Commencement Speech to Suffolk Grads

May 23, 2011

BOSTON – Greater Media, Inc., Chairman and CEO Peter H. Smyth, speaking at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School graduate student Commencement advised graduates to “take risks” and to “develop a business plan for life” as they follow their career and personal ambitions. Below is the speech he gave at the ceremonies on Saturday, May 21, 2011:

Dean O’Neill, distinguished faculty, honored guests, alumni, families and friends.

It is an honor to be here today as we celebrate the Suffolk University Sawyer Business School class of 2011 … the next generation of innovative business leaders.

I sincerely thank you for inviting me to share this day with you.

As we celebrate your accomplishments, I would like to offer a well-deserved round of applause for your family, friends, mentors and all those who have been behind you for the important role they have played in supporting your academic endeavors. Please join in applauding their support…..(clap)

A commencement address presents a special challenge for me.  The charge to be different, memorable… and yet concise in eight minutes or less….that’s tough for a guy who talks for a living…..

Preparing for this speech has given me a rare opportunity to reflect on my own values and the path I’ve taken. I hope today to share with you some of my experiences. No one really remembers the words of his or her commencement speaker, but it is my hope that today I can encourage you to think about your next move, or rather, that I can challenge you to follow your passions…to be the best that you can be.

Let me tell you a little about myself.

Since I was a young boy, I have always had a fascination with radio. At night I would sneak a transistor radio under my pillow. The personalities and sounds that came through that box took me from my home in Tarrytown, NY to places that I had never seen…to Nashville, Tennessee … to the music of the Grand Old Opry, to Chicago… to the crack of the bat at Wrigley Field. What a powerful and transformative experience that was.

It was a wonderful journey that would eventually lead me down a career path that I have never regretted.

I graduated from college in the mid-seventies. The economy was not unlike what it is today…it was very hard to find a job.  I wasn’t able to get a job in Broadcasting as I had hoped, and instead I took a job at The Nestle Company that I believed would give me the financial and marketing skills I would need later on in my career. I was doing well at Nestle and my career path in a multinational company was very promising, but my passion was in radio.

After two years at Nestle, I decided it was time to follow my passion – and it wasn’t chocolate.

I remember sitting down w/ my father, a Wall Street banker, and telling him I was leaving Nestle because I had taken a job as a commissioned radio salesperson in Boston, Massachusetts. You can imagine his reaction. Broadcasting definitely was not on his radar screen.

Then I talked to my managers at Nestle. “You’ve got to be crazy” was pretty much all that anyone could say to me.

When I got to Boston, my wife and I lived in a basement apartment, paying $175 a month in rent… that included utilities. Times were tough, my first commission check was $57. 47… and that was for a month! While that was barely enough to eat, I can honestly say that I never questioned my decision. This period was the beginning of the most exciting chapter of my life.

It would be nice to say that things quickly fell into place, but life doesn’t happen that way.  Success will only come through hard work, determination and ambition.  Eventually they did fall into place, although I am always looking for the next phase, the next challenge and the next opportunity.

Now, just like when I arrived in Boston, you are entering an exciting chapter in your lives.  Your challenge is to find your place where you can make the greatest impact…in your community,, your nation … and your world.

The winds of change are robust…the Arab spring… economic rebalancing in the United States…advances in technology…and revolutionary changes in the delivery of our healthcare system.  The new initials after your name that you receive today do not entitle you to success, but rather give you a very important choice…the choice to take risks and go out and make things happen or to play it safe and be a spectator in the gallery of change.

Follow your ambitions, take the risks – but know that one thing is certain…you will  make mistakes, you will stumble and you will fail.  But, you will get back up and you will find your way again.

Look at Steve Jobs… President and CEO of Apple. In l983, Jobs was fired from Apple – the company he co-founded – because of a clash between him and his boss. Ten years later, in a desperate move to save the failing company, Jobs was brought back to run Apple. After the success of the iphone…ipod…and ipad, Apple not only changed the way in which people communicate, but it is now the largest technology firm on the planet.  Jobs met adversity, but his entrepreneurialism and creativity ultimately led him back to the top.

Dr. Paul Farmer looked across the world and decided that quality healthcare could indeed be delivered to the poorest and most desperate countries. It was a monumental challenge, but he could see through the barriers…and today the organization he founded, Partners in Health, is effectively combating AIDS, TB, and other diseases in Haiti, Rwanda, Peru and elsewhere around the globe.

Do not squander this opportunity.  Do not be afraid. Instead of asking why…ask why not? Never let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve what it is that you are most passionate about.

So, you have just completed business school. It’s time to develop a business plan for your life. A strategic plan.

I recommend that each of you find your own board of directors…the mentors…the role models… the heroes in your life who can provide the guidance you need as you execute your plan.  Taking risks, challenging the status quo, and making change require a strong support system and a group of people who aren’t afraid to tell you when they disagree with you.  You don’t have to take their advice all the time, and in fact you shouldn’t.

But surrounding yourself with smart people who will challenge you every day is one of the surest paths to growth and success.

Make sure that your plan has balance, because there’s more to life than just a career. There’s family, and friendships, health and community.  As my dear friend and one of my personal board member, Norman Knight, always tells me, “Peter, I came into this world with nothing, and I plan to leave it with nothing.”  In the end, your life will be measured by what you did and what you gave, not how much you have.

Bono of U2 once said “In general people put too much faith in the rich, the famous, the politicians and not enough faith in themselves.” I hope that you leave here today with a strong faith in yourself and the belief that there is nothing that you cannot accomplish.

On behalf of my family and the Greater Media family, congratulations Sawyer Business School Class of 2011.

As we say in radio, thanks for listening.