brain power to move people from poverty to prosperity in one generation has never been more possible. Technology, the world that I live in, is creating a whole new set of on-ramps to the 21st century economy and together we will help assure that the African-American community will acquire the tech skills and be the beneficiaries in a sector that is being automated.

Black men understand that securing the bag just is the beginning, that success is only real if our community is protected, our potential is realized, and if our most valuable assets, our people, find strength in owning the businesses that provide economic stability in our community.

This is your moment, graduates. Between doubt and destiny is action. Between our community and the American dream is leadership. That’s your leadership, that’s your destiny.

This doesn’t mean ignoring injustice; it means using your strength to write order. And when you are confronted with racism, listen to the words of Guy Johnson, the son of Maya Angelou who once wrote: “Racism was like gravity. You got to just keep pushing again against it without spending too much time thinking about it.”

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Let me get specific and give you a few rules to live by because I understand that once you cross a stage, we may not be able to tell you much.


Rule number one: You need to know that nothing replaces actually doing the work.

Whenever young person tells me they aspire to be an entrepreneur, the first question I ask him is why. For many they think it’s a great way to get rich quick. I’m going to write an app, I’m going to build a company, make a few million dollars before I’m 25. Look that can happen but frankly that’s awfully rare.

The usual scenario is that successful entrepreneurs spend endless hours, days, years, toiling away for little time, little pay and zero glamor. And in all honesty, that’s where the joy of success actually resides.

Before I ever got into private equity, I was a chemical engineer. And I spent pretty much every waking hour in windowless labs during the work that helped me become an expert in my field. It was only after I put in the time to develop this expertise and the discipline of the scientific process that I was able to apply my knowledge beyond the lab.

Greatness is born out of the grind, so embrace the grind. A thoughtful and intentional approach to the grind will help you become an expert in your craft.

When I meet a black man or woman who’s at the top of their field, I see the highest form of execution. That’s no accident. There’s a good chance it took that black leader a whole lot more grinding to get them where they are today. I look at the current and former black CEOs who inspired my life. I have to tell you they blow me away every time I meet with them. People like Bernard Tyson, Ken Frazier, Ken Chenault, Dick Parsons, Ursula Burns and the late Barry Rand.

They may not have attended Morehouse but they had the Morehouse spirit. They knew that being the best meant grinding every single day. It means putting in the 10,000 hours necessary to become a master of your craft and I’ll tell you one of the great leaders of our time Muhammad Ali once said:

“I hated every minute of training but I thought to myself suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

So grind it out and live your life as a champion.

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My next rule is to take thoughtful risks. My granddad took a particular interest in my career. He couldn’t have been prouder when I had a stable job at Kraft General Foods as an engineer, because for him they had that kind of job security of my age was a dream come true.

When I was — when I told him I was thinking about leaving to go to grad school, he frankly was worried. Then you can imagine how worried he became so many years later when I told him I was leaving Goldman Sachs. I said “I’m going to start my own private equity firm, granddad, to focus on enterprise software.”

He thought I’d gone crazy. But I respected my granddad and his wisdom and his thoughtfulness and frankly his protectiveness over me. But I’d done my homework, I calculated the risks and I importantly knew that I was going to invest in one of the most important things and gather the fundamental design point of the American dream and that was to be a business owner.

So I decided with confidence I was going to make a one big bet on the asset that I knew best: myself. There are always reasons to be risk averse. As you know graduating from Morehouse can make you risk-averse. The path that you’re on, if you just take a conservative path, your outcomes and choices would probably be pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that you should gamble with your career or couriering from job to job frankly because it looks — the grass always looks a little greener; it does mean that you should evaluate your options.

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