Women from the class of 2014 will, once again, earn far more degrees than their male counterparts. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the list of this year’s commencement speakers. Although women have been out-earning men in undergraduate degrees for three decades, commencement speakers are still far more likely to be male.
Still, while women remain underrepresented at the podium, those who have stood on stage this spring provide powerful examples of what’s possible for women today. From Sandra Bullock to Nancy Pelosi to Tory Burch, they’ve achieved notable success in a range of industries. And the advice they share applies not just to newly minted high school and college graduates, but anyone chasing a tremendous and abundant future. Here’s a sampling of some of the best speeches this spring.
Shonda Rhimes: Set an example for your daughters.
Before creating and penning the record-breaking ABC series “Scandal,” Rhimes had another popular show on her writing resume: “Grey’s Anatomy.” Serving as creator, executive producer and head writer, Rhimes also successfully created and produced the “Grey’s Anatomy” spin-off “Private Practice.”
A Golden Globe winner and three-time Emmy nominee, Rhimes told the graduating class of Dartmouth College (her own alma mater) that it’s impossible to “have it all,” but her demanding day job allows her to be a “fulfilled” and “happy” woman for her children. “I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them...I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing,” she said. “In their world, mothers run companies…And I am a better mother for it.”
Photo credit: Shonda Rhimes
Madeleine Albright: Leave room for pride in others.
As the first woman to become secretary of state, in 1996, Albright defined her career by fighting for human rights and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. When she left her post in 2001, she went on to write three books: “Madam Secretary: A Memoir,” “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs” and” Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box.”
Albright told the 2014 class of Dickinson College that innovation — not technology — is key in battling the complex problems that we now face. “Unfettered access to information has been wonderful for people around the world. We are connected as never before, but technology has also revealed the gulf between information and wisdom,” she said. “I am challenging you...to help find innovative solutions to the challenges of our time…Take pride in who you are, but leave room for the pride of others; and [I hope] that by your actions, you will each add luster to Dickinson’s name — and to your own."
Photo Credit: creative commons/Commonwealth Club
Deborah Bial: Be brave.
Bial is president and founder of the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit college access and youth leadership development program that partners with 51 colleges and universities in 21 states and the District of Columbia.
Bial told the 2014 class of Mount Holyoke that sometimes even “seemingly small things” need courage. “You don’t have to be a revolutionary but you should be brave,” she said. “Dare to be the unexpected champion of what is right, no matter how unpopular, difficult or bizarre-seeming the position. Be brave. Have the courage to stand up for what you care about, for what you believe in. And remember, small things are sometimes bigger than you realize, sometimes huge.”
Photo Credit: Deborah Bial
Jill Abramson: ‘Show what you’re made of’
As the first female executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson increased bylines for women and people of color and the newspaper won eight Pulitzer Prizes under her watch. Though she was unceremoniously ousted earlier this year (a decision that drew wide criticism), Abramson wove her firing into her speech at Wake Forest University as a teachable moment.
“Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere, journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable, is what makes our democracy so resilient. And this is the work I will remain very much a part of,” said Abramson, who plans to keep the Times “T” tattoo on her back. “We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize,” she added, encouraging her audience to be “resilient and perseverant.”
“‘Show what you are made of,’ [my father] would say.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/Anna Hanks
Cecile Richards: Don’t wait for opportunities. Take them.
Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, has become the face of women’s right to choose with a Twitter following of over 30,000. Prior to joining Planned Parenthood in 2006, Richards served as deputy chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
When addressing the graduating class of Barnard College, Richards acknowledged the work of sexual assault activists Annie Clark and Andrea Pino.“These women didn’t wait to be asked. They just jumped headfirst,” she said. “I’m here to tell you: Just do it. Whatever ‘it’ is. Say yes... As the late great Nora Ephron advised, 'Be the heroine of your life, never the victim.'"
Photo Credit: creative commons/CarlB104
Katie Couric: Work hard and put in the time.
The first solo female anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” Couric’s highly decorated career includes interviews with Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and First Lady Barbara Bush.
She recently shared with Trinity College graduates that at the beginning of her career, her critics were quick to dismiss her talent based on the way she looked and her “delivery” of the news. Couric alluded to sexism when she said, “Some claimed I lacked gravitas, which I’ve decided is Latin for ‘testicles.’ It wasn't easy.” She credited her determination and her dedication to her work for her endurance and eventual success, saying “The best antidote to the naysayers you'll surely encounter along the way is to stay strong, work hard and put in the time."
Photo Credit: creative commons/David Shankbone
Zadie Smith: Recognize your place within the many.
Acclaimed author of “White Teeth,” “The Autograph Man,” “On Beauty” and “NW,” Smith is a tenured professor at New York University teaching creative writing. In 2006, she won the highly coveted Orange Prize for Fiction.
This year, Smith encouraged graduates of The New School in New York City to think outside their own personal ambitions and betterment. “I speak in favor of recognizing our place within the many, not only as a slogan — much less as a personal sacrifice — but rather as a potential source of joy in your life,” she said. “It feels good to give your unique and prestigious selves a slip every now and then and confess your membership in this unwieldy collective called the human race.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/David Shankbone
Rep. Nancy Pelosi: Disrupt the status quo.
Pelosi was the first woman to serve as the Speaker of the House in 2007, making her the highest ranking female politician in history. As the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Pelosi was also the first woman (and first Californian) to lead a party in Congress.
In her commencement speech to the University of California, Berkeley, Pelosi underscored the power of social media tools as a means by which to speak out and make change, observing “with the ability to exchange ideas in real time — instantaneously — just think of what you can accomplish — what progress, what change — how you can shape the future.” She added that while tradition echoes in the United States, our founders were seen as “disruptors” of their time. She pointed out, “Being called a disruptor is a high compliment.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/ramseycountymn
Michelle Obama: Pay it forward.
As the 44th First Lady and a lawyer, Obama has battled child obesity with her Let’s Move campaign and also founded the Joining Forces initiative with Dr. Jill Biden, supporting American soldiers and military families. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, Obama was hired as an associate at the law firm Sidley Austin in the arena of marketing and intellectual property. At the time, Obama was reportedly the only African-American woman at the firm.
When speaking to the graduating class at Dillard University in New Orleans, the First Lady recounted the struggles that were made for African Americans to obtain an education in the United States. “We're the lucky ones, and we can never forget that we didn't get where we are today all on our own,” she said. “We got here today because of so many people… the only way to pay back that debt is by making those same kinds of sacrifices and investments for the next generation.”
Photo Credit: Chuck Kennedy
Anne-Marie Slaughter: Seek out an equal partnership.
Now the the President and CEO of the non-profit public policy institute New America Foundation, Slaughter is more popularly known for her complex, and polarizing, 2012 Atlantic Monthly article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” From 2009 to 2011, she served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. She famously took time off from that role to dedicate more time to her family.
When she addressed Tufts University in mid-May, she encouraged the young women in the audience to seek out careers they love and spouses who will be true partners. “Do not choose a career or a specialty within a career on the grounds that it has the flexibility to allow you to do both [parenting and working],” she said. “Choose a career on the basis of what you are passionate about doing, and then choose a husband or wife or life partner on the assumption that you will be genuinely equal partners, that you will both be breadwinners, but both also caregivers, perhaps for children, for those family members who took care of you, or for each other.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/Chatham House
Susan Wojcicki: How you fail determines your success.
Before joining YouTube as CEO, Wojcicki was senior vice president of advertising and commerce at Google — a company she joined back in 1999 back when they reportedly had zero revenue. Wojcicki left her job at Intel to join the then staff at Google: Stanford students who were renting out her family’s garage. But echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s sentiments that Google was a “spaceship” about to take off, Wojcicki joined after realizing the power of their concept. After determining the company’s monetization platforms, Wojcicki helped Google grow to over a $40 billion dollar business with 40 percent of the total American digital ad revenue.
Wojcicki told the 2014 class of Johns Hopkins University that opportunities are often defined by their difficulty, elaborating, “Rarely are opportunities presented to you in the perfect way, in a nice little box with a yellow bow on top.” "It's those opportunities that make you believe in the future … Those will be the best ones,” she added. “Those are the ones that can change your life, and those are the ones that can change the world."
Wojcicki also urged her audience not to be afraid to fail. "When you do, face your failure. Face it head on. Admit it. Grow from it,” she said. “When the world spins so fast it means no one knows what the right answer is and everyone will face failure. Ideas that were once can't-miss, missed. Companies that were sure-fire, went down in flames. It's what you do when that happens that determines who ultimately succeeds and who does not."
Photo Credit: creative commons/Google Inc.
Billie Jean King: Never stop learning.
King is acknowledged as one of the best (if not the best) tennis player in the world. Winning 20 Wimbledon titles, King is an American former World No. 1 professional tennis player. An advocate of pay equity, King worked to equalize athlete prize money between men and women. In addition to being the first female athlete to win over $100,000, she won the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, who believed female athletes to be inferior. She also became the first prominent female athlete to come out as a lesbian, in 1981, losing all her endorsements as a result.
When speaking to Simmons College, King noted that the successful people she has encountered have three qualities in common. “They keep learning. They keep learning how to learn. And also [how] to be problem solvers. Those are three main things that I've found that people who have inner success as well as outer success do… It’s why they do well in life.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/David Shankbone
Tory Burch: If it doesn’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough.
As an entrepreneur and fashion designer, Burch launched her now iconic fashion line "TRB by Tory Burch" in 2004. Since then, her brand has grown to over 120 brick and mortar locations across the world, with flagship stores in Los Angeles, London, Rome, Tokyo, New York, and Seoul. Her clothes are sold in over 1,000 department stores internationally.
To the 2014 class of Babson College, Burch echoed the advice of her parents “to think of negativity as noise.” She added that belief in your own ideas and concepts is crucial and that overnight success is more or less a farce.
But she spent much of her speech talking about what entrepreneurship means. “Remember: if the most unique ideas were obvious to everyone, there wouldn’t be entrepreneurs,” she said. “Being an entrepreneur isn’t just a job title, and it isn’t just about starting a company. It’s a state of mind. It’s about seeing connections others can’t, seizing opportunities others won’t, and forging new directions that others haven’t.
It’s about being entrepreneurial wherever you are and in whatever you do. It’s about having the courage to give in to passion for an idea that makes your heart race.”
“If it doesn’t scare you,” she added, “you’re probably not dreaming big enough.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/Rubenstein
Sandra Bullock: Find your joy.
Born in the Virginia suburbs, Bullock studied acting at the East Carolina University in North Carolina before moving to New York to pursue an acting career. After appearing in television and feature films, she achieved fame in the 1994 film “Speed.” She won an Oscar for Best Actress for the 2009 film “The Blind Side” and is listed as the highest paid actress in the world, according to the “Guinness Book Of World Records.”
No stranger to a rejection as an actress, Bullock told graduating seniors at Warren Easton Charter High School (in a surprise appearance) that “for some reason people want to see you fail, but that is not your problem, that is their problem.” She encouraged students to focus instead on finding what brings them joy. No matter the awards and accolades (or criticism) you get, she said, “It’s the joy that stays with you.”
Photo Credit: creative commons/Gage Skidmore