TIAA-CREF President and CEO Roger Ferguson had the privilege of delivering the 144th commencement address to the 2012 graduates of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) on May 12. WPI also bestowed an honorary degree on Ferguson.
With the relationship between TIAA-CREF and WPI dating back to 1920, Ferguson drew parallels between the two organizations, which were pioneers in financial services and higher education, respectively. WPI was founded to deliver an education that melded “Theory and Practice,” while TIAA-CREF “has always seen its role as helping WPI and the other institutions we serve remain as strong as possible so that they can carry out their vital educational mission,” he said.
Ferguson congratulated the graduates on developing their human capital during their years at WPI and then posed the question: “What are you going to do with that?”
His remarks focused on helping the graduates identify how they can put their human capital to work for themselves both personally and professionally in the years ahead to have an impact on the world. According to Ferguson, there are three factors a person should consider to maximize their impact.
“You have done a tremendous job in developing your human capital. But don’t for a moment think you’re done. If you want to have a real impact, you must commit to a life of continuous education.
“That’s never been more true than in today’s world, which is being reshaped at a relentless pace by globalization, technology, demographics, economic challenges, and other forces. To thrive in this environment, you need to see yourself as a lifelong learner, someone who is continuously growing and evolving his or her human capital to align with the way the world is evolving.
“But remember that continuous learning happens both in and out of a classroom. The time I spent at the Federal Reserve, beginning in 1997, offers many examples of this mindset. While there, I resolved to develop my own human capital in a way that would enable me to contribute as effectively as possible. I worked hard to develop an expertise about the Fed, its history, its challenges, and its direction.
“Everything I did gave me a chance to learn something about the system or the economy, and to contribute. I believe that’s one of the key reasons I was honored by being asked to take on the role of Vice Chairman a year or so into my tenure there.
“You will be most successful when you think of yourself as a lifelong learner — and conduct yourself accordingly — in whatever it is you’re doing.”
“I believe that to have a successful career, you need to follow your passion — and you need to take risks. The people who have the smallest impact are those who work within a narrow, confining box that limits their view of their capabilities and potential. You must push beyond those boundaries.
“I urge you to figure out how to apply your human capital in a way that honors the best in you and with an outlook that extends far beyond your own self-interest. Your education has given you a unique capacity for making an impact.
“At its root, the financial crisis happened because people — and companies — put the pursuit of money and their own self interest first, to the exclusion of what was best for their customers, their long-term shareholders, their employees, and society at large.
“You’ve seen the devastating effects that kind of mentality has had on our economy, on the lives of countless Americans, and on our national psyche.
“You are the kind of people who can deliver the innovation and progress that will enable our economy to thrive again. I hope you will take up that challenge.”
“Be open to trying different things. Don’t be afraid to change course if that’s what your heart is telling you to do. Take advantage of opportunities that come your way.
“The notion of a ‘career ladder’ — which implies a straight and predictable path to ever-higher levels of success — is pretty outdated in today’s world. Instead, it’s more helpful to think of your career as a ‘climbing wall.’ The thing about a climbing wall is that sometimes you need to go sideways to make progress. You may even have to move down the wall at certain points in your quest to get to the top. That’s what your career will be like.
“I speak from experience. I started out practicing law. Then I joined the consulting world, where I oversaw a large team responsible for research and information systems. I next entered public service. Since 2006, I have been back in the private sector, leading TIAA-CREF for the past four years.
“My career trajectory has been anything but straight. But I have loved applying my own human capital in such a diverse range of positions at different types of institutions. It has been extremely rewarding to me on both a personal and professional level.”
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