Commencement Address, Western Connecticut State University Ronald Bruder May 13, 2012
Learning How to Persevere
I am here today because of the recommendation of my friend and WestConn Board Member Farooq Kathwari.
Farooq, as most of you know, runs a company that he transformed called Ethan Allen.
We have for many years been neighbors in New Rochelle, but we did not start out as friends. A disagreement over installing lights on my tennis court resulted in my getting the lights, but the two of us were far from friends. Fast forward some time, when unbeknownst to both of us we were to be housed together in Rome as guests at the Vatican. A Muslim from Kashmir and a Jew from Brooklyn.
In that alien environment we began the beginning of what is today a close friendship.
If you told me when I graduated college that I would one day address a commencement audience, I would have thought that you were smoking something.
I didn’t think that I had anything much of value to say to college grads. My road to college wasn’t straight and simple – to say nothing of what happened after. But maybe that’s the point. It was the obstacles I hit getting to college and building a career that taught me the most important lesson of all, and the one I want to impart to you: to persevere.
I grew up in a tough Jewish-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. As a 17 year old college sophomore I was expelled from school, and spent a year going door-to-door selling encyclopedias. I got a lot of doors slammed in my face. For the first time in my life, I was failing every day – multiple times. But I always had to get back out there. It was a matter of eating and survival.
I attribute a lot of what I’ve been able to achieve in life to what I discovered, or was forced to discover, in myself after I heard the thud of each closing door. What I learned was how to face rejection and failure and instead of to feel fear, feel determination to try harder. What I learned was how to acknowledge that something was going to be difficult, and to do it anyway. What I learned was perseverance.
I eventually made it through college and two graduate degrees, and went on to create successful real estate, pharmaceutical, travel and oil and gas businesses. Perseverance was the key ingredient in each of these ventures. All the marketing majors in the audience know that it isn’t the successful pitch that helps you to hone your craft, it’s what you learn from the hundred failed pitches preceding it that really counts.
As a young person in my twenties, I was taking major entrepreneurial risks. There were many sleepless nights when things were not going the way I hoped. But each time I failed, and I failed often, I learned. Each failure became an entry in my person guidebook on what to do and what not to do to succeed.
Each failure was an opportunity to examine, evaluate and improve what I was doing. Perseverance without self-reflection is just stubbornness. Perseverance with self-reflection is improvement.
Knowing how to live with adversity, and that I could handle it when it came, is what enabled me to start my latest and most meaningful venture. For last seven years my focus has been on building organizations in the Middle East and North Africa to train youth for jobs: Education for Employment, or EFE.
Like you, most of our students are in their early twenties. They are ambitious, able and hungry for success. These young people are exactly like you. Except in one very important way: they don’t have the employment opportunities you do. We might be in a slump in the US, but unemployment here for college grads is 4%. Compare that to 15% for college grads in countries like Egypt and Jordan, and over 26% for those without college degrees.
The situation for youth in the Middle East and North Africa is more dire than just tough numbers. The majority of youth in the region do not benefit from the career-relevant education that you have received here at WestConn. Whether your major was Medical Technology or Elementary Education, you have spent the past four years developing the professional skills that translate directly to the marketplace. WestConn’s Career Development Center teaches you the soft skills, such as how to write a resume, how to interview, that are key to landing a job.
At EFE, we have built a series of semi-autonomous affiliates that train and link our graduates to the labor force with a target 85% job placement rate. We work with disadvantaged young people stuck in the skills gap between what their education institutions teach, and the skills they need to be employed.
Their education institutions have failed them, and it’s up to nonprofits like EFE to help them in developing the technical and professional skills they need to bridge the gap between school and work.
We are presently operating in eight countries. We develop local not-for-profit organizations that under the leadership of powerful local boards assess what skills are in demand in the local marketplace, and with our assistance, create training programs to meet that need.
What does it look like on the ground? We train unemployed engineers in the West Bank to manage construction sites. In Jordan we teach young women and men who could not pass their high school exit exam to install and repair air conditioners, or to do land surveying. We have built 40 such courses to date.
We are finding new opportunities for excluded youth. Since our first graduating class in June 2006 to the end of 2009 we graduated and placed in jobs 1,000 youth. In 2010 we trained and placed 1,200 young people, last year over 2,000 youth, and this year we expect to train and place in jobs over 5,000 young people.
It is our hope that as our numbers increase, we will create a tipping point in these countries so that it will be expected that education institutions have a high percentage of their graduates entering the workforce. To reach this scale, we have begun to work with King Hassan II University in Morocco, which graduates 7,000 students per year. It is our expectation that by providing them with curricula and methodologies, we can radically increase the percentage of students they place in labor force. This example we hope will spur other institutions to follow suit.
Despite the huge odds stacked against the young people we serve, they persevere. Most of our students have spent long months or years looking for employment without success. But they don’t stop. In Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia or Yemen, they come to EFE ready to work harder and learn more. They are willing to do what it takes to achieve employment.
I recently learned that Doaa, one of our young female alumni in Egypt, traveled four hours each day to attend our training program in Cairo. That is perseverance, and it paid off. She now has a full-time job at one of Egypt’s largest industrial companies, and has launched a startup company making fashion headscarves.
As an employer, these are the types of young people I look to hire. I have a bias towards those who have faced adversity in the past. People who have encountered failure, learned from it and persevered are like a tree with deep and solid roots. It won’t be blown over by the next high wind.
Take a moment and look at the student to your right and look at the one to your left. Every person you graduate with today is going to encounter failure. That’s a good thing.
The deciding factor for who amongst you will succeed will be how you pick yourself up, dust off and plow onward. Adversity is not an impediment to moving forward. It is what happens after that makes a difference and defines who you are and what you can become.