Graduation sparks: the top gems from leading MBA commencement speakers

graduation speakers

Graduation. It’s the exhilarating culmination of hard work, dedication, and personal growth. As MBA students walk across the stage this year, donning their caps and gowns, a wave of mixed emotions will wash over them. Pride in their achievements, nostalgia for the memories made, and an electrifying anticipation for the chapter that lies ahead. It is during this transformative period that esteemed commencement speakers take the stage, imparting gems of wisdom that serve as guiding lights for the graduating class. 

No one has time to attend every grad ceremony (as much as we’d all love to) so MBAchic is doing you a solid and sharing the most remarkable insights shared by top commencement speakers from recent MBA programs across the country. We hope the profound words from some of our favorite 2023 commencement speeches inspire and motivate not only this year’s graduates, but anyone who is hard at work pursuing their dreams with unwavering determination and a thirst for knowledge (and that Semester Five mindset).

Loyola Marymount University 

Graduation Date: May 7, 2023

Commencement Speaker: Ginni Rometty, former Chair / CEO of IBM

About Ginni: As the ninth Chairman, President, and CEO of IBM, Rometty transformed the 100-year-old company, reinventing 50 percent of its portfolio, building a $25 billion hybrid cloud business, and establishing IBM’s leadership in AI and quantum computing. She drove record results in diversity and inclusion and supported the explosive growth of an innovative high school program, P-TECH, to prepare the workforce of the future in more than 28 countries. 

Today, Rometty is a champion of SkillsFirst learning, hiring, and advancement—a movement to connect more people without college degrees with good jobs. In 2020, she co-founded OneTen, a coalition of companies and educators committed to upskilling, hiring, and promoting one million Black Americans without four-year degrees by 2030 into family-sustaining jobs and careers. She is also the author of the bestselling book “Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World” (Harvard Business Review Press).

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote: Ginny chose to use her speech to summarize what she described as “good power” which she urged graduates to think of as a way to use personal influence to create a valuable life and a lasting imprint on the world. 

“Even when you have little else, you always have the power to define who you are,” she told the graduates. “Never let anyone else define who you are. It has served me well, and I hope it serves you well. No matter how much you go out and succeed, I guarantee you there will always be situations or people who try to derail you from who you want to be.” 

Ginni Rometty, former Chair / CEO of IBM

Another gem of wisdom Rometty dropped that the MBAchic team loves? “Growth and comfort will never coexist.”

Emory University (Goizueta)

Graduation Date: May 8, 2023 (Graduation Celebration)

Commencement Speaker: Anthony Ray Hinton, Activist, writer and justice advocate

About Anthony: Activist, writer and justice advocate Anthony Hinton, author of The New York Times 2018 bestselling book “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row,” has a remarkable story of hope, forgiveness, and truth-seeking. 

On Dec. 17, 1986, Hinton entered Death Row in Alabama for crimes he did not commit. He spent the next 30 years in custody until the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) secured his freedom. Hinton is now a community educator for EJI where he helps to advocate for people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons. He also works with LifeLines, which supports prisoners on Death Row through letter writing.

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote:

“I challenge you to be great human beings,” Hinton said. “I challenge you to bring what is already inside of you. What is in you is understanding; what is in you is compassion; what is in you is forgiveness; what is in you is love. When I was on death row, I realized all of those things [were] inside of me.” 

Anthony Ray Hinton, Activist, writer and justice advocate

Hinton offered students several other nuggets of wisdom for their journeys. Here are a few:

  • “I have always believed, no matter where you’re at, no matter how much you have or don’t have, you always have just enough to share with someone else.”
  • “Success is not always about how much money you’re going to make. But, success, to me, is when you make it, you reach down and you pull someone up. And, hopefully, that person will pull someone up.”
  • “Every day when you get up, you get up with one thing, if nothing else. You get up with a choice. Every one of you will have a choice whether you want to serve or not serve, whether you want to be a good human being or a bad human being. That choice is yours.”

Wharton School (Penn) MBA Program for Executive Graduates

Graduation Date: May 13, 2023

Commencement Speaker: Lara Abrash, Chair of the Board, Deloitte US

About Lara: Lara Abrash is Chair of the Board of Deloitte US, where she is responsible for leading the board of directors, governing all aspects of the organization. Tune in to her in-depth interview on MBAchic’s 5QW podcast if you haven’t already! 

Abrash is involved with the New Jersey Battered Women’s Service, where she previously served as the treasurer. Her passions for inclusion and diversity are fueled through her involvement with Girls, Inc., whose mission is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold, and the Girls Who Code organization, whose mission is focused on closing the gender gap in technology. Additionally, she is on the Board of Trustees of the SEC Historical Society and a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council.

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote: Abrash began her speech by telling the graduating class that it has been 30 years since she received her own MBA. She said she can assure the class that soon enough they will be her age wondering how time flew.

“Today is special because it’s the day before Mother’s Day,” she told Wharton’s Class of 2023. “My mom has played a very, very important role in my life. My mom graduated from high school in the 1940s. At that time, her parents told her she had two choices. She could either go get a vocational degree to be a nurse or a secretary or she could go find a husband who would take care of her. My mom went on to get married (she’s not married to him anymore), and had four children. Three boys, and myself, and during her life, that inability to have her choice was in her head every single day. She was a part of a movement in the 1960s, we’re feeling a similar movement now, where women were seeking new heights. We talk a lot about examples and you want to tell people what to do, how to live their lives, but the best examples come from how you show them what to do. I saw my mom work multiple jobs every day. I saw my mom participate in political movements, women’s marches, stuffing envelopes for Geraldine Ferraro when she was up to be the first female Vice President. But the most impressive thing my mom did, when along the way she kept telling me, ‘you can be anything you want baby,’ was about the same time I graduated from college, my mom put herself back to school and got her college degree and we did it together.”  

Lara Abrash, Chair of the Board, Deloitte US

She went on to emphasize the value of leaning into the MBA academic network. “Mentorship, advocacy is going to be the most critical part of your world going forward,” she said. “Know the difference. Mentors are people who you can connect with, you can maybe cry to, you can share deepest thoughts. Advocates are individuals who are sitting in power seats who can help you unfold your dreams and find your opportunities.”

Babson College (Olin)

Graduation Date: May 13, 2023

Commencement Speaker: Dr. Reshma Kewalramani, CEO and President at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

About Reshma: Reshma Kewalramani, M.D., FASN, is the Chief Executive Officer and President at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Fortune 500, global biotechnology company. She trained in internal medicine and nephrology before entering the biopharmaceutical industry, where she has dedicated her career to discovering and developing new medicines.

During her tenure, Vertex has expanded its success in treating cystic fibrosis (CF), with CF medicines that hold the potential to treat patients as young as one-month old and as many as 90 percent of all patients diagnosed with CF. Building on that work, Vertex’s R&D pipeline now has treatments in eight disease areas in the clinic, across multiple modalities including small molecule, mRNA, cell and gene therapies. 

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote: While commencement speeches typically focus on the future, Kewalramani opted to go in the exact opposite direction and focus instead on the past.

“We are each made up of seemingly minor and unremarkable moments,” she said. “But the truth is, these are, in collective, exactly the experiences that define us, that’s my message to you today. The biggest moments in life aren’t always the best advertised ones, like graduation. The big moments are often the ones that seem forgettable until you consider them with the fullness of time.”

Dr. Reshma Kewalramani, CEO and President at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Wharton School (Penn)

Graduation Date: May 14, 2023

Commencement Speaker: Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA

About Thasunda: Thasunda Brown Duckett is president and chief executive officer of TIAA, a leading provider of secure retirements and outcome-focused investment solutions for millions of people and thousands of institutions.

Duckett serves on the boards of NIKE, Inc., Brex Inc., Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Sesame Workshop, National Medal of Honor Museum, Economic Club of New York, the University of Houston Board of Visitors, and the Dean’s Advisory Board for Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. She is also a member of the Executive Leadership Council, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and Jack and Jill of America Inc.

In addition, Duckett is an appointee to the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), The Business Council Executive Committee, the Business Roundtable and the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board.

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote:

“I knew everything I needed to know about being a CEO when I was young,” Duckett said. “From the earliest stages of childhood the people who raised and loved me, and you, were helping to shape the core components of our character, the essentials, the basics. What I know today as a leader, is that I rent my title. I own my character…you see my character shows in the way that I live my life, the way that I lead, the way that I treat others, what I expect of myself. It is also giving myself and yourself grace.”

Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA

Columbia Business School

Graduation Date: May 14, 2023

Commencement Speaker:  Alisa Amarosa Wood, Co-CEO of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

About Alisa: Alisa Amarosa Wood joined Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) in 2003 and is a Partner of the Firm. She is the Co-CEO of KKR’s democratized private equity business. She also leads the Global Private Markets and Real Assets Strategies Group, looking after key product areas including private equity, infrastructure, energy real assets, impact, growth equity, and customized products. 

Wood is a member of the Columbia College Board of Visitors and the Business School’s Private Equity Board, and is a vice-chair of the Convent of the Sacred Heart Board of Trustees, the Sloane Hospital for Women’s Advisory Board, the Private Equity Women’s Investor Network Steering Committee and the Nantucket Historical Association Board of Trustees.

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote: Wood acknowledged that the 2023 Columbia Business School graduation was actually her first because she missed her 2008 business school graduation ceremony. Beyond Columbia being an important part of who she is as a leader, she says if she was to do it again, there are a lot of things she wishes she knew. Here’s a summary of her list: 

  1. Be authentic and be unapologetic about who you are. “People see through fakes in life. Life is just too short to be anything other than who you truly are and what you stand for.” 
  2. Careers are very long and they always come full circle. “Don’t burn bridges, be a good colleague and business partner, be trustworthy, and be someone that other people are proud to do business with.” 
  3. Reputations take a lifetime to build, and minutes to destroy. “I believe that you need to live every moment like it will wind up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.” 
  4. The who matters more than the what. “You can have the best job in the world, or the best idea, and it’s the people that you do it with that based on life and trust, based on teamwork, based on all of those values, that’s what matters. The “who” in the equation will make or break any success or failure.”
  5. Life is too short not to do business with people you like and trust. “It always comes back to the people, that is what to remember.” 
  6. Dream big, don’t be afraid to fail. “Permission yourself to fail.”
  7. Don’t make the same mistake twice. “Some of the biggest mistakes over the years actually led to my greatest successes. At the time it feels heavy, it feels big, experiencing failure is never easy and it’s really hard to ride through it but if you have the power to do that, you will be given the skills, drive, and confidence that you need to succeed.”
  8. The best ideas don’t always win. “Timing and factors outside of your control really do matter and can create something we all know as luck.”
  9. Hope isn’t a strategy. “You need to make things happen in business and in life. I always want to balance the feeling of being free but being safe, being protected but reaching. But, it’s up to all of us to create our own destiny.”
  10. Be the change you want to see. “You have to be your own change agent for good. It’s not enough to complain about things, it’s up to you to actually fix them. Don’t be a problem identifier, be a problem solver.”

As a woman in a male-dominated field, Alisa said she realized quickly that it wasn’t enough to talk about how she wanted to create an inclusive and diverse environment. It was up to her to pull a seat up to the table and make sure she could act through that change.  

Yale School of Management

Graduation Date: May 22, 2023

Commencement Speaker: Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation

About Elizabeth: Alexander, a decorated poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate was a professor at Yale for 15 years from 2000 to 2015, eventually being named the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry. During her tenure, she was instrumental in rebuilding the Department of African American Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and served as its chair for four years.

Today, she is president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest grantmaker in support of the arts and humanities. In the five years since she assumed that role, she has focused on creating partnerships with organizations around the world, promoting institutional diversity and inclusion, and expanding the foundation’s support across its core program areas: arts and culture, higher learning, public knowledge, and humanities in place, which focuses on how and where the stories of histories and communities are told across public experiences.

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote:

“If we deserve the power, the imagination, the historical perspective, the sharpened thinking, the other worlds, the empathy, the knowledge of books, then so, too, do people everywhere,” Alexander told Yale’s Class of 2023. “And that’s something we can do book by book, idea by idea, soul by soul, and freedom dream by freedom dream.”

Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation

In closing, Alexander offered students some advice as a Yale mom:

  • “Keep learning and reading, for the rest of your life.”
  • “Rest, eat well, and be physically ready for the challenges to come.”
  • “Speak truth to power.”
  • “Bring new voices into any room you inhabit.”
  • “Don’t wait for life to quiet down before taking needed action.”

Dartmouth (Tuck)

Graduation Date: June 10, 2023 (Investiture)

Investiture Speaker: Tracy Sun, Co-Founder and SVP of Seller Experience at Poshmark

About Tracy: Sun, who has spent more than 15 years at the intersection of fashion and technology as the Cofounder and SVP of Seller Experience at Poshmark has helped to grow a vibrant community of more than 100 million users. Poshmark was among the first e-commerce companies to go mobile-first. By design, it didn’t have a website for the first three years. The app (which most of the world is now very familiar with) connects buyers and sellers, handles payment, and even generates shipping labels combining ease-of-use with social shopping – a powerful combination. 

She took the company public in 2021 and earlier this year, Poshmark was acquired by South Korean search giant Naver for approximately $1.2 billion. 

MBAchic’s Favorite Quote: Sun began by describing Tuck as the best business school in the country, and shared an admission with the audience: while she made fantastic friends at business school none of them helped her get a job, and as an entrepreneur she tapped into her savings long before she added to it. But, she quipped, she was not there to be a buzzkill. Instead, she hoped she could inspire the graduates in the crowd who felt disconnected from the standard perfect post-MBA trajectory mold, as they author the next chapter of their stories. 

“I ask you to consider that your time here is less about the frameworks that you know, the fabulous title you either have already, or you will get, and that piece of paper that you will soon hold in your hand. Perhaps the most important part of your Tuck education is what you have learned during the moments when you are not achieving. The moments when you just don’t understand, don’t know what to do, don’t know how to get up or don’t know who you are supposed to be. We often gloss over those moments of not knowing because it’s pretty freaking uncomfortable. But for me, drawing from moments of not knowing has been the most important skill I’ve learned here at Tuck. I’ve learned how to use the unsung moments between my accomplishments to accelerate my growth as an entrepreneur and over the years, I’ve become quite an expert at not knowing.”

Tracy Sun, Co-Founder and SVP of Seller Experience at Poshmark

She went on to say she packaged up all of her learnings as an entrepreneur into one last course before graduation. The course title? An entrepreneur’s crash course in being un-glossy. It is summarized as follows:

Lesson one: “Be the newbie, for many of us type-A personalities, this is really daunting.” 

Lesson two: “Define your accepted failure ratio, you can get 100 rejections and still be successful.” 

Lesson three: “Get off the path – you are all inheriting a world of expectations placed on you by your family, the generations before you, society at large. This path is not necessarily bad, but it begs the question, are you on your path, or someone else’s?”

Beyond graduation season

What all of these speakers inspire graduates to do, is to take risks and step boldly into the next chapter of life unapologetically, authentically, and passionately. As we reflect upon the remarkable words of wisdom bestowed upon MBA graduates by their commencement speakers, we are reminded of the power of knowledge, perseverance, and vision in shaping a successful and fulfilling career. The messages shared by these esteemed speakers serve as guiding lights, illuminating the path ahead for the next generation of aspiring business leaders.

As 2023 grads embark on their professional journeys, armed with the collective wisdom of their mentors and the lessons learned during their MBA experience, the entire MBAchic team wants to extend a heartfelt and much-deserved congratulations. We can only anticipate the profound impact each graduate will make in the realms of business, entrepreneurship, and beyond. Revel in it!

Haven’t joined the MBAchic community yet? What are you waiting for! Sign up here today to unlock the power of connection long after graduation day concludes.

graduation speakers

Photo from Joan Kwamboka

Sign up for The Weekly Chic

Receive the latest from MBAchic, advice, news, jobs and more each week.

Sign up for The Weekly Chic

Receive the latest from MBAchic, advice, news, jobs and more each week.

Related Articles