Graduation speeches can provide inspiration for small business owners

By June 7, 2018 Blog No Comments

Graduation season brings out all sorts of notable commencement speakers, including celebrities, business leaders, politicians and athletes. Some put on displays that audience members will likely never forget, like actor Will Ferrell serenading the University of Southern California crowd last year with part of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You.

Many of these speeches can be thoughtful and insightful, and offer leadership lessons that can apply to the business world. Just as graduates are set to enter the workforce, prospective entrepreneurs are preparing to launch their own businesses.

Here are a few life lessons from this year’s crop of graduation speakers.


Oprah Winfrey

The media mogul addressed the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

“The question is: What are you willing to stand for?” Winfrey said. “That question is going to follow you throughout your life. And here’s how you answer it. You put your honor where your mouth is. Put your honor where your mouth is. When you give your word, keep it. Show up. Do the work. Get your hands dirty. And then you’ll begin to draw strength from the understanding that … history is still being written. You’re writing it every day. The wheel’s still in spin. And what you do or what you don’t do will be a part of it. You build a legacy not from one thing but from everything.”

Business lesson: Integrity is an essential part of being a leader. From a small mom-and-pop shop to a multimillion-dollar enterprise, business leaders should be true to their word and have a strong moral backbone. As Amy Rees Anderson writes for Forbes, “If I could teach only one value to live by, it would be this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever.”

“Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching,” she explains. “It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. Building a reputation of integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose, so never allow yourself to ever do anything that would damage your integrity.”


Tim Cook

The Apple CEO spoke at Duke University, where he earned his MBA in 1988. In his speech, he referenced his mentor, the late Steve Jobs, as reported by Time.

“I didn’t always see life as clearly as I do today,” Cook said. “But I’ve learned the greatest challenge of life is knowing when to break with conventional wisdom. Don’t just accept the world you inherit today. Don’t just accept the status quo. No big challenge has ever been solved, and no lasting improvement has ever been achieved, unless people dare to try something different. Dare to think different. I was lucky to learn from someone who believed this deeply. Someone who knew that changing the world starts with ‘following a vision, not a path.’ He was my friend and mentor, Steve Jobs. Steve’s vision was that great ideas come from a restless refusal to accept things as they are. And those principles still guide us at Apple today.”

Business lesson: It takes courage to break away and start your own business. Stepping out on your own may be an intimidating prospect, but the benefits can be life-changing. In a story for Entrepreneur, Matt Mayberry writes that getting out of your comfort zone can be a key factor in starting a path to success.

“Staying in your comfort zone and not living a courageous and daring life may feel good at the moment, but over time it will turn into regret and a life filled with ‘What ifs,’” he says. “I encourage you to take a long and close look at how courageously you have been living. Where do you stand? We all could benefit from making the decision to step away from our comfort zone more often. It turns out that the popular saying ‘Better to be safe than sorry’ isn’t always applicable. Instead, let the words ‘Dare great in order to be great’ guide your life from here on out.”


Michael Keaton

The actor returned to Kent State University, where he was a student in the 1970s.

“You have to take risks,” he said. “I am going to ask you to take risks whenever you can. Put yourself on the line. Don’t be afraid to look foolish. Make mistakes, take chances. It’s one of the best things you can do. And what that will lead to is self-discovery, and it will lead you back to your natural authentic self.”

Business lesson: There is room for risk in business, though there needs to be a great deal of thought and care that goes into it. A small business owner will need to spend time researching and preparing to take such steps. As Jayson DeMers writes for Entrepreneur, “Risk-taking is almost synonymous with entrepreneurship.”

“To start and support your own business, you’ll have to put your career, personal finances and even your mental health at stake,” he says. “For most, the prospect of making your own decisions and being in charge of your own destiny is worth it. But if you’re going to be successful as an entrepreneur, you have to be prepared for the risks and challenges that come with it.”


Chadwick Boseman

The actor and star of Black Panther returned to his alma mater, Howard University, for a May commencement speech.

“Purpose crosses disciplines,” he said. “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”

Business lesson: Find the greater purpose in your work and your business. Small business owners can feel significant satisfaction in pursuing a dream and turning it into something real. David Hagenbuch examines this in a story for Entrepreneur.

“Life is too short and too important to simply punch a time-clock, even if you’re the business owner,” he writes. “At some point in your career there will come a morning when you’ll awake and ask yourself, ‘What am I really doing?’ It’s at this point that earning money by making/selling whatever will no longer be motivation enough. However, if your answer to that question reflects a specific, greater purpose, you’ll have the energy and inspiration to continue, not just that day, but for the rest of your life.”


Chance the Rapper

The artist and philanthropist (real name: Chancelor Bennett) addressed achieving success and even transcending our heroes in a speech at Dillard University, as reported by Rolling Stone.

“I realized that all of us have a responsibility to be greater than the people who came before us,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be not as good as them or live up to their example, but to actually surpass them, even when it seems scary. We have to overcome that fear and be greater than our role models. We have to erase the fear and stigma behind eclipsing our heroes.”

Business lesson: Think big. There is inherent ambition in starting a small business. It can be a brave and daring endeavor. Granted, being realistic comes into play as well. Writing for Entrepreneur, Jonathan Long described the importance of having faith in our abilities.

“There are two things that get in the way of dreams — self-doubt and fear,” he says. “These are protection mechanisms that many use as safety nets and excuses. If someone doesn’t truly believe they have what it takes to be successful or if they are scared of falling flat on their face they will revert back to these two roadblocks. It’s much easier to say, ‘I knew it couldn’t be done’ than to take it on the chin and try again. When you have faith in your ability, the fear is eliminated and the self-doubt doesn’t surface. It’s very hard to lose when your idea and execution plan is backed by confidence, drive and determination.”

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