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Bryant University Commencement

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Bryant University Commencement
Smithfield, Rhode Island
Saturday, May 19, 2018

Thank you, President Matchley. Your commitment to Bryant University and to cultivating a new generation of leaders is to be commended. I am so happy to be a bulldog!  

Graduates, parents, family, friends, trustees and faculty, I am so pleased to join you today for the commencement of Bryant University’s 155th graduating class.  Congratulations!

You are graduating at a good time.  Economic growth has picked up—going from 1.6 percent in 2016 to 2.3 percent in 2017.  Three million new jobs have been created in the last year alone.  In April 2018, the unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent—the lowest in more than 17 years.  The recent tax and regulatory reforms have helped to invigorate the economy. As business majors or minors, you are fortunate to have a grounding in the free enterprise system, which is the underpinning of our country’s economy and prosperity.

Some of you may become disruptors, working with or creating new forms of products and services that challenge past practices.  Others may work for more traditional enterprises.  Some of you may not be sure what you want to do.  And that’s OK.  Our country’s economy is so big and dynamic that there are abundant opportunities to try different things. 

In fact, the average American will have had about 10 jobs by the time he or she is 50 years old.  That’s part of the dynamism of our economy.  And increasingly, if you can’t find something you like, you can create it.  We are fortunate to live in the internet age, in which digital resources offer a wide variety of platforms to create your own niche. 

Unfortunately, popular culture today tends to disparage entrepreneurs and the free enterprise system.   But without the entrepreneurs, innovators and risk takers who propel our economy forward, millions of people would be without jobs, condemned to poverty or a lower standard of living.  So don’t be afraid to be an advocate for entrepreneurship, and the free enterprise system in which it flourishes.

Some believe that helping others is the sole purview of the non-profit sector.  And as the former Director of the Peace Corps and President and CEO of the United Way of America, I can tell you that non-profits offer wonderful opportunities for rewarding and gratifying work.    But that’s not the only way to make a difference.

In fact, the goal of entrepreneurship is to create value for others.  That’s what determines the success or failure of an enterprise.  The competition and churn of the free enterprise system can be tough.  But competition creates better products and services that previous generations could only dream about.  

I see this firsthand as Secretary of Transportation.  Autonomous technology, including self-driving vehicles and drones, has tremendous potential to save lives and increase access to transportation.  Many traditionally underserved communities, including the elderly and people with disabilities, can regain their mobility and freedom.  And many emergency response jobs that once put people in harm’s way can now be done by remotely-piloted drones.  We saw that last year in the aftermath of the hurricanes and wild fires that devastated our country. 

But these wonderful innovations bring challenges, as well. They include ensuring the safety, security and privacy of new technologies. And workers will need training for the new skills these emerging technologies require.  So the challenges of tomorrow are multifaceted.  They present many opportunities for the creative problem solving that is a hallmark of our country and the free enterprise system.  

Today, you have already taken an important step in your career by graduating.  As a former Secretary of Labor, I can assure you that completing your education is one of the most important investments you can make in yourself.  Your parents, too, will be glad to know that college graduates earn significantly more over their lifetimes than those without post- secondary education. 

Now that you’ve taken that critical first step, there are other things you can do to create a path forward—no matter what challenges you encounter. 

First, there is no such thing as overnight success. Success is a series of small steps, taken every day towards your goal.  So do every task—no matter how small—to the best of your ability.    

Second, if you want to change the world, start with yourself.  Each task done well creates a ripple effect of positive change, which reverberates far beyond yourself.  That’s how real change is created-- one person, and one task at a time. 

Third, as you make your way in life, cultivate a grateful heart. Take time to thank the people who made sacrifices for you—especially your loved ones —and to give something back to your community. Giving back to others is a way to earn the freedoms we enjoy.

Fourth, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  America is the land of second chances. As Secretary of Transportation, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many innovators from Silicon Valley.  In their culture, mistakes are expected. They are considered part of the learning process. So, learn from your mistakes, and just keep going.

And finally, when you are young you may not understand this.  But at the end of a long life, your reputation and the love, affection and respect you command from family, friends and peers are the most important assets you can acquire.  These are the real treasures of a life well lived. 

Let me close by noting that the journey you begin today will have its ups and downs, its twists and turns.  But if you cultivate a grateful heart, and keep your eye on the true goal of work—which is to create value for others—you will never lose your way. Congratulations again.  Good luck.  God speed.

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Updated: Thursday, May 24, 2018
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