GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change

Immelt is the chairman and CEO of GE.

Jeffrey Immelt gave this commencement speech at Siena College

[video id=ILvXQw25 ]

Dr. Eddy, thank you for that introduction. To the families and friends here today — welcome. And to the class of 2015 — congratulations! Let me wish all of the mothers in the audience a Happy Mother’s Day.

I extend a special welcome as well to Bishop Hubbard, Howard Foote—Chairman of the Board—and all the Trustees and Board of Advisors in attendance.

It is great to be here at Siena. We share a special connection. You could say that GE and Siena grew up together. GE was founded in 1892 in Schenectady. Today we employ about 17,000 people in the Capital Region. And we are proud to have hundreds of Siena grads who’ve made careers at GE.
[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]

So it means a lot to receive an honorary degree from you…and to share this with my colleagues who take such great pride in being Siena alums.

[video id=ULaZMxmp ]

Of all the speeches I give during the year, there are none more enjoyable than standing before 800 young adults at the start of their lives.

But I recognize the feeling’s not always mutual.

I know that you’re probably thinking that you could have had a rock star…or a senator standing before you today.

You probably wish you went to Wake Forest … they got Stephen Colbert. Or to Emory … there Kenneth Cole is speaking. Or even the University of Houston … they heard from Matthew McConaughey.

Well, I speak “truthiness” when I say I am not as funny as Colbert. You can see I am not as well dressed as Kenneth Cole. And, not even my wife prefers me to Matthew McConaughey.

But did you draw the short straw on graduation speakers? I think not. Some of you may be in the market for a diesel locomotive; I can hook you up, wholesale. I also happen to be the landlord on some choice real estate over in Schenectady. I know our wind turbines make a good air conditioner for your studio apartment in Manhattan.

Now, if that still doesn’t impress you… this is my final offer: I can actually give you a job. The applause you hear is from your parents!

I should be grateful since you have given me a degree I didn’t earn. I just showed up this morning, and I am already “Doctor Immelt.” You spent four years here – shelled out a fortune – and you have to listen to me.

And, after hitting up Yik Yak this morning…I realized my biggest mistake may have been just showing up today. You guys really know how to countdown the last 40 days of college. Talk about some great party themes…Jurassic Park, Derby Day, Three Ring Circus and one theme that I will definitely not mention in front of your parents. You’re welcome.

But if I can give you just one piece of advice for further celebrations…don’t underestimate the importance of lifeguards. Especially when you leave here today and plan your first official “bootleg hot tub party” as a certified adult…

…In a pickup truck no less! Sounds like an impressive engineering project.

Now that every parent is downloading Yik Yak…let me get down to the meat of my remarks.

Although I lack your qualifications, I CAN share some thoughts on the world we live in. This is a world where the only certainty is unpredictability and change.

I am a Math major and have an MBA. I joined GE 33 years ago. For the first 20 years, we were at a time in America when life was placid, unemployment was low, and gas prices were predictable…People were pretty happy. I thought I had it figured out when I became CEO.

I was four days into leading one of the world’s largest companies, and I watched, as you did, the tragedy of 9/11…when planes with our engines hit buildings we insured, covered by a television network we owned.

In the era that followed, we watched a bubble economy collapse, the rise of china, the world go to war, the arrival of a great recession triggered by a global financial meltdown, a lingering recovery, an energy crisis and an energy boom.

At the same time, we saw the quick and powerful rise of the sharing economy, the march and progression of human rights, and an unprecedented emphasis on responsibility and sustainability.

For most of your life, this is the world that you have known … a world of continuous and unpredictable change.

Given the interconnected nature of our global economy, the speed of innovation, and the reality of geopolitical uncertainty…

Volatility is the new norm.

The good news for you is that no generation is better prepared for it than you. Yours is an inherently resilient generation. The opportunity for you is to no longer simply exist in this world of disruption. It is your turn to lead it.

My part is to share with you what I’ve learned by leading a 300,000 person company doing business in 175 countries during some of the most volatile times in business history.

This is not a lecture. In many ways, living life makes you humble. I am more comfortable with not having all the answers. Rather, these are a few reminders to help you when the path is uncertain.

Have a sense of purpose. In a volatile world – if you don’t know where you are going – you will go nowhere. The fact is, you can’t predict the future. Rather, your goal should be to capitalize on each cycle.

At GE, we have a purpose. We move, build, power and cure the world. We have invested – in good times and bad – in technology and business leadership. This has paid off for our company. Over the last decade, our Aviation business has gone through two difficult cycles … the 9/11 tragedy, and the financial crisis. But in each, we kept investing in new technology. We never wavered. And, we stand today as the global leader in Aviation. This is the reward for a sense of purpose.

Down the road in Niskayuna sits our global research center, the oldest industrial lab in the world … the last institution of its kind in the U.S. This is the home of 2,000 researchers and scientists who shape the future for GE and in many ways the world. It would be easy to cut investment in the future, but our purpose is innovation, so we keep investing.

Know what you stand for, in good times and bad. If you get shaken by each cycle; if you run when times get tough; if you want someone else to tell you what to think … you will get destroyed by events. Pick you own path; have a purpose.

Learn and drive change. To succeed in a world that is continuously changing you must be able — and willing to adapt. But you cannot adapt without a constant hunger to learn.

I will give you an interesting dimension of my own career. I joined GE in ’82 and 80% of our revenue was in the U.S.; I became CEO in ’01, and 70% of our sales were in the U.S.; and in 2015, 70% of our sales will be outside the U.S. My generation has had to learn the world!

And as a company, we have changed. Nowhere is that more true than growing our company in Africa. Today we have $6B of revenue there; most of this has come in the last decade. We have made massive investments in people and capability. And we are solving some of Africa’s biggest problems, bringing electricity and healthcare to remote regions.

If we had just sat in the U.S. and read the papers or watched TV, we would not have seized this growth. In fact, it is fashionable today to live in fear of globalization. But, I always wanted to learn things from the ground level … be hands on, and form my own opinions.

Similarly, a Siena grad – John Lizzi – is leading our efforts in the emerging science of Robotics. This technology will revolutionize our productivity in the future. But, to lead, we must learn and change … and John is in front.

Your Siena education — specifically, your liberal arts education — has prepared you to do this in ways you have yet to appreciate. It will give you the foundation and the confidence to be the lifelong learner and problem-solver the world and the workplace demand.

One of the best problem solvers I have worked with in my career is a Siena grad, Gary Sheffer. Gary has been my lead communicator and strategist for the last decade. His critical thinking, curiosity and attention to people are the output of a great liberal arts education. Based on my work with Gary, I know that Siena has prepared you to “learn and drive change.”

Take risks. Be willing to bet it all in search of your passion. Do not fear defeat. Taking risk requires equal parts innovation and determination.

Today, we are innovating at the very foundation of GE. We plan to take this great industrial powerhouse and make it equally as good in software. To do this, we will invest billions, hire new people and build different capability. Then we will deliver productive analytic solutions to our customers.

GE as a software company … who would have thought this was our future? But, we are determined to lead, and leadership takes innovation. In the world today, the only risk … is not taking risk.

But being a risk taker also requires determination. Your generation, more than any other, has grown up in a digital era. You can get news on a “24/7” basis. You do something stupid on Spring Break and there’s a video of it on “YouTube” before you get home. The problem with the virtual world is that it is virtual.

The problems with the American healthcare system are real. These problems can’t be solved by an Avatar. I know that in my lifetime we can treat major diseases more effectively. I also know that we can do this at lower cost. In your lifetime, we can greatly reduce the deadly impact of breast cancer or maybe cure it completely. Breast cancer is diagnosed in 200,000 American women each year, and millions outside the U.S.

However, there are rapid technical advancements in screening, diagnosis and treatment. Through GE’s focus on Early Health we can spot this disease earlier and treat it more effectively. This will cut healthcare costs while improving outcomes. But it takes determination.

Be willing to bet on yourself. Take risks. Be courageous enough to innovate and match it with real determination. I am always turned on by passionate people who want to live their dreams.

Remember that there is much to be gained by seeing others succeed. This is consistent with Siena’s commitment to service.

More than 350 Siena graduates work at GE today. I asked them before I came here what they appreciated and remembered most about their time at Siena.

It struck me that among the most common responses was the people. The people who they met here at Siena. A friar who helped a student grieve the death of a roommate. A professor whose belief in a student helped them achieve what they never believed was possible.

It sounds simple to say but as much as the world changes, what doesn’t change is that work is ultimately about people.

Today, we need teamwork more than ever. However, that doesn’t fit the national mood. Rather, we see unrest in many parts of the U.S. Elections often center around “income inequality” as much as any other topic. But, don’t forget: leadership is about getting diverse people to work together.

Down the road is something that shouldn’t exist … a 100-year-old American factory that still has massive opportunity. Yet, we still have thousands of manufacturing workers in Schenectady. Can you imagine how many generations of technology, competitive campaigns and leadership initiatives have traveled through those halls? This plant was established to serve the U.S.; yet today, 90% of its output is exported. We are developing modern wind and gas turbines; and building them using state-ofthe-art tools. Our manufacturing team is world class … and they are led by a Siena grad, Jeff Connelly.

We haven’t survived all this time because we are perfect leaders; or because we are always nice to each other, or always agree. We have been tough-minded about investment and performance. We have endured because we have told each other the truth about competitiveness … we have invested in uncertain times … and played together to win for the long term.

For business to succeed, we must recognize that teamwork is important. The trust of our customers is not earned and the passion of our people is no longer ignited by simply making our numbers. Our work is elevated by operating with purpose to deliver what the world needs.

It’s about applying our expertise to put veterans to work, to revive manufacturing in America, to bring water and light to Africa, to support our scientists and researchers in tutoring high school kids in Schenectady, to form partnerships around early breast cancer detection in Saudi Arabia.

And what business needs — indeed what the world needs — are men and women with the passion and drive to serve.

Lastly, stay humble and optimistic.

In solving problems, I have learned that no job is beneath me.

In 1989, I was leading our appliance service business. We had a catastrophic failure of our refrigerators and we were required to replace 3.3M compressors. Despite my lofty title, I learned how to fix compressors. I would go out into peoples’ homes to fix compressors, so that I understood the problem. There is no better way to be humbled then for a math major to sit on someone’s kitchen floor while the ice cream melts. I didn’t have to do that, but I can’t tell you how much I learned by doing so.

But don’t let humility turn you into a cynic. It is easy, but not impactful, to be a cynic today. Critics may produce words, but they don’t create value. In the end, optimists will show the way forward.

In a world where the challenges are complex and the stakes are high, we need people who truly believe that our best days are ahead of us. That starts at the very basic level, with the attitude you bring to your job as a staff assistant on Capitol Hill, or as a teacher in urban Atlanta, or as a financial analyst on Wall Street.

I am not here today because I have had a perfect career. Rather, my life has been about self-reflection, self-renewal, learning from failure and a powerful optimism that I can get better. You know what … I have been criticized by the best of them.

I have learned from my failures. But none have shaken my curiosity, my desire to take risks, or my will to try again. I have changed over my lifetime, but never lost site of the type of person I want to be.

I will give you three words to capture an optimistic framework for yourself. First, authenticity. Know how to connect with diverse people from different backgrounds. Give them a piece of yourself. Second, transparency. It is no longer enough to just tell the truth. You must be open in spirit and conduct. Lastly, unity. The divisiveness of our recent past must end. People want to unite behind a mission.

The world craves optimistic leaders. There is a choice you make early in life that sticks with you forever. That is to live a life of optimism, versus a cynical world filled with blame. We need you to be a positive force for change.

It was hard work that got me to where I am today…but at the very foundation it was my college education. And every time I go back to my alma mater, no matter how old I am, I think of my parents. It was their sacrifice and vision for education that got me to college. So before you leave here today, tell your parents thanks.

This afternoon, you will leave here to go out into a world that will be both amazing and heartbreaking, exhilarating and tedious, and yes — unpredictable and ever-changing. It is how you respond to that world, how you embrace the volatility, how you take what you’ve learned here to rise above and lead that determines where you’ll go.

Have a purpose; if you know where you are going, you can’t be shaken. Learn and drive change; your education empowers you to think your way through any problem. Take risks; bet on yourself with innovation and determination. Value team success; work on things that are bigger than yourself, and bring people with you. Stay humble and optimistic; learn from failure but lead with hope.

I was sad at my graduation; maybe a little hungover as well. I was apprehensive about the future and worried I would miss my friends. But, I am here to tell you there are some amazing days ahead!

Class of 2015, Go forth and serve.

Read more 2015 commencement speeches:

Alan Alda to Grads: Everything in Life Takes Time

Bernard Harris to Grads: You Are an Infinite Being With Infinite Possibilities

Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World

Chris Matthews to Grads: ‘Make Them Say No. Never Say No to Yourself’

Colin Powell to Grads: Learn to Lead

Ed Helms to Grads: Define Yourselves

Eric Schmidt to Grads: You Can Write the Code for All of Us

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel to Grads: ‘This Is the World We Were Born Into, and We Are Responsible for It’

Gwen Ifill to Grads: If You See Something, Do Something

GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change

Ian McEwan to Grads: Defend Free Speech

Joe Plumeri to Grads: Go Out and Play in Traffic

Jon Bon Jovi to Grads: Lead By Example

Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand

Joyce Carol Oates to Grads: Be Stubborn and Optimistic

Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed

Ken Burns to Grads: Set Things Right Again

Kenneth Cole to Grads: Find Your Voice

Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You

Mark Ruffalo to Grads: Buck the System

Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog

Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny

Mellody Hobson to Grads: Set Your Sights High

Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark

Michelle Obama to Grads: Shape the Revolution

Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve

Natalie Portman to Grads: Carve Your Own Path

President Obama to Grads: We Should Invest in People Like You

President Obama to Cadets: Lead the Way on Fighting Climate Change

Salman Rushdie to Grads: Try to Be Larger Than Life

Samantha Power to Grads: Start Changing the World By ‘Acting As If’

Stephen Colbert to Grads: You Are Your Own Professor Now

Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at