Undergraduate Commencement Speech: Arthur M. Blank ’63, H’98

Arthur M. Blank speaks at Commencement

Arthur M. Blank ’63, H’98 delivered the Commencement address at Babson College’s undergraduate Commencement ceremony May 11. Here is the prepared text of his remarks: 

Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed faculty, honored guests, cherished families—and most importantly, the remarkable graduates of Babson College, Class of 2024: It is with immense honor and privilege that I stand before you today as we celebrate the conclusion of your undergraduate journey here at Babson.

First and foremost, I want to commend each and every one of you for choosing Babson and successfully achieving this degree—a moment that I am certain will be one of countless achievements in your life.

I stand before you as part of Babson College, Class of 1963—a time that probably feels almost unimaginable to the students here. However, if you can picture it, I was once exactly where you are today.

WATCH: The undergraduate Commencement address by Arthur M. Blank ’63, H’98

This is an exciting time, embrace what today means; you have earned this moment. You may not realize it yet, but being here today means you’ve learned not only the principles of education and business, but also the courage to take risks and the resilience to overcome adversity.

Some of you will leave here today thinking you know exactly what you want for your future. Some of you will leave here today unsure of what is next—and that is very normal, and perhaps even preferable.  Regardless, you should all leave here confident knowing that the lessons you have learned during your time at Babson is the spirit that will drive you forward as you navigate the world beyond this campus.

You already have what it takes to achieve greatness; you being here today proves that. Greatness is defined as being the best of who YOU are. I can tell you that you have what it takes repeatedly, but YOU must believe it yourself. You must believe and know that you, as you are, are exceptional.

However, as you already know, life is not linear; it is completely unpredictable. The truth is, you can come up with what you believe is the perfect plan—but, as the saying goes, “Make a plan and God laughs.” Life will throw many things your way—and things you have absolutely no control over.

To be born is having to be exposed and live through many different experiences that shape who you choose to become. With each experience, you have choices to make based on your own set of values. What you can control is how you respond to WHO, and WHAT life puts in your path. You are living today, creating the story of your life, writing your journey and legacy.

Each of you hold an individual set of personal values and purpose that are yours, and yours alone. It is your values that will create the stable foundation that will carry you through the many hills and valleys as you enter the next chapter of your life.

I have six key values that drive me both personally and professionally. They are interpreted differently for various scenarios and businesses, but the values always stay the same:

  1. Put People First.
  2. Give Back to Others.
  3. Listen and Respond.
  4. Include Everyone.
  5. Innovate Continuously.
  6. Lead by Example.

Whether we intentionally live them out, or subconsciously carry them, our values influence every aspect of our lives—from the way we interact with others to the goals we set for ourselves. Your “values and purpose” are intertwined and can have a different meaning for all of us.

“You should all leave here confident knowing that the lessons you have learned during your time at Babson is the spirit that will drive you forward as you navigate the world beyond this campus.”
Arthur M. Blank ’63, H’98

I want to take this time to briefly share with you what values mean to me—and how I have used them as my guiding light throughout my first 81 years on this earth. How you define your values is your choice, but I challenge all of you to identify what they are and carry them with you anywhere and everywhere you go.

I lost my father at the age of 15, and as painful as that time was, I truly didn’t realize the profound impact it would have on the rest of my life. I was confused and hurt that he was gone.

While there were many directions my life could have taken after such tragedy, it was in my mother’s resilience that I quickly learned the type of young man I wanted to be. I watched my mother in Queens, New York, in the 1950s learn about business, and successfully operate the company that was unexpectedly left to her.

At the same time, she was caring for me and my brother and always encouraging us to chase our dreams. My mother took the cards that life dealt her, and without any hesitation, did everything in her power to keep her and her sons moving in the right direction.

During this difficult time, I also experienced the power of community and family, with neighbors, friends, and loved ones rallying around my brother, mother, and I, ensuring we had the support to heal.

My mother was extraordinary—but not for what she achieved, rather for who she was at her core. She always said, “You make the right decisions for the right reason, and live with the consequences.” She chose to push ahead when it wasn’t easy, and never sacrificed her beliefs or principles, no matter the obstacles around her. I watched and absorbed her strength and spirit and wanted to carry it forward.

I had no idea what the future held for me, but I knew I wasn’t going to let the present pain define what came next. I saw a mountain that felt impossible to climb, and I wanted to be resilient, find my purpose and values and get to the other side.

As I got older, I was able to reflect and realize that one of the most difficult experiences of my life is what taught me some of my most impactful lessons. I control how I respond to what life hands me. It is up to ME to create opportunities, to take control of what is in front me, and to make something out of it.

Fast forward to graduating high school, then coming to Babson. Do you think I graduated Babson knowing I was going to co-found The Home Depot? Live out my dreams of owning sports businesses and teams? And, in turn, being able to give back and serve communities, just as my mother did? Do you think I knew I was going to be here, 61 years later, delivering this Commencement speech, with the honor of having my name on a building on this campus?

Of course not. Even saying it now is truly unbelievable and truly humbling.

But, what I did leave Babson with were my dreams, my grit, and my values that were my foundation for anything that would come next.

I graduated thinking I’d have my perfect career soon after, and that would be it. But as life goes, I was knocked back, and knocked forward, and knocked back again several times. For example, I was fired from a dream job and my personal life took unexpected turns. And time and time again, the only thing I could continuously fall back on was what mattered to me, which always dictated how I wanted to respond. Every time I faced unexpected challenges, all I had control over was what I did next.

In this life, you can take control of your story or let unfortunate events define you. And I chose to believe, and still do today, that no mountain is ever too high to attempt to climb.

It is in the process, not the outcome, that we always learn the most. Hence my favorite expression: “There is no finish line.” I knew what I stood for, what I was capable of and who I wanted to be Like my mother showed me, if there is a problem, we find a solution and if there isn’t a solution—we create one.

“How you define your values is your choice, but I challenge all of you to identify what they are and carry them with you anywhere and everywhere you go.”
Arthur M. Blank ’63, H’98

Now, I am very aware that the world is different than it was 61 years ago. But, I’m here to tell you that no technology, or any change the world has seen all these years, can replace your values and your resilience.

You all are going to be running businesses, building nonprofits, influencing communities, building your own relationships and families—and shaping the world around you. You hold the keys to the future you live in—and the world needs your values-based leadership now more than ever.

This is not pressure; this is a privilege. You get to decide what the future looks like. As the saying goes, “You cannot win if you don’t play.” You don’t have to know everything today, and as you evolve your values and purpose will also evolve.

A simple quote that I love that holds powerful meaning is: “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every single life experience we have leaves an impression on us, whether we realize it or not. Who are you today, will not be who you are 20 years from now, and in a world filled with noise and distractions, it is all too easy to lose sight of who you are and what you stand for. Believe in what matters to you, and honor that at all costs.

If you look around this room, you are surrounded by people who want to see you win, including your fellow classmates. Your goals MAY be completely different than the person’s sitting next to you, but always, always remember that your pursuit is not a solo journey.

Robert Waldinger, a dear friend of mine and Harvard professor, recently published a book called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. This book is based on a nearly 100-year study to better understand people who were the happiest, who stayed healthiest as they grew old, and who lived the longest. The findings revealed that the people who were the happiest and healthiest are those who had the warmest connections with others, authentic bonds within their inner circle and a connection to serving humanity.

It is not “me versus you” or “us versus them” in the game of life. It is through collaboration and community that we achieve greatness. We choose and manage what’s important to us as individuals, but it’s with others that we expand to our greatest potential and the best of humanity shines when we work together.  

You see, it’s easy to relish in the extraordinary moments in life, but it is imperative that you also find peace and joy in the everyday, simple moments. Nourish yourself and your relationships, as there is no success without balance and inner peace. Your body is your vessel, and your mind is your sanctuary—and you must take care of both.

The beauty of finding balance and what makes your soul happy as you chase your dreams is much more important than the destination. Balance in work, health, family, relationships and fun is a delicate needle you must learn to thread as you evolve.

Always remember, success is not just about what you achieve, but who you become along the way. You don’t have to be the CEO or founder of a company to make an impact or create change; we all have influence in this life, and you never know who is watching.

“What I did leave Babson with were my dreams, my grit, and my values that were my foundation for anything that would come next.”
Arthur M. Blank ’63, H’98

The foundation of what my heart believes is right, how important community is to me, the desire to serve others and my passion for finding solutions to problems, is what allowed me to create successful businesses, operate sports teams, and run ranches in Montana. It motivated me to take on PGA Tour Superstore when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and turn it out to become the largest retailer in the country today; buy the Atlanta Falcons when the team couldn’t sell tickets; and to take a leap of faith and bring an MLS team to Atlanta.

These opportunities came after decades of hard work and setbacks. And, after the success of The Home Depot, I was motivated to climb even greater mountains. I embraced challenges. The execution may be different, but the values are the solid ground in which they all stand on.

You are responsible for finding what makes you whole, and once you do, honor that and protect it. It’s about asking yourself the tough questions:

  • What matters most to me?
  • What am I willing to stand up for?
  • What principles do I refuse to compromise on?

These questions may not have easy answers, but they are crucial in shaping the direction of your lives.

I urge you today to embark on the journey of identifying your values, who you want to be, what kind of businesses you want to operate, and what type of mark you want to make on this world.

I know many of you will be up here one day, 61 years from now, delivering a Commencement speech with your story that is unique to only you.

I stand before you today, carrying the spirit and legacy that my mother and father instilled in me. I created my story through hard work, personal values, and a community of support—all things that you already have with you here today.

Your story is already exceptional, now it’s time to create even more exciting chapters. So, go forth with courage, with conviction, and with your core values as your guiding star.

I want to leave with you a quote by the ancient philosopher, Hillel, that I have carried with me for decades and try to implement daily: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

I encourage you to be thoughtful on how you spend your time and find your why as you continue on your journey. And … most importantly—don’t forget to have a lot of fun along the way.

It is an absolute honor to be here with you all today, thank you for having me.

Congratulations to the Babson College Class of 2024, and God bless you all.

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