2017 Commencement Address by Jean-Pierre Conte P '17

I’m honored to be invited to speak at the commencement for Millbrook’s graduating Class of 2017. Drew mentioned that I was a First Gen student and he shared my passion for supporting these special students. First Gen students are students who are the first in their families to go to college. And many of these students are immigrants or children of immigrants coming to our great nation for an opportunity to better their lives and lives of their families. 
I am the child of immigrants. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and New Jersey. 

My Dad emigrated from war-torn France to New York City at the age of 18 after World War II. My Mom emigrated from Havana, Cuba when she was 18. They met in New York City. My Dad was a tailor turned clothing salesman at Paul Stuart in New York. His customers were largely high-profile titans of Wall Street. My Dad was a friendly, honest, hard-working man -- a very positive, bright light and his clients truly enjoyed him. They loved my Dad, so they took an interest in helping me and my family. They were of service to my Dad and our family. 

I went to Colgate University, worked for two years at Chase Manhattan Bank. I went to Harvard Business School and joined the Private Equity industry in 1989.  As a First Gen kid at Colgate, there was a pretty big information gap on getting through school. 

I performed well academically, but I do remember some awkward social situations as everything was new to an immigrant kid and First Gen kid. 
Almost every experience in college was new and sort of uncomfortable. In fact, I became very accustomed to living uncomfortably enabling me to take new risks (London Economics study group) - try new activities (rowing team), meet new people (rugby). Personal growth really happens when someone is challenged or uncomfortable! 

Many of you graduates are First Gen kids. You know what I am talking about! 

Why am I so interested in First Gen immigrant students? They typically go on to greatness in whatever field they choose: art, science, business or medicine. Today, at many leading colleges, First Gen kids represent 15-20% of the student body. In the 1980’s, the number was 5% or less. Many universities focus on attracting this cohort of students because they go on to greatness and wind up paying it back, being of service and helping others. 
What makes this cohort of students so special and what are some of the statistics? 

First, immigration (despite what’s been discussed in today’s political discourse) has been and still is a huge source of economic growth and success for the United States. 
  • 50% of Silicon Valley startups are founded by immigrants 
  • In the last ten years, U.S. companies founded by immigrants employed 500,000 workers in the USA. 
Second, these students work a little harder and are generally more focused and disciplined in that they don’t want to blow their opportunity to get ahead in life. In the words of Alexander Hamilton in the musical, Hamilton: “I’m not throwing away my shot!” 

Third, these students are of service. They are truly grateful for the opportunities they were given and they want to pay it forward by helping others. 
Now, back to my journey. During college and grad school, several of my Dad’s clients helped me with guidance and internships along the way. They helped close this information gap that exists for First Gen kids. I am forever thankful and grateful for their assistance. 

I was in New York City in 1995 working, and dissatisfied with my job and life, and wanted change. I quit my job; went to Africa for close to two months; came back; took a risk; jumped on my motorcycle and drove to San Francisco with no job. Just a lot of hope and a bright spirit! Many of my HBS friends had moved there in 1989 to join the technology revolution which was happening. They said come West, “It will all work out!” It did . . . It’s 22 years later. I have four amazing children, leading with William Conte in this graduating class. And I built a leading private equity firm in San Francisco called Genstar Capital. 

It’s been an amazing journey. Let me share some of the life lessons from this journey. 

FIRST -- on the career, college front: 
1. You only grow when you are uncomfortable 
    A. Take risks 
         – meet new people 
         – try new activities 
         – say YES! 
     B. Explore the unknown 
     C. Break convention 
     D. The First Gen and immigrant kids get this! They only know risk and live in the unknown. 
         - If you are a First Gen student, I encourage you to continue to take risks going forward. I also encourage you to lift your heads, appreciate the moment and enjoy the experience. It can’t all be work and worrying about the future. 
         - If you have the good fortune of being born with wealth or comfort, that’s great! But take the opportunity to lean in, take risks and seek discomfort. Keep growing! 
2. Work hard, but love what you are doing. 
3. Keep disciplined. Remember Hamilton: “I’m not throwing away my shot!” 
Now, all that is well and good, and may help you in college and career, but the real objective in life is to be joyful and content. Here are the lessons I wish I was taught when I graduated from high school in 1981. Having a big career and financial success doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.  What does? 
1. FORGING deep meaningful relationships with people! It’s the best part of life! 
2. BE KIND. Lead with kindness in your interactions with people. 
3. BE OF SERVICE. Self-absorbed people are generally unhappy. Help others and your happiness will be fulfilled. 
4. STAY HUMBLE. Humility has a way of keeping us rational in the game of life. Arrogance almost always leads to bad choices and bad actions and outcomes. 
5. OWN YOUR OWN LIFE. It’s not anyone else’s life but yours so own it. Make good choices. 
As I come to a close here, I want to go back to the immigration discussion briefly. 
Today’s world seems to be filled with so much conflict and opposition: I’m poor – you’re rich. I’m Democrat – you’re Conservative. I’m anti-Trump – you’re pro-Trump. 

Let’s take a moment and focus on what we share as Americans! And it’s unique to Americans! 

Every one of us has an aspirational ancestor who took a RISK and came to America to seek a better life and changed their life and the lives of their families. Figure out who that person is in your family and celebrate him or her! 

And then go out in this world and take your own risk to better your own life and the lives of others. 

Thank you, Drew and all the faculty and staff at Millbrook. My family and I have had a wonderful experience here at Millbrook. 
And finally, Congratulations to the Millbrook Class of 2017!
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