On June 18, Battery General Partner Chelsea Stoner delivered the commencement address at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering in Evanston, IL. Below is the full text of her remarks, and here is a video of her speech.
Thank you, and good morning, President Shapiro, Dean Ottino, Dean Burghard; distinguished faculty and administration; honored guests; parents and family. And most of all, members of the most impressive class ever to graduate McCormick!
It’s true! You ARE the best class ever. When Dean Ottino first asked me to speak today, I did what any good engineer would do: I asked for the data. I learned that you really are an exceptional class. You had the highest SAT scores of any McCormick graduating class – more than 200 points above my class 20 years ago. And your class had the most competitive rate of admission. So you’re officially the smartest class ever! It’s a huge honor and privilege to be here with you today. It’s so great to be back on campus. So much has changed in 20 years since I was here… in 1996. Yes, 2 years after you were born!
For one thing, our Facebook was an actual bound volume of freshman pictures published by the university. We highlighted and scrutinized before parties. You all just have to swipe right!
In 1996, Dean Ottino was just a regular professor. And Dean, I had planned to apologize for not remembering much of your fluid mechanics class…but then I learned you didn’t even remember I was in your class. So, we’re even. And back then Seth Meyers, was just a buddy who used to hook up with my best friend. He always was hilarious–he was great yesterday!
Yet so much hasn’t changed. I remember clearly what it felt like to sit where you are. Life after college is incredibly fun, exciting and full of adventure. But it’s also stressful and scary. Take comfort knowing you’ve built a solid foundation here. Your engineering mindset will prove incredibly valuable in finding jobs and building your careers.
Before landing in a field that I truly love in Silicon Valley, I tried out a lot of jobs – seven, to be specific. As it turned out, my first jobs taught me more about what I didn’t want to do than what I actually loved doing. And I’m sure many of you will have the same experience. So do some job experimenting! Think of it as a hackathon for your career.
First, for me, there was the summer internship I found by going through the big yellow page directory (your parents can tell you what it is) and cold calling every firm listed under “environmental engineering.” That job consisted of counting fish eggs. We had to collect them by moonlight from the polluted Chicago River. I counted those eggs one by one–with a tweezer–under a microscope. I think I reached 5,000 before I quit.
Next I went to work in a windowless, basement chemistry lab. It was as fun as it sounds.
Rounding out my engineering career, there was the job where my boss caught me sleeping–under my desk! And not because I was working late hours. It was morning, and I was simply bored. This has been a deep dark secret until now. I’m sure it’s a proud moment for my own parents who are sitting in the audience today… But it was a wake up call. It made me ask, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m an ambitious, young chemE from Northwestern!” I promised myself never to tolerate boredom again.
My advice: Treat your first jobs like scientific experiments – where you are the subject. Observe your environment carefully. Pay close attention to your feelings and reactions. Move on quickly when something is a bad fit. Do more of what you love doing – what you’re good at. Avoid what you don’t like. (Like collecting fish eggs!)
After experimenting in engineering, consulting and investment banking–and after working and living in Chicago, Rotterdam, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Boston–I finally found my calling in Silicon Valley. After years of toiling as an associate, I became partner at a global venture capital firm. Along the way, I managed to become a mom of two incredible kids (future wildcats, I hope) and the wife of an amazingly supportive guy for 15 years.
So how did a girl from small town Montana get here? Definitely with the help of family, friends… and luck. I also cultivated two traits along the way. They are my ability to: 1) banish FOMO, and 2) tap into my grit.
For those of you over 30, FOMO is the text-friendly version of: Fear Of Missing Out! Everyone in the world worries about missing out. It’s the basic human instinct that makes people line up to buy iPhones or check their Snapchat feeds constantly. But one of my biggest learnings is there’s an advantage to carving out your own path – even if it means running against the herd – and owning your differences. For me, that’s sometimes meant being the youngest person in the room; being the only woman; or having the hustle to travel further to achieve my goals.
In Silicon Valley, investors are often criticized for failing to embrace diverse viewpoints – for racing each other to back the same trendy companies as everyone else. This doesn’t always drive the best investment returns, but FOMO is a strong force. My advice? Be different, and be proud of it. True innovation and change doesn’t happen if we all follow the crowd. Being different is what creates greatness. It’s true in science, investing and life in general. If everyone followed the herd, we’d never leap forward. Have the confidence to stand out!
As one of the 7% of women partners in venture capital – a low number we need to change, but that’s a different speech – I’ve wrestled with what it means to be different. I was the only one in high heels, for one thing. At first I thought I needed to fit the mold. But I benefited from mentors who counseled me to own my differences and play to my strengths. I’ll never forget the triumph I felt when a CEO our firm was courting called me first. He had never met a woman VC – and was intrigued.
If I had let FOMO get the best of me, I definitely wouldn’t be here today. In addition to banishing FOMO, I also learned to do something I call tapping into my grit. While early in your career it’s important to be experimental, once you pick a direction, know it’s going to be hard and a lot of work. In your travels, I encourage you to cultivate your grit and own your grit. Never give up on yourself. Focus, work hard and be so good, they can’t ignore you. Consider my experience. As the first woman to become partner at my firm – I faced a lot of naysayers.
When my complicated pregnancy forced me to work from home while on bed-rest for 5 months – I faced even more naysayers.
If I had ever once accepted people’s predictions for me, I would have packed up and gone home long ago. Once I was told I had a one percent chance of being a partner at a VC firm. I was burning with rage on the inside, but I looked up and said, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” In a strange way, those words drove me forward. That’s grit. And now I’m beating the odds quite happily! This grit gets me excited to come to work every day. A few years ago, my team found a software business that looked like a bad investment at first. However, its value was hidden deep in the data – we analyzed thousands of invoices one by one to figure it out. While other investors walked away, we persevered —and that company was later bought for hundreds of millions of dollars. More importantly, it’s saving lives by making healthcare data more accurate.
When I think about grit, I remember my great-grandparents. They settled in Montana as homesteaders. Everything they built, they did themselves. Their spirit, grit and tenacity is central to the legacy they passed on to my parents, who passed them along to me. For me, this is a lesson about respecting the people who paved the way for you, and honoring their sacrifices with a few of your own.
Twenty years ago, sitting in your seats, I had no idea what was next for me. Many of you feel that way today. There’s no guaranteed formula for success or happiness. No one can tell you what direction to take. But I can promise you – if you banish FOMO, own your grit, and maybe even sprinkle in a few naps under your desk, you will grow into the rock stars you know you are. The rock stars your parents and family know you are.
Wherever you land, be proud to wear the purple. Congratulations. Good Luck! And, Go, Cats!