CEO Commencement Speech at CU Business School

On May 11, 2011, the Chairman, CEO, and Founder of Spectra Logic, Nathan Thompson, gave the commencement speech at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business. Here is the transcript from that speech.

I am honored to be with you today at this commencement ceremony for the University Of Colorado Leeds School Of Business. I’m sure you’re happy to be graduating, and I expect that your parents are proud—some may even feel a bit relieved!  As happy as you are today, I guarantee that your appreciation for this accomplishment will continue to grow over the years.

In retrospect, my course in life might have been better served had I also graduated with a business degree—just as you are today. You see, I graduated in 1983 in this same event center with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Just as a side note, this spring marks the 60th anniversary of my father’s graduation from the CU Business School, and like many of your parents, he is in our audience today.

I thought that I would share three quick stories about my experiences and how they might apply to you. Just three:

The first story is about the power of persistence

When I came to CU in 1978, I had anything but a “free ride.” I knew I would have to work and attend classes at the same time. During high school, I had a number of computer-related jobs and saved a fair amount of money—but this, plus working nearly full time during my freshman year, was barely enough to get me through.

Going into my sophomore year is where the wheels fell off. I had worked over the summer for a small computer integration company—and “on paper” made enough money to pay for my sophomore year. However the owner of that company, who to this day is a good friend, was having cash flow problems and had to defer paying me my entire summer wages for an additional full year.

So, when I returned to school in the fall of 1979, I had enough cash to make my apartment rent deposit but nearly nothing else. It was then when I fell into a hole of “being out of nearly everything”—out of food, out of laundry detergent, out of gas, out of rent money, out of tuition money, and—most of all—out of time.

I had just turned 19 at the depth of that crisis, and I laid down a bet with my last $500 and started a computer business while still in school. And that $500 was the first—and only—outside capital invested in the company.

31 years later that business is called Spectra Logic and we have about 350 worldwide employees.

Had I not faced starvation, eviction, and the prospect of nearly being thrown out of school—I would have never launched the company I run to this day.

Spectra designs and manufactures ultra-high-capacity information storage systems. That’s right—in this day of outsourcing, off-shoring, and virtualization, we actually build things—right here in Boulder, Colorado. Our tape and disk data storage systems are used to archive enormous volumes of content—everything thing from NASA’s space exploration history, to the Korean Meteorological Association’s weather to National Geographic’s digitized film library. We sell, install, and service these systems in about 40 countries around the globe.

Over the last 31 years, our company has enjoyed many successes, but we’ve also faced some extraordinary downturns. Our key strategy in surviving all of ups and downs is persistence. When the chips were down, we never gave in—we tightened our belts, lowered our heads, and charged forward, sometimes against considerable odds.

From this first story, I encourage you to always remember that achievement comes from persistence—whether it is graduating from business school or building a business. I like to quote Winston Churchill, who in 1940 stood alone between Nazism and the survival of Western society: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing great or small, large or petty—never give in.” And that rings true in war and life.

The second story is about the power of actually graduating

Getting a degree from CU while starting and building a business is likely to be the hardest thing I will ever do. Many times along that five-year journey, I didn’t think I would accomplish either. Although I’m often faced with high-pressure workloads, nothing compares to that period. From time to time when significantly challenged, I look back and say, “I did it then, and therefore I can do it now.”

When I graduated, I had no student loans or business debt, and the company was profitably operating with 10 employees out of a house just south of here in Martin Acres.

Over the 28 years since, I have received many awards and accolades. But outside of my family, the single thing I am most proud of is that I actually completed my curriculum—I graduated—and THAT means the world to me.

Having a four-year college degree will empower your life in so many positive ways. Besides setting the direction of your career, it will define:

  1. Who your friends are

The type of person you marry

  1. Your physical health and lifespan
  2. Your income and lifestyle
  3. Your mental health
  4. Your children’s roadmap
  5. Your flexibility and adaptability
  6. And most importantly, your happiness

Mark my words. Wherever you travel around the world, whatever you do career-wise—you will be recognized as a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder. And that is something to take pride in.

The third and final story is about the power of innovation

This is going to be a little controversial—and I may not be invited back for saying it—but here goes… The last four years of your school life have been anything but innovative. You have been doing homework, and taking tests, and writing papers, and creating case studies, and reading textbooks. But in comparison to the business world, this is not innovation. Furthermore, some of you may be worried about entering the workplace during a time of poor opportunities, and a decidedly anti-business environment. Let me assure you that every college graduate has had those same concerns. How have they succeeded?

How do you succeed?

The answer is, in one word—innovation.

In everything you create, in everything you do, in everything you think—innovate!

I believe that ideas are the building blocks of innovation. As you leave this university, remember:

  1. There is always a better idea, and it’s up to you to find it
  2. Don’t get wedded to any single idea
  3. If your ideas get shot down—as they will more often than not—don’t get discouraged. Create new ones
  4. The best ideas are well refined. Take a good idea and continue to improve it again and again
  5. Engage your mind, and bring good ideas from one industry or a different walk of life to your own work
  6. And wherever you end up—be the person with the most ideas

As Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling aptly said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.”  From your ideas will spring your innovation.

I speak from experience on this. My company and my business career are all about innovation. Spectra Logic has survived and prospered against much larger rivals only because we had better ideas.

As a graduate of the Boulder CU College of Business, you stand in great company of innovators:

—Take Ron Snyder, a graduate of CU business in 1979. Ron was the execution genius behind the nearly billion-dollar Boulder-based company called Crocs. I love my Crocs. Crocs are innovation.

—Take Eric Kramer, a graduate of CU business in 1981. Eric started one of the top 10 money management firms in the country—Crestone Capital—that manages money for high net-worth families and individuals. Boulder-based Crestone outperformed the track record of nearly all the Wall Street firms—Goldman, Merrill, JP Morgan—when it really counted, in 2008 and 2009. Crestone is innovation.

—And take John Wood, a graduate of CU business 1986. John left a marketing career at Microsoft to start Room to Read. This nonprofit has raised money for and built nearly 1,500 schools, along with giving out some 10 million books in severely underdeveloped countries such as Laos, Sri Lanka, Zambia, and Nepal. John’s organization has played a role in teaching over 5 million children to read. Room to Read, my friends, is innovation.

Don’t let college “group-think” lead you to believe that the only way you’ll succeed is by getting an MBA, starting a green energy business, raising venture capital, and going public. For 99% of us, that probably won’t happen. But there are myriad opportunities for taking common, perhaps unglamorous businesses and really changing their economics through innovation.

In this job and business climate, our country faces enormous internal and external challenges. Outside of persistence and hard work, your path to success is through innovation. Whatever you do from here—be it working for an accounting firm, selling insurance, entering a family business, delivering IT services, joining an investment bank, going back for more education, or starting your own business as I did—your key to your survival and prosperity is innovation.

And heck, maybe along the way, you’ll make a million bucks—which means that you will pay at least a half a million in taxes—but you will help our country dig itself out of the terrible financial hole we are in.

That’s my advice. Persist. Be proud of graduating, go forth and leverage your accomplishment of today. And most of all innovate.

Thank you all very much.