For weeks, all I could think was, “Come on, this is the best you can do? What about Sonia Sotomayor? Can’t someone check and see if she’s available?”
My pique had been brought on when Scripps College announced who would be speaking at my daughter’s commencement: Nonie Creme, an alumna of the school who in 2006 started a nail polish company.
It’s not that I have anything against polishing one’s nails; I wouldn’t dream of missing my bi-weekly mani-pedi. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether having someone in the beauty business send the graduates of an all-women’s college out into the world might send the wrong message.
What’s more, at a time when other commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients have been coming under heavy fire for their politics—International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde at Smith, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis—Creme seemed a pathetically apolitical choice.
Boy, was I wrong.
Creme rocked the house, giving one of the best commencement addresses I’ve ever heard or read. She introduced herself as “the first straight C student to give this speech,” and then related how she went on to found a multi-million dollar company, Butter London. Along the way, she dispensed the kind of practical advice that any parent would be thrilled to have their child take in.
First, Creme counseled, don’t let your major define you. Instead, she told the graduates, an area of study is really just “a jumping-off point.” So, when people stick up their noses at a liberal arts degree and ask, “What will you do with that?” there is only one reply: “Anything I want, actually.”
Of course, it took a bit of distance for Creme to understand this. She explained how she first felt like a failure when, as a fine arts major, she realized that she “sucked” at painting. It was only in retrospect that Creme figured out how her education had given her the tools she needed to create a successful beauty brand.
“If you told me that I'd end up using my Scripps fine arts degree to build beauty enterprises I would have laughed at you,” she noted. “I'd have said ‘I'm not an MBA, I don't know anything about business.’” But what Creme did know was how to mix paint—the perfect skill for someone who would one day develop her own line of nail polish.
The second lesson Creme imparted was about humility and hard work. She recalled what it felt like when she first started out, standing outside a London subway station every morning with “business cards, a basket full of nail supplies, and a pay-as-you-go mobile phone” trying to drum up work as a manicurist. While she made decent money providing desk-side service to patrons in the financial district, she was ashamed at her occupation.
“I was well-educated, upper-middle-class, and here I was doing this job that required little more than a grade-school education and was what people ended up doing when they had no other options,” she said. “This time in my life taught me . . . we are not better than anyone else.”
Creme also reminded the undergraduates gathered under the shade of the school’s beautiful 75-year-old elm trees that their education was a gift and “not a free pass in life.”
“You are still going to have to work really bloody hard to succeed,” she said, and success won’t come overnight. Creme herself went from booking jobs on the street to becoming a sought-after manicurist for runway shows to being quoted in glamor magazines about the latest trends. Fashion editors coveted her custom-mixed nail polishes, and industry insiders implored her to start her own company.
But that was still just the beginning, really. At 34—more than a decade after graduating—Creme temporarily moved away from her husband and comfortable London home and joined her business partner in a “rat-infested basement” in Seattle, where, with the $50,000 in start-up money they cobbled together, Butter London was born.
“I have never worked that hard in my life,” Creme said, “and I pray that I'll never have to again.”
As Creme gets ready to launch her second company—extending her signature custom colors to a new line of cosmetics and hair products—her third lesson for the young women sitting expectantly in front of her was for them to follow their passion.
“I learned to listen to myself, and trust that if I was happy, the only measure of success that mattered was my own,” she told them. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Money is only actually fun if you’re already happy.”
Later, she added: “Don't be scared about what comes next, don’t worry about whether you’ll set the world on fire. Just stop, think, as you’ve been educated to do—and then try some stuff that looks fun and interesting. If you’re truly unhappy, try something else, and so on and so on, until . . . you know.”
Oh, and there was one more lesson. But this one was for me. I had prejudged Nonie Creme, deciding in advance that she was not feminist or intellectual enough for the occasion. That was wrong, and I told my daughter so. For me, it was an important reminder that some of the richest learning is to be found in unexpected places.
Creme later mentioned to me that she had heard how her selection had “caused some eyes to roll.” Yet she did not bow out. Instead, she took on the challenge, stood before hundreds of people, and with warmth and wit shared her amazing story of hard work, grit and smarts. And, fittingly, she nailed it.