Northeastern University celebrated the accomplishments of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business’ graduate class of 2016 at a commencement ceremony in Matthews Arena on Thursday evening.
More than 300 students in 12 master’s degrees programs received their degrees at the ceremony, which featured inspirational remarks by Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, commencement speaker Sy Sternberg, ME’68, H’12, and student speaker Yuliya Bass, MBA’16.
In his opening remarks, President Aoun praised Northeastern’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. He singled out two graduating students in the master’s of science in innovation program—Tamim Alganam, who built a mobile app to connect donors with blood banks, and Casey O’Neill, who developed a spiked sparkling water for active, gluten-free women—for exemplifying Northeastern’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“Like your classmates Tamim and Casey, you are all people of tremendous accomplishments,” he told the graduates. “You have seized opportunity and turned it into success. Your education from Northeastern will place you at the threshold of limitless promise.”
Aoun called Sternberg—retired chairman of the board and CEO of New York Life Insurance Company and chairman emeritus of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees—one of the country’s foremost business leaders, a “true giant” in the entrepreneurial world who said “no” when others said “yes.” For example, he pointed to his work at New York Life. “When he was at New York Life, other companies took chances by investing in dangerous financial derivatives,” Aoun explained. “Sy saw the true risks and refused. He steered his company away from the rocks on which so many others would crash. New York Life went unscathed when others sank.”
Three life lessons
Sternberg, for his part, recounted his career story, explaining how an engineer ended up becoming an insurance executive. At certain points, he paused to share some life lessons with the graduating class, drawing on his own experience to impart a few nuggets of wisdom to the nation’s future investment bankers, marketing gurus, and CEOs.
His first lesson—“make yourself visible”—drew on his experience at his first professional job, at Raytheon, in the 1960s. After starting at the bottom of the corporate ladder as an associate engineer, he got a chance to be a project manager for the company’s first automated drafting system. He learned how to program on the job, started working with hardware vendors, and was soon thereafter managing a 25-person unit at the company. It was 1970. He was 27.
“Try to get involved in special projects,” said Sternberg, now a director of Express Scripts, the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit management company. “Take advantage of management development programs, and most important, demonstrate that you can lead people.”
The next chapter in Sternberg’s story began in 1972, when he left Raytheon to pursue a job as an information systems developer for a consulting firm that had just been awarded a multi-year contract from Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. A year later, he was hired away from the consulting firm to be an officer in Mass Mutual’s information systems department, where he rose to the ranks of vice president and came one step away from taking over the entire division. But that was not meant to be. In 1980, the CEO of Mass Mutual asked him to head the company’s health insurance operation and gave him 24 hours to make up his mind. Despite the fact that he didn’t know much about the pricing, product marketing, and sales side of health insurance, he said yes, which led to his second life lesson: Career success is generally a function of three factors—luck, performance, and opportunism.
“Demonstrated performance is always in your hands and luck just happens,” he said. “But [opportunism] requires your attention. You have to keep your eye on opportunities offered and assess the upside and downside of risks. If you make the right call at that fork in the road, it might change your life.”
The third chapter of Sternberg’s story picked up in 1989, when he left Mass Mutual to head up New York Life’s health insurance business. He was elected the 18th chairman and CEO of the firm on April Fools’ Day in 1997 and remained CEO until he retired in 2008. Aside from his short stint at a consulting firm, he has only worked for three companies in his illustrious, 40-plus-year career—Raytheon, Mass Mutual, and New York Life—a fact that led him to impart his final life lesson of the evening: Job-hopping is often not the smart thing to do. “My rule of thumb is, if you are blocked from further advancement, the risk of a new job is worth it,” he said. “If you are not blocked and moving up in the organization, changing jobs may be a bad bet—the loss of your brand equity and maybe a difficult new boss.”
At the end of his address, Sternberg urged the graduates to be proud of whatever job they wind up working, whether it’s on Wall Street as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs or on Main Street as an accountant for a small independent firm. Either way, they’ll be making a positive difference. “This country can’t succeed without your skills,” he said. “This country does not move forward without you.”
‘Always strive to create something new and beautiful’
Bass, who is familiar with the ins and out of big financial institutions, urged her fellow graduates to harness the lessons they learned from their classroom experiences and corporate residencies to challenge the status quo. “I hope we will never stop learning and being intellectually curious,” said Bass, MBA’16, who did her corporate residency at State Street, the financial services firm. “I hope that common sense will rule our decisions and help us concentrate on real issues facing us as a new generation of leaders.”
Many of her peers have already received full-time job offers from the firms with which they did their corporate residencies. One of them is Meghan Donovan, MBA’16, who will soon begin work as a financial analyst at IBM. In an interview the day before the ceremony, she praised the residency program for preparing her to work for a large corporation, saying that “it was great to have six months at IBM to make a meaningful impact and really get a feel for working there full time.” Her classroom experience was equally as instructive. “The curriculum was challenging,” she said, “and the professors were supportive, which created a great learning environment.”
Donovan, to be sure, is prepared for the next phase of her life. Her fellow graduates are prepared. And the world is waiting to see what they will do next. “Your Northeastern education has taught you how to transform it into success,” Aoun said, in his charge to the graduates. “Always strive to create something new and beautiful. Create a brilliant future for yourselves and for us all.” Noted Hugh Courtney, dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business: “Thank you for bringing so much passion and drive to our university, your employers, and, in many cases, your own ventures. It has truly been a privilege to teach you but also to learn from you.”