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Commencement | Commencement Remarks: Joan A. Payden ’53

Remarks by Joan A. Payden, President and CEO, Payden & Rygel

May 18, 2003

Joan A. Payden, '53

Joan A. Payden, ’53

Thank you very much, President McGuire, Graduates, Families, Distinguished Guests and Faculty.

It is very exciting for me to be here today and it is a great honor to come back to Trinity and receive this degree.

Many changes have taken place since I was sitting in your position but I am very glad to see that Main and Fourth North are still here.

The world today seems much more complex and foreboding than when I was a student at Trinity, but looking back, that period was not as innocent or as calm as we thought back then. Segregation was still very prevalent, the civil rights movement had just begun in earnest, the great fear at the time was Russia (the red menace), McCarthyism was prevalent and the US had just started space exploration.

Although the world was rapidly changing back then, we were most concerned on graduation day with the immediate needs – finding a job, finding a husband, going to graduate school – some of those same questions that you are facing today. You are probably getting more free advice at this time of your life than you ever have before. The two qualities I learned that have helped me through many, many challenges are passion and enthusiasm. Regardless of the environment or the world around us, I think these two qualities are essential for happiness and success, no matter what we do.

My advice list is a short and very practical one. The practical aspect reminds me of a story about GK Chesterton, the famous novelist and essayist, when he and several literary figures were once asked what book they would prefer to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island. “The complete works of Shakespeare” said one writer. “I would choose the Bible” said another. “How about you?” they asked Chesterton. Without hesitation, he replied “I would chose Thomas’s Guide To Practical Shipbuilding.”

So here is my short, practical advice list. Don’t have a five-year plan or even a five-month plan. You’d be amazed at how often I’m asked if I had a plan when I graduated what my goal would be five years hence. To be honest, I didn’t have one. My plan, after I graduated with a major in math and physics, was to obtain a job and buy a second hand car. I did get a position with a chemical engineering firm, and for the first year and a half I thought my career was spectacular. I was in a group where there were 600 male engineers and four women. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Then one day, two weeks before Christmas, my superior called me in. I was all primed on how I was going to respond when he offered me that first raise. Instead, he said that times were difficult and the company was laying off 300 employees. I immediately thought to myself that’s too bad, I feel sorry for the layoffs. And then, like lightening, it dawned on me that I was one of them. This began my entrance into the world of finance, which was far from planned. By the way, no severance and no safety net.

After job searching, I was hired by a large financial institution at, I’m sure, a 25% discount, because first, I was a woman, and second, I really did not know the difference between a stock and a bond. I was somewhat disappointed because I thought perhaps my knowledge of sizing pipes and blow off valves would be a good substitute, but it wasn’t. Winston Churchill certainly captured the concept when he said “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without the loss of enthusiasm.”

Our global society has undergone massive transformations over the last centuries. If we think of the major revolutions – the Agrarian revolution in the 1600s, the industrial revolution in the 1900s and the technological revolution which was just beginning when I graduated, it has made our planet smaller by making communication easier and more affordable. But I also think it has had some harmful effects, creating greater emotional distances between people. Communication through electronic media has taken over the personalized touch. To paraphrase the Bard From New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, we all need a little bit of that human touch. This brings me to my third piece of advice. That is, be sure the environment you select is one in which you will thrive. Don’t confuse environment with expertise. In business or education, environment is akin to climate. Whether you thrive in the tropics or the Antarctic, similarly you will thrive in an entrepreneurial atmosphere or a more structured atmosphere. Looking at it is a different way, in a people-dominated environment or one where it is a loner atmosphere.

Finding the climate that suits you is much more important than selecting the specific profession or lifestyle. In one of my first job interviews, I was given a battery of tests, and the job also turned out to be the highest paying one that I was offered. I had my first test on that question of environment. During the final interview I was told I would have 33 minutes for lunch and that at 10:00 am each morning there would be a three-minute breathing and exercise period. I knew I would not and could not thrive in this very structured environment. Selecting the right environment doesn’t always necessarily result in the highest compensation. Sometimes these elements are quite far apart. You have to be true to yourself and believe that success depends upon fulfillment and what is going to make you happy. I recently read a book about the discovery of the South Pole. In the early 1900s this ad was placed in a newspaper by E Schakleton, one of the pioneers who discovered the South Pole. “Men (and I should say men and women today) wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, long hours”. The ad attracted 5,000 courageous candidates. The moral is that people often positively respond when they are faced with great challenges.

In evaluating opportunities, lifestyles and careers, I have two suggestions. First, when you are assessing risk, be sure you are assessing both sides of the equation and second, be selective in what you worry about. One of the difficulties today is that people focus too much on the risks involved in doing something without evaluating the risk of doing nothing. I have always tried to assess risks and give them equal weight. In my career, I was with a large organization for a number of years before starting my own firm 20 years ago. At the time I was contemplating this change, I received a lot of advice – how could I leave a situation where I was well compensated and had some stature, to move to an unknown. I instead realized I was not taking on more risk, that there was greater risk in not making this decision. Usually the things you worry about don’t happen, and the things you don’t worry about come out of the blue. Starting my own business twenty years ago my daily worry grew exponentially. Would I be able to pay the rent, would I have clients, would we be accepted, would people think we were too small, would we have enough money, what if the stock and bond markets crashed. Then one day about six months after we opened our doors, the mail was delivered and I was always there when it was being delivered thinking that one of these envelopes would produce an inquiry as to our business that would result in a multi million dollar client. So there was this very imposing looking envelope – I ripped it open and out popped the words CEASE AND DESIST AND LAWSUIT. The letter was from the general counsel of Rolls Royce and it cited very definitively why our logo (the name of our firm is Payden & Rygel (P&R) was encroaching on the Rolls Royce logo. So there I was, standing in a small office with four people and seven potted plants, and I had Rolls Royce wanting to sue us for using their logo. The thought crossed my mind – maybe someone cares.

The year 2002 could aptly be described as the year of living dangerously. Do you remember that movie of the same name starring Mel Gibson? In particular, the economic climate, the prospect of a war, the geo political unrest worldwide and of course terrorism. In the financial world, the world that I live in, acts of corporate fraud and malfeasance have been unprecedented and very unfortunate. The excesses that have existed in our economy and society over the last few years have come home to roost. We need more humility and less hubris. But, as I said, don’t let environments such as these deter your enthusiasm and passion. Andrew Carnegie said “enthusiasm is the engine of life.” It is remarkable how potent this element is. You will be successful if you love what do you. I have been fortunate in that regard.

Lastly, as I mentioned, the technological revolution that we are all experiencing and perhaps are still at the beginning stages of is, to some degree, eliminating the human element which I think is a mistake. There is no substitute for the personal approach, no matter what path you choose. Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, the president of a major corporation, a mother or the most junior member of a firm, people will be motivated and respond by the same emotions. It is hard to resist someone who is trying to help solve a problem. Finally, be true to yourself no matter what you do. Never compromise your principles. Sometimes this will lead to difficult decisions but in the long run I’ve always felt adherence to principles is essential. Ethical and moralistic judgments are much more difficult today because we are in a very litigious society. Keep your perspective. Fortunes are made quickly today, but reputations are still the most precious commodity. Also, cherish and foster the friendships you have made here at Trinity. In looking back, these friendships will endure and they have been one of the most important factors in my life. You are graduating today from a very special place. You have the tools, the analytical thinking and the strategic planning, to master all the challenges you’ll be faced with. It is equally essential to retain your enthusiasm, passion and integrity.

Marcus Aurelius, one of the good Roman Emperors, wrote “Live your life as though you had a thousand years, but live each day as though it is your last”.

Congratulations to the class of 2003!


For more information about Graduation, students should contact Dean Meechie Bowie at 202-884-9611 or via e-mail at commencement@trinitydc.edu. For media inquiries, contact Ann Pauley, Media Relations, at 202-884-9725 or pauleya@trinitydc.edu.

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