Commencement Address by Patty Q. Stonesifer, President and CEO, Martha’s Table; Founding CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
May 16, 2015
President McGuire, Trinity graduates, students, alumnae, family, friends, faculty, and supporters: Good afternoon!
I am so happy and honored to join you on such an important day. President McGuire is a personal hero of mine – so are the Trinity faculty who come to Martha’s Table two nights a week to teach in the associate’s degree program for our early childhood teachers. And that brings me to the biggest heroes – those 14 Martha’s Table teachers who spend all day working to take great care of and support great learning for 100+ of our youngest children – and then end that work day, becoming students again in their own classrooms, each week spending 12 hours to ensure their own education continues to advance. Yes, they are like you – over 200 of you who have worked long days, studied long nights, and have made it to this critical finish line – here today to celebrate the fruits of all that work – and I most want to thank you – the graduates – for inviting me to celebrate with you all this afternoon.
How many are you the first in your families to go to college? (Please stand and keep standing!) How many of you had to work to support yourself or your families while enrolled as students here at Trinity? Please stand up. How many of you were involved in supporting your community, supporting your church while pursuing your education at Trinity? (Please stand up.)
Take a look at the entire class standing –that’s what makes Trinity so special. Give a big hand for our graduates.
This campus is not just a place to rest and reflect – it is a place where students come to build a better future – and I recognize that so many of you had to sacrifice a great deal to make it to this point.
Getting here today – it took GRIT.
It took believing in yourself and your education and then going after it. On the hard days – on the cold days – on the days when other people and other events pulled you down – you kept moving forward. You each have shown that when you set your mind to something, you can accomplish it.
You’ve shown that you can be resilient and successful in the face of challenge. That’s GRIT.
Wikipedia defines GRIT as: a positive trait based on …the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within an individual’s path to accomplishment.
Overcoming obstacles that lie within your path to accomplishment!
I see GRIT in Alexandra Alvarez, who balanced working part-time with a demanding biology major, but made the Dean’s list every single semester during her time at Trinity, and is graduating magna cum laude, and on her way to meeting her goal of becoming an optometrist.
I see GRIT in Sheleeke Cox, who battled homelessness and illness, and is graduating today with a major in business administration.
And I don’t want to forget the guys – I see lots of grit in Walter Lozada, who raised his children as a single father and will receive his master of science in administration today.
Take a look around you – look to your left – look to your right! I could go on for hours. You’ve each shown that by getting this degree, you have GRIT . And that will serve you well in the years ahead.
It is a hugely valuable character trait . It really is. GRIT will take you very far. We need grit in our future leaders.
But I believe – it takes something beyond grit to really stretch you as far as you’re capable.
GRIT will keep you moving – through the toughest times, the longest days – but AUDACITY – AUDACITY gets you soaring. GRIT will keep you moving – AUDACITY gets you SOARING.
So what exactly is AUDACITY? Audacity is that “little bit of crazy” – that crazy idea of a bold future in the face of today’s reality. AUDACITY is the willingness to dream big and to take bold risks – with your own ambitions, with your plans for your family, with your plans for your community.
We need you to be AUDACIOUS – to aspire not only to nursing – but to being the best nurse – the head nurse – the nurse everyone looks to – the nursing director! We need you to be AUDACIOUS – to aspire not only to joining a great nonprofit – but to planning how you can lead that nonprofit – or another – in the years ahead.
We need you, as you take this degree and move forward, to have the AUDACITY to see yourself in future leadership roles; to dream the dream and make the moves to fill the gap between where you are now and where you’re dreaming you could be in 10 years.
And not just where you can be – but where your family can be, where your community can be. Even where your country can be.
I have a little plaque that sits on a shelf at home that a long ago boyfriend gave me:
“What Would You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?” Now that’s a crazy statement, right?
What Would You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?
But that kind of bold audacious thinking – combined with the GRIT you have already shown – is exactly what we need in our future family leaders, in our business leaders, in our nonprofit leaders, on our health sector leaders, in our POLITICAL leaders.
What Would You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?
What AUDACITY would you show in your community leadership if you knew you could not fail?
In his book “The Audacity of Hope” our then Senator Barack Hussein Obama described it this way: “ …. the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.” He had the AUDACITY to run for president in his first term as a senator – he SOARED.
We can look to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “I have the AUDACITY to believe that peoples everywhere should have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and freedom and dignity for their spirits.” So he led a nonviolent national civil rights movement that engaged tens of millions – he SOARED.
But it is not only the famous who showed audacity to change our communities – Carolyn McCarthy was a local nurse when her husband was murdered in the mid-nineties by a mentally ill gunman who shot up a railroad car in NY; her son was injured, too. Her response was to double down on AUDACITY – yes, she started campaigning and testifying at gun control hearings, but then she decided things were not changing fast enough and this housewife from Long Island ran for congress – won – and spent 18 years there trying to change as many stupid laws as she could. She became known as the “Gun Lady” – she had AUDACITY.
Each of you know someone in your community that has that “little bit of crazy”AUDACITY – she’s pushing for safer streets, he’s pushing for the local school to offer a better education, it’s what creates change in our communities. Ask yourself: What’s your audacious hope for your community – and then get going!
What can AUDACITY give you as a parent? I think of Ursula Burns’ mother. Ursula was raised in a tough NYC public housing projects; raised by a single mother who ran a daycare in her house and ironed other peoples clothes in order to support her three children and send them to Catholic school. At mom’s insistence, Ursula attended college – and started at Xerox as an intern in 1980, and then as executive assistant to the CEO. In 2009, 29 years later, Ursula becomes CEO of Xerox – the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. And she is doing a darn good job. Ursula gives the credit to her mom’s audacity: “I can still hear her telling me that where you are is not who you are. If you’re in a bad place, it’s only temporary and shouldn’t change the core value of what you can bring to the world.”
That kind of climb that Ursula made – took not just the GRIT her mom showed ensuring her kids were well fed and well-schooled – but required her mother’s AUDACITY to drum into her children the very idea of a bold future. You can share that audacity for your family.
What about AUDACITY in your career?
I’m sure you’ve been following the tragic events in Baltimore. And I hope you’ve noticed Marilyn Mosby; black woman, Baltimore City State’s Attorney. Youngest chief prosecutor of any major city in the country. Why would she think herself qualified to handle such a large job with such a huge responsibility? She drew her AUDACITY from what she saw and answered that call
What Would You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?
When Marilyn Mosby, raised by her grandfather, was just 14-years-old, her closest friend, her 17-year-old cousin was shot and killed in front of her house – he was at the wrong place at the wrong time; this was her first tragic introduction to the criminal justice system. What did she do with that terrible reality? She used such a traumatic event as inspiration/fuel for bold audacious career aspirations . Daughter and granddaughter of a policeman – witness to terrible violence – now Baltimore City Attorney.
She started with GRIT – she soared through AUDACITY.
In my own life, I’ve been fortunate enough to hold leadership roles, but I can tell you that I did not arrive in these with ease – far from it…it first took GRIT – and then AUDACITY.
I was the 6th of 9 children – my father was a salesman – I quit college and married young – and as a young mother without a college degree the Indiana town I lived in didn’t even have my preferred major. The only way to get that bachelor’s degree I knew I needed was to get a degree in general studies. So, my son toddled off to the university extension day care while I worked to accumulate the credits I needed to finish. And I stand here today – yes, the founding CEO Of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, yes, a senior vice president from Microsoft – but first I was the proud recipient of a bachelor’s in general studies from the Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne Indiana extension. AND today – I received an honorary degree from Trinity!
My career started with the GRIT of a young mother determined to get her degree – but I mixed in AUDACITY – the audacity to move two small children and a husband across the country to Seattle because I believed there might be a better life there – a better job there with this crazy start-up company called Microsoft. And it turned out I was right – and that AUDACITY began to pay off. And when I wondered – not just then but every time I made a bold move – “Was I good enough? Was I smart enough?” I just kept repeating:
What Would you Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail? And then I did that.
People always say to me – Oh, but you are fearless. Hah! Nothing is further from the truth. Ask my husband! I am fearful of so many things – but here is what I figure:
Why let the fear hold me back – what is the worst thing that could happen from trying and not succeeding?
I have failed a lot – but the good news is I have succeeded more than I have failed. And here I am today.
GRIT got me moving. AUDACITY set me SOARING.
You’ve each shown that by being here today, getting this important degree, you have GRIT and lots of it.
So use that same courage and resolve that got you to Trinity – and through Trinity; that got you here to this huge day.
Channel that same determination and embrace the idea of setting bold goals – for yourself, for your community, for your family – and go after those goals! Show AUDACITY!
You’ve made it to this important milestone. Embrace your success. But think BOLDLY of what lies ahead.
Your GRIT will keep you moving – your AUDACITY will get you soaring!
I congratulate you with all my heart on this important day – and I join with all your supporters here to say – I look forward to watching you SOAR in the years ahead. Thank you.