2013 Commencement Address
Mort Meyerson, CEO of 2M Companies, delivered the 2013 Department of Economics commencement address on Saturday, May 18th. Meyerson addressed over 200 graduates and the friends and family who had come to witness their hard earned walk across the Gregory Gymnasium stage. For all of his accomplishments and philanthropic efforts, Meyerson was recognized by UT-Austin in 2005 with a Distinguished Alumnus Award. Today, he proudly wears the burnt orange jacket as a recipient of that award.
Drawing on the surprises, adversity, and redemption life has to offer he delivered the following speech to aid the 2013 graduates in life after college.
See video here, transcript below.
Mort Meyerson, CEO
UT Department of Economics Commencement Address
Saturday, May 18th, 9am, Gregory Gym
Earlier this week I went to visit my 95 year old mother who chastised me for not taking her to a symphony last night in Dallas. She asked why I was failing to do my duty as a son and I said I was coming to The University of Texas to give a commencement address and she didn’t believe me. So if you will do me a big favor, I’m going to take your picture for my mother. (Pauses to take a picture of students). You’ve saved me a lot of trouble.
The last time I was in this gym was 1960 and I sat right up there under the lights and watched a basketball game. I’m going to give a short address and the key words I’m going to try to talk about are surprise, adversity, and redemption. As you know, I am the first college graduate in my family. I am the son-I am the grandson-of immigrants who escaped religious persecution in Russia. And in the 1830s another set of my great-great grandparents escaped Germany, escaping persecution. And I feel blessed that my fore-parents came to Texas in 1890. I was born and raised in Ft. Worth and I went to public schools.
There is a story about surprise, however. I was a student. I was a pretty good student and I was a football player. And I was offered a scholarship and guaranteed admission to the Air Force Academy when I graduated in my junior year. I was invited to Bear Bryant’s summer camp to play football for Texas A&M. It was my thought that I was either going to go into the Air Force Academy and be a fighter pilot or I was going to Texas A&M to be a football player with John David Crow and company. And I was injured my senior year at Corpus Christi Ray when we were playing against them in Corpus Christi, and the doctor did surgery and told me I’d never play again so I wound up (big surprise) coming to the University of Texas.
I was pretty good in math and science and I entered the Engineering School and I made my best grades in Engineering but I hated it. So after one semester I wisely moved into Liberal Arts (what is now known as Liberal Arts used to be known as ‘Arts & Sciences’). I have so many experiences and don’t have any time to cover them so I’m just going to tell you two quick things that happened while I was here at University. One, I had a professor named Polokoff that taught Russian Economic History and he made a huge impression on me because we sat in class for the first maybe eight weeks and he described the Russian economic system and the superiority to capitalism and by the middle of the semester we were all Communists. Literally, we could not get an argument past him and he convinced us that we had an inferior system. And one day we came into the class in the middle of the semester and he said "Now we’ll go the other way" and he took the side of Capitalism and he showed the superiority of Capitalism which turned out to be true. I learned a great lesson here, he was a fantastic teacher and I was totally convinced that we were losers in the middle of the semester, and I’ve learned to listen critically when people are very, very smart and they give you great arguments and you can’t quite follow it. I stopped following them.
The second thing that happened, I was a musician from childhood (sang in choruses) and even though I was not in the School of Music I used to go to the music school which used to be next to the Littlefield fountain and I played the piano in the afternoon in the rehearsal hall, and I came out one day and I heard singing and I walked into an auditorium and Dr. Beachy was having a rehearsal with the a cappella choir which were the music majors singing without accompaniment and I sat in the back and listened and he stopped the rehearsal and said “who are you back there” and timidly I said my name is Meyerson and he said "what part do you sing?" and I said "second bass" and he said "why don’t you come down and join us" so I did. And for four years, five times a week, for one hour I was in the music building singing with the a capella choir.
The reason why I tell you this is it was a happenstance occurrence and in that happenstance I got a discipline and I believe of all the things that I’ve learned in my past life the single most impressive thing that influenced me in business for teamwork was singing in a choir because there is no stars, there’s no soloists, you just sing with a team. That was really wonderful.
I graduated, you’ve heard this story, I graduated from the university and I went into the army as a lieutenant. The untold story of going into the Army was I had, no I was an officer and I was an aid to a colonel who was retiring so I had no job, I had nothing to do. So I played duplicate bridge five times a week and it was fantastic and my partner and I won the East Coast Sectional in the first 6 months that I was there. And he said "the way you play bridge you probably should transfer to my department and become a software engineer." I didn’t know what that was, short story, I was sent to school, first 15 minutes of the first class, Capt. Greenburg gave us a problem, he gave us an algorithm to find some data on a drum and lo and behold I solved the problem. At the end of the first 15 minutes I decided I was going to be a software engineer and all my training in Liberal Arts went out the window and I went into Engineering.
Afterwards I went to build helicopters and was a data processing engineer and went to EDS as a trainee. I spent most of my life as a software person designing systems and then later managing people. One of the things, (strange occurrences) when I was 33 years old, Wall Street was collapsing in 1971 and Ross Perot was asked to put some money in a Wall Street firm, which he did to help save the markets. It was worse than the downturn that you saw back in 2008. He couldn’t find anybody to run the Wall Street firm so he came to me one day and he said, “How would you like to go to New York and be the CEO of an 8,000 person Wall Street Firm?” Not knowing any better I said fine. So I took my family, 2 small children, wife, moved to New York and spent four years as a Wall Street Executive.
I learned a lot because I had never lived in New York and I knew nothing about financing. I had never taken an accounting course or business course but you can kind of pick it up as you go. So we were very, very successful the first year and then the second year we were pretty successful and the third year there was an Arab embargo of oil. The market tanked. I went to Perot and said we have to close the business or you have to invest more money and he said, “What are the terms?” I said, “If you put in 25 million dollars I think we’ll make 300 million dollars in five years”. Which I thought was a pretty compelling case. He said, “Close the firm”. So without taking bankruptcy, and I won’t go into the subtleties of that, but if you don’t take bankruptcy you have no protection. And we had to do that to protect our customers so I spent a year closing 114 offices and getting 8,000 people a position in other firms. And then I went back to EDS.
Now the reason why I mention this is because until that point I had won. I had been on every sports team as a winner, I had graduated, I had won honors, I had always won in business. This was the first time I had failed and it was devastating. And I couldn’t talk for a month or two. I finally got past that. I decided I’d go back and start as Assistant Engineer again in EDS without all the titles. I had left EDS as a director of the company and manager of the biggest part of the company but I went back as an individual performer. And the humility that that gave me allowed me to be successful when five years later I became the President of EDS.
Now the reason why I’m telling you this story is because I should have been a fighter pilot football player but I wasn’t. Had I gone to the Air Force Academy the odds are high that I would not be here because most of the people that went in 1960, I mean 1956, were killed in Vietnam. I was supposed to be an engineer but I became a Liberal Arts Economics major in Philosophy student with a deep background in music. That wasn’t supposed to happen. And then when I graduated I was supposed to be a generalist but I became a specialist in technology. So between the surprise, the happenstance, and adversity and what I learned from adversity, every good thing that’s happened to me happened because of that path. And as graduates, I’m sure that you have ideas about getting a job or going to graduate school or whatever. And there is a straight path that you’ve got I can assure you that won’t happen. Life is just like that but it’s really good.
I’m going to conclude with a comment about creativity. One thing that I’ve learned over the course of the last sixty years was that space is divided into very ordered space where things are controlled and you can calculate it, etc. and chaos on the other side. People hate chaos. Most people hate chaos and like order and they try to have it order. I think there’s a space in the center, at the interface between chaos and order. A friend of mine called it chaordic space. It’s where you have a mixture of the two. And I think that’s where creativity lies. In that space so if you cannot be too ordered and not be too chaotic then you can handle it. It’ll be beautiful.
I’d like to thank you for inviting me to come here. And may your path be as interesting as the one that I’ve tread since I left these halls in 1961. Thank you.