Good day, graduates, and congratulations on reaching this incredible milestone!
I haven’t given a commencement speech like this before, so I’m nervous. Real nervous. I haven’t been this nervous since I asked "Jenny Glasgow" to the prom. Oh, and she said yes by the way.
So... I’ll start by giving you the bad news first. I didn’t learn the majority of things I needed to know for life and business in college. Nope. Not even close. But don’t worry moms and dads, you didn’t waste all that cash. There are valuable lessons your college kids have learned in their esteemed institution. For me, one of those lessons came in an advertising class my senior year.
At the time, like some of you, I bet, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. But I had it narrowed down. It was a two-horse race. Either I was going to be a rapper and perform on MTV, or I was going to start a company called Aunt Franny’s Brownies.
As you might imagine, my mother wasn’t thrilled with my choices, but she still supported me. My mom is the best. Anyway…
Early on, the brownie company was in the lead. My college roommate’s aunt, Franny, sent us them every month and, let me tell you, these brownies were outrageous. Franny once told us she used a “secret” ingredient. Though I never saw the recipe, Aunt Franny might have been to one too many Grateful Dead concerts, if you know what I'm saying.
Anyway, I figured I could market the heck out of a product like that and turn it into a real company.
So, I decided to test my idea of Aunt Franny’s Brownies in an advertising class I took in my senior year.
The final project was to create an ad campaign for a fictitious brand. I figured if I got a B+ or better, I would go into the brownie business. The professor said five students would pitch their campaigns in front of the class, the rest would just have to hand in the assignment. And since there were more than a hundred kids in the class, I thought the chances of being picked were so slim I didn’t need to prepare for the oral presentation.
On the day of the final, I settled into my usual seat near the back row of the large lecture hall. The professor handed out the hat and instructed the students to write down their name on a piece of paper, pop it in, and then pass it. That’s when I got a brilliant idea. I wrote down “Ronnie DeCastro” instead of my own name. Ronnie was the class clown who sat in the same back row as me and he made everyone within a 10-foot radius of him miserable. He’d been doing it for four years. It was payback time.
Not just once... I wrote “Ronnie” on as many scraps of paper as I could until the hat reached my desk. I stuffed at least 20 of the Ronnie ballots in. Ha-ha. I was grinning in anticipation when the hat made its way back to the professor. It was going to be so much fun to watch Ronnie squirm up there. Finally, the professor reached his hand in, pulled out the first name, and unfolded the paper.
“Jesse Itzler,” he announces. “Can you please come up to the front?”
I looked down my row and saw Ronnie uncontrollably laughing. He must have done the same thing to me. As I descended the steep steps of the lecture hall, I tried to prepare my pitch. I had to come up with something—fast. And when I got to the front, the professor stepped aside and gave me the floor. I stood there for a moment, silent, looking out at my expecting classmates.
“Hugs and kisses in every bite,” I started. “Aunt Franny’s Brownies.”
From there I launched into my pitch. I was winging it the best I could, but being in front of an audience felt natural to me. I liked it.
And I felt like I was building momentum. “I can promise you it’s the best tasting brownie you’ll ever eat.”
I was thirty seconds into my pitch when...
“Stop,” the professor said. “Just stop.”
So, I stopped.
My professor asked a question that’d define my future.
“What’s your point of differentiation?”
“Differentiation? Um-they’re home-baked, moist, and-ah delicious.”
“A thousand brownies come out every year,” the professor said. “If you want to be the brownie then you have to be better – different. A new, better brownie.”
“Aunt Franny’s magic ingredient?” I said, weakly.
“You can sit down now,” the professor said.
I got a C on the assignment. But, as things turned out, my ad class teacher did me a favor—because I realized then that I wanted to be in the music business.
Still, I took the lesson learned with me.
So it was 1991, and I wanted to be a rapper. But as you might imagine, the path to my goal wasn’t easy—the best dreams never are. I worked as a kiddie pool attendant and other odd jobs. At night I would ride my bike to a studio 20 miles away in Queens. You see, studio time at 3 a.m. is so cheap that even a kiddie pool lifeguard can afford it. There were plenty of times I wanted to quit, but I didn’t lose sight of my goal. I knew I had some talent, and I knew I would stand out in a crowded field. I had a point of differentiation.
And now your own journey waits for every single one of you. So, as you move on to this next chapter, don’t be afraid to be nervous or to take chances—ask your own "Jenny Glasgow" to the prom. Whether you want to be a lawyer, doctor, accountant—or bake brownies—don’t be afraid to dream big. All you need to do is find what makes you different, set your sites on a goal that meets your talent, and then never, ever give up.
So, I told you the bad news, which is that the majority of things I learned to be successful were not in the classroom. But here is the good news. I’m going to share with you 7 gifts I wish I got when I graduated.
These gifts are not material objects that you can buy or sell. They are things that you can cultivate within yourself, and they will serve you well on your journey through life. Some of these gifts are things I learned through my own experiences, like creating your own opportunities, using fear as a way to guide you, and the value of taking care of your mind and body.
Others are lessons I've learned from incredible people I've had the privilege of working with and learning from over the years. But all of them have one thing in common: they're gifts that have helped me become the person I am today. And my hope is that by sharing them with you, I can help you become the best version of yourself, too.
So, as you move on to the next chapter of your lives, I challenge you to embrace these gifts. Take them with you wherever you go and use them to navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. And most importantly, don't be afraid to dream big.
Congratulations again on this incredible achievement, and I wish you all the best on your journey ahead!