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Vanderbilt Business 2024 Commencement Remarks & Keynote Address

May 13, 2024

The following inspirational remarks and keynote address were delivered by Dean Thomas Steenburgh and Maria Renz at the Vanderbilt Business Commencement ceremony on May 10, 2024. These powerful speeches encapsulate the essence of achievement, resilience, and the pursuit of growth as witnessed in the graduating Class of 2024. From Dean Steenburgh’s heartfelt reflections on the art of becoming to Maria Renz’s compelling insights on daring to overcome self-doubt, their messages offer a profound glimpse into the transformative journey of Vanderbilt Business graduates.

Commencement Remarks from Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management Dean Thomas Steenburgh:

Welcome to Owen’s 2024 commencement ceremony, where we will celebrate the successful completion of your business education and reflect on your time at Owen. I am joined on the stage by Deans Willis and Escalas, who are here to assist with the program.

This year has been a time of transition, and I want to express my gratitude for the warm welcome I have received since arriving at Owen. I have enjoyed getting to know all of you and learning more about what makes this community unique. Owen is a remarkable place where we look out for one another and support each other’s success. The alumni hold this aspect of the school dear to their hearts and have shared many stories of how their classmates helped them succeed in business and life. Whether it was preparing for a job interview or developing an idea for a company, the community’s support made all the difference.

Dean Steenburgh at Commencement 2024 shaking a graduate's hand

Dean Steenburgh at Commencement 2024, shaking a graduate’s hand

In that spirit, I want to celebrate the strength of our community. Behind every student’s accomplishment stands a dedicated team of faculty and staff whose commitment and guidance have been unwavering. Would these exceptional individuals please stand and be acknowledged? Your contributions are the bedrock of our community, and your tireless efforts do not go unnoticed.

Today, we also have the privilege of being joined by your beloved families, partners, and friends who have traveled from near and far to celebrate with us. Would all your loved ones please rise? Let’s give them a heartfelt round of applause for their steadfast support.

To our new graduates, I would like to leave you with some personal words of encouragement. As you start a new phase of your life, I hope you continue exploring and developing yourself, relentlessly seeking your full potential. Undertaking this work is both challenging and a choice. In the words of Abraham Mazlow: One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

Seeking the best version of yourself – developing skills in the Art of Becoming – requires you to create something new and put something at risk. As opportunities arise, you will need the courage to overcome fear and move away from safety again and again. But you have the ability to pursue a path of discovery and growth if you choose. And, as an Owen graduate, you are part of a community that is willing to help and wants to see you flourish. Congratulations, Owen Class of 2024! We are eager to see how you will make use of your many talents to create opportunities for yourself and others.


Commencement Address given by Maria Renz (MBA’96), Vice President and General Manager of Commerce for Google

Thank you Dean Steenburgh, distinguished faculty, proud parents and families – and especially you graduates. To be asked to return here, to speak to the graduating class of an institution that means so much to me and continues to have such significance in my life and my entire career is an astonishing honor. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

But today is not about me—it’s about you. You’ve done it—you made it! Smile. Celebrate. There’s a cold bucket of beers waiting for you at SATCO. But before you come on stage to receive your degrees, permit me to share some thoughts on what you’ve done and the road ahead. It feels like every commencement speech I’ve ever heard boils down to the same cliche: Get out there, spread your wings, and change the world. Today I’m going to take it in a different direction.

Maria Renz giving Commencement address

Maria Renz giving Commencement addres

Dare to Grow

Your Vanderbilt degree is a passport to all kinds of exciting opportunities. It’s an achievement that signifies that you are committed to growing personally and professionally. That you have the courage to set high standards for yourself and to overcome difficulties and realize your goals. Your degree is tangible proof that you have dared yourself to grow.

That’s a phrase that today we hear often at Vanderbilt: Dare to Grow, and at first it may sound like a marketing slogan. But when you attend Vanderbilt, and now as you prepare to leave Vanderbilt, embrace Dare to Grow as a mantra. A personal philosophy. An attitude. Something to live by. It implies self awareness, resilience, and adaptability. And it isn’t easy. Daring to grow means embarking on the road less traveled.

The reason I’m standing here today is that, like you, I too chose that road. And I have to tell you: there have been many times when it scared the heck out of me, when I’ve thought what have I gotten myself into? There have been days when I’ve been gripped by imposter syndrome, almost waiting for the fraud police to burst through the door. What I’ve learned is that daring to grow means daring to overcome self-doubt.

Self Doubt

For I believe one of the greatest enemies to success is self doubt.

Before coming to Vanderbilt, I was working as an interior designer in San Francisco. Now interior design is a noble profession, we need them. A world without interior designers would be a drab and ugly place! But it’s a far cry away from a competitive MBA program. And San Francisco was a long way away from Nashville, literally and figuratively. Back then, Nashville had not yet become the hot spot it is today.

For me, applying to Owen and moving to Nashville—saying goodbye to one life and stepping into a new one—was literally a leap of faith. Choosing faith over fear. Focusing not on what I was, but on what I wanted to be. My mother dropped me off at Vanderbilt and I must admit I was more than a little scared and intimidated that first week in Nashville. Would I be able to succeed in this new place? In this new life? But—Nashville, Vanderbilt, and I—we all had ambitions, we were ready to Dare to Grow.

Overcoming Doubt

When I graduated from Vanderbilt, I wanted my MBA to lead me to a career of continuous advancement. Who doesn’t want that? A safe and secure, linear career path at blue chip companies. Promotions, opportunities, steady income growth, and eventually a role in the C-suite, does that sound familiar?

And at first I took the safe path. My first job was at Hallmark in Kansas City. Every Hallmark movie has the same narrative arc and a happy ending, totally linear! From Hallmark, I moved to New York to join Kraft Foods, a 100+ year old company. Again a good, but straightforward role in brand management on products like Fruity Pebbles and Maxwell House Coffee. Does it get any more straightforward?

And then one day I got a call from a guy named Andy Jassy. He told me he was a marketing director, new to his role, at a new company called Amazon. They were based in Seattle and they wanted to sell books on the internet. I remember thinking to myself, would anyone want to buy books on the internet? And their plan was to lose a ton of money building their business. Yes, that was the plan: build an incredibly big retail business by losing a ton of money trying to sell books using an unproven technology.

The offer to join Amazon stoked every professional doubt imaginable. Not to mention that it required moving 2,400 miles away to Seattle, which wasn’t exactly on my radar. But when I thought about it, when I was able to park my fears and consider the opportunity, I could tell there was something special about this company—this company and this leadership team had the audacity to dare to grow. And everyone agreed that the Internet was going to change everything. There was transformation in the air. It was a moment to dare and not to doubt. Challenging myself to overcome doubts and take the role with that crazy new company changed the trajectory of my career and my life hasn’t been the same since.

This wouldn’t be a graduation speech if I didn’t leave you with a takeaway, so here it is: There will be times when you doubt yourselves, doubt your decisions, when you feel like an imposter. When that happens, take heart: You feel that way because you are a high-performer. It makes perfect sense: we’re here at Owen because we’re the kind of people who want to check all the boxes. Achieve the best results. But you can’t check all the boxes, you can’t feel comfortable if you’re outside of your comfort zone.

And outside your comfort zone is where you want to be. That’s where life begins. That’s the paradox of doubt. When you feel it, you can use it as fuel. Use it to power your ambitions and it will take you further than you imagined. Believe it or not, overcoming self doubt is the key that unlocks everything. At least that’s been my experience. And I hope it will be yours.

The Owen Community

None of this would have happened had I not come to Owen. Why is that?

Because for me the community that is Owen has been a touchstone in times of doubt. I chose to attend Owen, as I am sure many in the audience have as well, because of its community. And it has been here that I found supportive people overflowing with encouragement and motivation. It was the warmth of this community that helped me overcome my fear of achieving an MBA, and it is this community that has been there for me ever since graduating.

You see both my best friend and my husband are Owen alums. I met my best friend on a Thursday night at Closing Bell. Her combination of courage, care, and at times brutal honesty has been the source of advice for me time and again.

I didn’t meet my husband at Owen, but I met him because of Owen. My husband, Tom, was and is my biggest supporter. When I received the job offer from Amazon, Tom, my then future husband, didn’t blink an eye at the prospect of dating someone thousands of miles away. He said, “ I know we will figure this out” and spent the next year commuting out to Seattle every other weekend so that we could be together. Over the course of my career, there have been many nights when I have come home from work full of doubt, threatening to quit or predicting that I was about to be fired when he calmly listened, allowed me to vent, and then reminded me how I was uniquely capable of taking on whatever challenge I was struggling with. He calmed my doubts and quieted the negative voice in my head. Allowing me to find my optimism again. My advice, find those unique people in your life that will listen when you need to be heard, support when you need to be lifted and push when you need to be dared to grow.

At my commencement ceremony, I had no idea the role this community would play in my life. Trust me: neither do you.

In Closing

As I said earlier, your Vanderbilt degree is like a passport. But it’s you who must navigate. I couldn’t imagine a more exciting time to begin your journey into the professional world. Artificial intelligence is creating a new industrial revolution. Transformation is once again in the air as a new business landscape is taking shape right before our eyes. It requires inventors and reinventors, people who can navigate complexity, new leaders with fresh perspectives and the courage to leave doubt behind and dare to grow. In other words, it needs all of you.

Class of 2024, the next chapter of your lives begins now. Continue to carry with you the spirit of this community, the determination to succeed, and the belief in your own abilities that define the Owen experience. Know that you are part of something special, a legacy of excellence that extends around the world. Cherish the friendships you have made, the mentors that have guided you, and the daring that your degree affords you. Congratulations! The future belongs to you. I cannot wait to see the remarkable impact you are sure to make.

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