Commencement Address 2017 - Chris Van Dyke

Thank you Vice President Johnson, OSU-Cascades Faculty & Administration, Parents and Graduating Class of 2017! I am beyond honored to be invited to share this special occasion with all of you.

On so many different levels, this is a momentous day. Not only have you successfully completed at least 4 years of college and earned your degree, but you are also the very first graduating class from the brand new OSU-Cascades campus. How cool is that?? I mean, every day you got to be in classrooms with that “new college smell”…rather than the toga party ambiance I recall. I think you will no doubt look back on this day and forever ask yourself, why in the world didn’t I stay a few more years?

Seriously, if you haven’t already, you will soon come to realize that you have been the beneficiaries of a genuinely unique university experience. Since last year I have been helping to create a new degree program here at OSU-Cascades and have seen what happens when great leadership is combined with a smart, committed and energized faculty to focus on building a college from the ground up. For those of you who have ever been part of a vibrant startup, you will know what I am talking about. The focus on what is “possible” rather than what has been done before, the environment of “innovation” and the supportive and collaborative approach to problem solving are all part of what I have observed on the new campus. You all chose wisely in coming to OSU-Cascades!

I really mean it when I say I am honored to be invited to speak here today. My one wish is that my Mom could have been around to see this. I was very close to my mother and every time I would tell her news about some development in my life that I was proud of she would inevitably pull out the letter my parents received from the college I attended my freshman year gently suggesting I consider an alternative institution of higher learning and wryly remind me that I had been kicked out of that school. I had good grades…but probably had spent a bit too much time acting out in an “American Graffiti meets Animal House” sort of way.  Anyway, my mother was always more than willing when, as she noted, I was getting too big for my britches, to remind me of this little fact. I have kept this in mind as I have thought about what I might offer you today.

I suspect anyone who has received an invitation like this does what I did and immediately studies speeches given by people they admire and respect.  My favorite was actually offered by the Onion and humorously attributed to Bernie Sanders: “If more of you had voted, all of this would be free.”

So, finding little useful guidance in the wisdom of others, I began to think about when I was sitting where you are today.  It was admittedly long ago in a forgotten analog age, but some things were the same.  My classmates and I, sitting in a gathering much like this, were feeling a great sense of accomplishment.  We also wondered what was ahead. What paths would our lives take? Would we be successful? If we achieved our goals, what would success look like? While no one can define success for you..nor should you let them.. I would like to share a couple of stories that shaped my perceptions.

It is probably not a very well kept secret that one of my parents, my Dad, is a fairly well known entertainer.  I do not ordinarily talk publicly about my Dad, but today I thought was a day to make an exception because today celebrates not only your hard work and success as students, but is also a day to recognize and appreciate all that your parents have done to help make this day happen. And hey, tomorrow is Father’s Day.

Over the years I have come to realize the most important lessons I learned from my Dad were from the years before anyone knew who he was.

Contrary to the Hollywood stereotype of the sudden discovery of a 19 year old waiter working in a Sunset Blvd restaurant who finds instant fame and riches, my Dad spent the first 16 years of his career…from the end of WWII until the early 60’s… really struggling as a performer. My parents were high school sweethearts, both from dirt-poor Mid-western families. My Dad’s Dad sold cookies door to door.  My mother was an only child who lived most of her life with various relatives as her mother went through five marriages. From the end of the war when my parents were married until my Dad’s breakthrough role with the Dick Van Dyke show, my family traveled the nightclub circuit throughout much of the US.

Because we moved so often, I attended somewhere around a dozen schools in almost as many states. Sometimes we would move because my Dad got a new gig, sometimes we had to move because he didn’t. Among my fondest memories as a kid is waking up at sunrise in the very back of our station wagon after driving all night on our way to our next home, the next school, his next audition, or that new performance.  At the time, I thought this the grandest of all adventures---I was living the ultimate road trip.

Through over a decade of this way of life, I really don’t believe my Dad ever thought of giving up or doing something else. His passion, that ONE THING that fulfilled him---and does to this day--- was making people laugh and bringing joy to others by allowing them to observe their own humanity through the mirror that humor provides.   He was happy and, I believe, truly successful because he was doing what he really loved to do.  The fact that he followed his passions rather than chasing more traditional rewards has had a big impression on me.  To paraphrase Garth Brooks,  my Dad was successful…and he was wealthy… because he had something money couldn’t buy.

Over the years, I have taken to heart this life-lesson and always used it to measure my own success.  I found I was happiest when I was on some kind of an adventure, when I was engaged in an activity…whether in work or play…where the outcome was uncertain, where new circumstances had me slightly off balance, there was real risk and more than a little chance of failure.

The one career-adventure of which I am most proud and where my concept of success really evolved began in 2005 when a group of industry friends from Nike, Patagonia, Adidas, Starbucks, The Limited and I decided to launch a new apparel company.

All of the people who came together around this effort were capitalists and believed that everyone should receive the rewards of hard work. But, as it turned out, each of us in our own way had also been questioning how we defined success.  Don’t get me wrong, we all wanted to be successful financially, but we also had come to believe that corporations needed to accept more responsibility for not just making money, but for HOW that money was made. We concluded that this meant expanding the traditional responsibilities corporations have to their shareholders to also include responsibilities to their communities and to the environment. 

The company became Nau, one of the first companies in the US to become what is today known as a “B corp” or benefit corporation.

Within our Bylaws we memorialized some of our beliefs. For example, we challenged the inequality in corporate salaries so our Bylaws prohibited anyone from making more than 12 times the lowest paid employee.  Also, rather than spending money on traditional marketing, we pledged to give away 5% of our sales to non-profits as a commitment to our way of doing business and also a nontraditional way of building relationships with our customers.

From the ground up, we designed every part of our company upon our belief that we could be successful in business and reward our shareholders while simultaneously working to promote social, humanitarian and environmental justice.

This was pretty cool but a novel concept at the time and hard to explain so we were always looking for a shorthand way to describe what we were doing.  Sometimes we would frame it as: 

The Invisible Hand needs a helping hand.
or Conscientious capitalism.
or Doing well by doing good.

The problem was nothing ever seemed to quite capture the values-based motivations for what we were doing.

Along the way we met a woman who had been a racehorse jockey. She had done extraordinarily well by conventional standards, but she had abandoned her career and left racing because, as she described it, it was a culture that embraced the idea that to be successful as a jockey, you had to be willing to push the horse so hard that you might kill it.  In other words, to win…to be successful… you had to be willing to kill the horse.

To us this was a harsh but useful metaphor for how we would choose to define success in our business. We wanted to win…to make money…to grow our business, but we were committed to doing this without taking a “win at all costs” approach. We were not willing to kill the horse. 

I believe this metaphor is useful for defining success more broadly. For instance, what standards do we use to determine success in politics, or the manner in which we govern or other aspects of our conduct in civil society? Does, for example, good health care for some have to mean no health care for others?  Does our security and prosperity require us to close our borders to refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution? Are economic growth and environmental stewardship mutually exclusive?

What I find troubling is that many people today find it acceptable and unavoidable to define success without including considerations of economic, social and environmental justice.  How we choose to address all of the really big issues of our time…whether we choose the “winner takes all” standard or whether, instead, we define success by including considerations of what is just and fair and good for our global community and our planet…will shape the kind of country we become.

I have come to believe that we will never succeed collectively…and certainly will not be great….if our individual pursuit of success includes a willingness to kill the proverbial horse. The challenge for you and your peers, as you go out in the world, is to find a better way to define your success and what it means to win, one that embraces empathy, compassion, and responsibility to others and to the planet.  How you meet this challenge will certainly shape the future you create and that your children inherit.

So, wherever your life adventures and your passions lead you… whether as artists, activists and athletes, builders, business people, scientists, doctors, politicians, policemen and women, entrepreneurs, teachers, lawyers or soldiers, I sincerely hope that

  • You will recognize you have found success and true wealth when you have something money can’t buy
  • and, in your quest to be successful---to be great---that you will keep in mind you don’t need to kill that horse.

Thank you. Congratulations to all of you and to your families. Now go do what you love and may you find success!