Commencement Address

Valerie Jarrett delivering speech at Wellesley

Valerie B. Jarrett delivered Wellesley's Commencement Address on May 31, 2013.

Good morning, everyone! Thank you for that generous introduction, President Bottomly, or should I say KBot, as I understand you are affectionately called by your students? 

I’d like to recognize the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, and alums, all who have contributed to the extraordinary Wellesley experience.

To the parents, grandparents, family and friends, without whose support, and love, this day would not have been possible—congratulations to you all.

And of course, to the Wellesley Class of 2013, this is your day, and we are so deeply proud of you, not just for all you have accomplished while at Wellesley, but also for what we know you will do in the future as you evolve from women who will, to women who do. Congratulations!!!

So, today is a very big deal for me too.  This is my first commencement address to an all-women's college, and the first time that I have been chosen to speak by the students. So thank you! Knowing that you're going to be tweeting and instagramming in real time certainly adds to the pressure of the moment! So, to keep me at ease, I brought along two of my dearest peeps, who are also my cousins: Hillary Baltimore and Kelly Dibble, both Wellesley alums. They even brought their daughters, Hannah, age 11, and Isabel and Jessica, age 14. In fact, I overheard them telling their girls that after Commencement, they are heading to Tower Court, and then the library to check out the view of Lake Waban. Not very subtle, Moms.

My cousins have been sharing tales with me about Wellesley for more years than they would care for me to mention. And through their stories, I have grown to appreciate just how special your time here has been. This is a magical place that for four years has nurtured, challenged, motivated, and empowered you. You’ve mastered academic rigor of the highest degree, enriched with countless, deeply meaningful conversations that have changed your minds, and the minds of others.  You've developed an insatiable intellectual curiosity that will lead to a lifelong love of learning. You’ve trayed down the hill, rolled hoops, stepsung, laughed, cried, and grown, all with friends who I know you’ll treasure for life.

And today, you have earned a diploma that codifies not just how much you know, but also reflects who you have become.  

Now, when I think back on my own college days, compared with yours, there were a few differences. I wore bell-bottoms, you wear skinny jeans. I listened to Diana Ross… and still do. You dance to Beyoncé. When I was in college, we didn’t have cell phones or even call waiting, so it was easy to pretend you missed a call; a tumbler was something we used for cocktails; and the only Facebook page that I had was in my yearbook; and Congress had a few men who thought they should make decisions for women…. Well, I guess some things haven’t changed.

Today is of course your Commencement. A new beginning of the next phase of your life. And if you are feeling anything like I was in my early twenties, you are a bit uncertain about what lies ahead. The truth is, you are going to have your ups and downs. You are going to fail and you’re going to succeed. But I hope that you will discover, sooner rather than later, how to live your life on your terms. And to get you started, I’ll share some advice based on the experience that I’ve gained—since I was in your shoes a long, long, long time ago.

First, Flexibility

If you are willing to be flexible, you will find your true passion. So don’t restrict your options, and limit your potential, with arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines. During my senior year of college, I made what I thought was the perfect plan. First, I would head straight to law school, then I would find the love of my life, marry by the time I was 26, have my first baby by 30, ever mindful of my biological clock, and make partner at a great law firm by the age of 31.

Well, I went straight to law school. I married the figurative boy next door. After three years of practicing at an excellent law firm, I moved to another firm that I thought was even more prestigious. And my daughter was born just before my 29th birthday. Right on schedule, huh? Not so fast! By 30, I was separated from my husband, and the same year I clearly remember sitting in my lovely office with a magnificent view, staring at a very lucrative paycheck, and bursting into tears because I was just miserable. 

So, I had to make a decision. Keep following my plan, that perfect plan, or be honest with myself, and search for my true passion. A year earlier, at the recommendation of the senior woman partner in my firm and my first real mentor, I had participated in a young leaders program that exposed me to a diverse range of business, and civic and political leaders, all working to make Chicago better. That experience motivated me to finally consider public service. So, I took a leap of faith, and began my career in the public sector. I moved out of my cushy office, and into a tiny cubicle with a view facing an alley. But from my very first day, I knew that I was right where I belonged.

And as a bonus, four years later, I hired a brilliant young lawyer with whom I instantly bonded, because she too had become disenchanted with the law firm life, and wanted to serve her community. Her name was Michelle Robinson, and when we met, she was engaged to a skinny guy with a funny name—Barack Obama. And the rest, well, you know the rest.

Now, I am not promising that if you join local government that you'll make friends with a future president of the United States of America, but I do encourage you all to consider public service at some point in your careers, either through a full time government position, or through part time community service.

Goodness knows we would all be better off if there were more women in Congress! But the lesson really is that it is so healthy to explore, so that you may discover unanticipated detours that will actually hasten your achievement of your dreams. Do not blindly ignore opportunities to change course, and certainly do not let others impose their priorities on you. From the neurobiologist who becomes an author of children's books, to the editor of law review who decides to run for state senator, to the mother of three who decides to go back to school when her children are older because she always dreamed of being a doctor. To the mom or dad who decides to scale back responsibilities at work to spend more time with children. These are not decisions that should be judged by others. These decisions are all choices made by people living their own lives.  

But to do this will require you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and to be resilient.


So my second lesson is: be resilient.

I guarantee that everyone here who challenges the status quo will face criticism, disappointment and setbacks. Change is hard. Very hard. You will make mistakes, you will fail, and face rejection. In fact, if you never slip and fall, I would say that you're being too cautious. Don’t let fear debilitate you. For example, I used to be petrified of public speaking. I avoided it at all costs until I landed a big job opportunity where one of my principal responsibilities was… public speaking. Well, fear of failure motivated me to practice over and over and over again. Slowly I began to realize that just because I was nervous did not mean I had to show it. And over time, what once took courage, I now enjoy.  

And you don’t have to turn every one of life’s injustices into a “thing.” No matter how hard you may try, not everyone will like you, or even like what you have to say, or show you the respect that you have shown to one another while here at Wellesley. I remember this every single time I look at my Twitter feed—which is daily.

You will inevitably encounter people both professionally, and in your personal life, who try to shine at your expense, and undermine you whenever they can. They’ll deliberately try to hold you back, and break your spirit. Be patient, keep focused on doing your very best, shrug, laugh, and bounce back. Over the long haul, you’ll earn your colleagues’ respect, and your bosses will recognize your talents, and your true friends will reveal themselves, and if any of them don't respect you after you have given it a fair shot, go back to lesson number one: Be flexible, and move on. Prove ‘em wrong. The best possible revenge is success.

You will discover criticism is just a necessary price for success. My dear friend, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote a book intended to stimulate a broader conversation around the importance of women leaning in. Now, she has had to withstand an avalanche of criticism, some of it from people who I’m not sure have even read her book! But the conversation has begun... and the book is a best seller. That's success!

You will also inevitably also face adversity. I know you suffered the loss of a classmate this year, and perhaps other loved ones during your short lives. And the world watched the Boston Marathon bombing with horror. And as a mom, I wish I could spare you from the inevitable pain you will face. But what always amazes me is the resilience of the human spirit. And class of 2013, your spirits will always be stronger because of the relationships you formed right here. Right here.

And it’s that importance of relationships, which brings me to my third, and final lesson:

Pace Yourself

For those of you who are wondering if you can have it all. The answer is yes, but there's a catch. The arc of life is long, so don't expect to have it all at the same time. Just as you must affirmatively choose to follow your passion, and develop a tough skin, you may also have to adjust your lifestyle if you decide to switch careers and begin working your way to the top again. You may decide not to have children because you love the fast pace, and travel required of your profession.   You may see some of your classmates achieve success in their careers faster than you because you decided to stay home with your children for a few years. Don’t look at your decisions as sacrifices. They are choices that simply illustrate your priorities.

And you have choices because you stand on the shoulders of others who have given you the ability to choose. It is a rare privilege. So make sure to reach back and afford others the same opportunity.

We also must recognize that we are all human. Am I the first to tell you that? Not superhuman. And so, don't be your own worst enemy. When my generation finished college, many of my classmates, both men and women, thought that earlier generations of women had led demonstrations, forged court battles, blazed trails, and broken glass ceilings, all so that we women could compete equally with men in the work place, while also continuing the “traditional” role of being primarily responsible for taking care of children, parents, and men.  That was the wrong lesson!  I spent my 20s and early 30s taking great pride in trying to be super woman. Proving to both myself, and others, that I could do everything.  Most days I felt like I was barely holding on by my fingertips, in fear of dropping one of the thousands of balls I was juggling at once.  I rarely made time for casual meals, or movies, with my friends. I barely ever exercised (and it showed), or curled up on the couch to read a mystery story—all my favorite ways of  relaxing while I was in college. Multi-tasking became the norm—not even relaxing during rare vacations or taking a moment to just catch my breath. That mindset caused me stress, anxiety, and guilt, and I often felt I was not doing anything particularly well. Yet, I refused to ask for help.  

Fortunately, after the reality check of dropping a ball or two, I began to understand that having it all doesn't mean doing it all. Competing on an even playing field requires you to create your own field, with teammates that respect, and support what it takes for you to be healthy and whole. But you see, this is where you already have the upper hand, class of 2013. You understand the importance of women supporting other women, and this lesson is going to be even more valuable as you grow older: Whether at home, at work, or in your personal friendships—you are going to need to lean on others. Let me explain.

As soon as I finally learned to ask for help, my parents were right there. My dream job at the city often meant leaving early in the morning and working late at night. My dad took my daughter to school and picked her up every day, and my mom would read to my daughter in bed until I could rush home to tuck her in.  Without their support, I could never have thrived in such a demanding job.  

But having women at work in whom you can confide, completely trust, and who have your back, is just as important as having support at home.

You all know my current boss, and I will have more to say about him in just a moment. But here’s a story about an earlier boss, Mayor Daley. Still is.  He’s a somewhat intimidating figure to most.  Soon after he promoted me, he convened a meeting with a few members of his cabinet including Susan Sher, who was the corporation counsel, one of my dearest friends, and also a single mom at the time.  Throughout the meeting, we kept looking at our watches, and at each other.   Finally, he interrupted the conversation, gave us one of his piercing stares, and asked us if there was somewhere more important that we needed to be.  Well, I did not know what to say, I looked across the table at Susan, and I blurted out, “Susan and I both have second graders and their Halloween Parade starts in 20 minutes and it is 25 minutes away.” We then braced ourselves, not having any idea how the mayor might respond. But without a second’s hesitation, he replied, “Well then what are you doing here?  You better get moving.” Parents, you can imagine our relief.

You simply won’t have the heart for the long haul if you have to sneak around, or pretend that you do not have a meaningful life outside of the office. But without Susan there, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to speak up. And that would have been a huge mistake--that my daughter wouldn't let me forget to this day. My experience so long ago has always motivated me to make a conscious effort to create an environment at work where those on my team know that I value and respect their responsibilities at home, so that they are comfortable telling me what they need in order to be whole.  

Susan, my cousin Kelly, who's here and I mentioned earlier, and a strong network of other women with whom I’ve worked, have encouraged me, promoted me, consoled me, protected me, and been my strongest advocates when I barely had a voice to advocate for myself.  

And always remember, in the words of your famous alum, Madeleine Albright, "there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women."

It also helps to have support from the very top. It’s no secret how I feel about my current boss. He was raised by a single mom, married a strong and gifted woman, and tries mightily to ensure that his daughters will be able to reach for the sky with wind at their backs. He takes great pride that the very first bill he signed in his first term was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that strengthens a woman's ability to demand equal pay; and early in his second term, he signed the re- authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. A couple of months after first taking office, he created the White House Council on Women and Girls that I am so proud to chair, and he has prioritized appointing women to key positions, from his only two appointments to the Supreme Court, to his cabinet--including our outstanding former Secretary of State and one of your alum, Hillary Clinton. He supports policies that encourage girls to take courses that will lead to careers in the STEM fields. He promotes work place flexibility by leading by example. He has made ending human trafficking a top priority at home and abroad.

And of course, he is a relentless protector of a woman's ability to take care of, and control, her own body, including a provision under the new Affordable Care Act ensuring that you can now stay on your parents’ insurance until you are 26. Under the President’s health care plan, being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition, insurance companies can no longer charge you higher premiums because you are woman, and you have preventive health services, including, yes,  birth control at no additional cost.

So, just as you are now surrounded by the lifelong friends who you’ve made here at Wellesley, you must keep that effort up when you leave, for when life gets complicated, messy and painful, your rock of support will come from your family, friends, and co-workers in whom you’ve invested the most precious commodities: time and love.  

Solid and reliable relationships are indispensable, and they are not merely sustainable by merely checking Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.While I admit that I wish social media existed earlier so that I could have had an easier time keeping up with my classmates, there is no substitute for a meal, or a long phone call with your best friend. Whether it’s a weekly brunch with Kelly and some of my best girlfriends, or one-on-one dinners with my cousin Hillary, I always feel replenished and strengthened afterwards, and prepared for the daunting demands that follow.

Be flexible. Be resilient. And pace yourself.

Our country needs you; in fact, the world needs all you have to offer. Our challenges are great, but so too are the opportunities for the positive change that you will create, if you remember not to be ministered unto, but to minister.

I know that you’ve found your voices, Class of 2013, and now there are no limits to the good that you can do if only you have the courage to use them.

Thank you.