Duncan Niederauer '81 gives the address to the class of 2013.

Duncan Niederauer ’81 talks to the Class of 2013 at commencement. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

(Note: The following are the remarks by commencement speaker Duncan L. Niederauer ’81, chief executive officer of NYSE Euronext, on May 19, 2013.)

Welcome, everybody. What an honor for me to be here. It’s been a great day already. Somebody won the Powerball jackpot, for those of you who slept in this morning. We don’t know who yet. For breakfast I had what I now call the breakfast of champions – Chobani yogurt. I’d highly recommend the raspberry.

In 1981, I sat where you guys sit today. That’s a decade before most of you who are graduating today were born. I sat here with my parents, with my classmates, and with my golden retriever. Some of you are going to get your diplomas from your parents or some relative today. My golden retriever gave me my diploma in 1981.

I don’t remember much about that day. It may be because it was a long time ago. It is more likely that it was due to the activities that we engaged in the 12 to 24 hours preceding that great day in 1981. But I do remember that I sat here as the proud son of an immigrant, as the product of a very solid middle-class upbringing, and that I was about to go off to my first job in Atlanta, Georgia, running a restaurant, far from Wall Street and far from financial services. But enough about that. Today we gather for not just any commencement, we gather for your commencement, so congratulations.

Now this isn’t just any commencement either, right? This is the 2013 commencement. Thirteen, you know what that means, we’re going to spend a lot of time on the number 13 today, and what I want you to be left with at the end of this is this makes you special. No one’s been able to say they were the Class of ’13 since 1913, so if you guys want to run around saying you’re the only Class of ’13 from Colgate, I’m pretty sure no one’s around to argue with you about that.

You’re here today with your family and I’m here today with my family. I’m blessed to have four of the five most important women in my life here today – my mother, my godmother, my wife, and my older daughter, so I thank them for being here today.

You guys know all about 13, right? Colgate’s love affair with the number 13 goes back to 1819 – 13 men with 13 dollars and 13 prayers. You’ve got the zip code, 13, and then 346 equals 13. You’ve got 13 Oak Drive. You’ve even got the motto on the big logo in the back. A lot of people say, “Oh, you know, Deo ac Veritati, it’s for God and for truth, that’s all really good.” Those of us who went to Colgate know it only had a chance because it had 13 letters in the logo. Nothing that wasn’t 13 letters was not considered. It’s really all about the number 13.

Now as fate would have it, my family has had a very interesting journey with the number 13 as well. Let’s see, what order do I want to do this in? I’ll go back to 1948. My parents were married on June 13th in 1948. My father graduated from Middlebury on June 13th, 1949. Our daughter was born on May 13th, 1986. Our younger daughter is 13. My mother lives at number 13 Potter Road. This just keeps following us around, so what an honor for me to be invited to speak to you guys at the 2013 graduation. I can now add that to my list the next time I have to talk about the number 13.

So my relationship with this wonderful place goes back to 1976, and I can tell you that if it were not for how hard my parents worked but as importantly the generosity of others who came before us here at Colgate, I wouldn’t have been able to attend Colgate. I needed financial aid, I needed grants, I needed loans, and it was there for us. Colgate also gave me the reason to get my passport for the first time. I went on the London Study Group in 1978, ’79, somewhere around there, and I never had a passport before that so Colgate gave me that opportunity. The restaurant I talked about going to run in Atlanta, that was for a graduate of Colgate. My first job at Goldman Sachs, a person from Colgate helped me get that job.

I ended up having a chance to pay it forward a little bit in the campaign for Colgate, being on the trustees, and now having the pleasure of being with you today, and I have to tell you I never dreamed I would be here. When I was sitting where you are sitting, I did not think I would be the commencement speaker here ever, and given the feedback I’ve gotten from some of my friends when they saw this announcement, I would say there were other people who agreed with me.

But maybe I should have, right, because the American dream teaches us that anything is possible, and I believe I’m a product of that American dream.

I’m reminded of a story that happened a few years ago at the Exchange. We were doing a day for entrepreneurs at the Exchange and Snoop Dogg was there, who now I think goes by the moniker Snoop Lion. Now I bet many of you in this audience were not thinking that he would be quoted in a commencement speech but he gave some really good advice that was elegantly simple that day. We’re on the podium, he’s about to ring the opening bell at the New Stock Exchange, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, and one of the entrepreneurs says to him, “Snoop, did you ever think you’d be here ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange?” And he turned around and he looked at the other entrepreneur and he said, “Why not?”

And I thought it was simple. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t say anything else, and you know what, that’s all he had to say because “why not” conveys what the American dream is all about, right? This is the land of opportunity, and as I said to some folks at dinner last night, “You find me another country in the world where the son of an immigrant can have the job of CEO of the New York Stock Exchange three-quarters of a century later.” It does not exist and it’s something we should be proud of.

And that’s part of why I’m so honored to have a chance to spend some time with you guys today, so it’s in that spirit that I humbly submit what I call 13-for-13 for your consideration. I promise they’re going to go quickly so no heavy sighs in the audience, please. Now I’d call them the Colgate 13 but somebody beat me to that so all I would ask of you is two things: one, that you carry a few of these with you on your journey; and two, that a few years from now, unlike me, you actually remember who your commencement speaker was.

Number one, remember that your life and your career are a series of experiences. Make the most of them. Plan ahead but don’t over-architect or over-engineer. It’s great to have a plan but if you make it too bounded, you will preclude yourself from considering opportunities that will inevitably be presented to you and come your way. It will also give you the confidence to embrace new things and embrace change, and your generation is going to be all about that.

Number two, contrary to popular belief, every boss you have is a role model.  A great boss is a great role model. A bad boss is at least a good role model. I learned just as much from my great role models as I did from less good bosses because I tried to remind myself how they made people feel, and I thought if I could be the antithesis of them, that was a good leader. So please don’t think if you end up with a bad boss in one of your early jobs, you can’t learn something. You can learn a lot even if it’s about what not to be.

Third, know that the road-less-travelled is much more interesting. My father had the pleasure of being at Middlebury when Robert Frost was the poet-in-residence, and our family has sort of adapted the road not taken as one of our mantras.  And what did Robert Frost tell us in The Road Not Taken? “Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Why is that important? Because it’ll give you the courage to stand behind your convictions and there will be moments when you have to.

Now why is that so important? Because of number 4. Conventional wisdom is synonymous with playing it safe and looking backwards, and it’s also most of the advice you get from people when you ask. So my advice to you is be afraid of old ideas, not new ideas, and when you’re soliciting advice, which is a good thing to do, just consider and remember the source, and understand that all advice you get has implicit biases.

I can remember when Alison and I were thinking about moving to Tokyo and volunteering in the early ’90s to move there with Goldman Sachs. The first thing we did to survey the landscape was I asked 20 of my colleagues what they thought about the idea of picking up and moving to Asia. When 18 of the 20 told me it was a bad idea, we knew it was the right thing to do and we volunteered the next day.

The same thing happened to us in the school that President Herbst mentioned in his introduction of me a few minutes ago. When Alison and I embarked on a campaign to build a special needs school in New Jersey for 200 special needs students, all the experts told us it couldn’t be done. Everyone we asked said, you know, “You guys don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve never done this before. It’s not going to work, and here are the 15 reasons why it won’t work.” I’ll come back to Newmark later. But the message there is follow your heart, not someone else’s mind.


Number five, bring passionate energy to what you do every single day. There’s a great speech from Teddy Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in 1910 and I want to quote from that. I’m sure many of you have heard it already. I think it is one of the most powerful speeches and it is filled with message for everybody. “Credit belongs to the man in the arena who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best in the end knows the triumph of high achievement, and at the worst if he fails at least he fails while daring greatly.” And what that means is leave it on the field. Participate, don’t spectate.

Number six, understand that success is highly correlated with what I call your self-awareness quotient. You know your strengths better than anybody else. Play to your strengths, pursue your passions, and learn from your shortcomings. It may be, certainly at my age, my weaknesses are destined to be my weaknesses. It’s unlikely that a weakness of mine at 53 is going to be a strength at 60. So I should play to my strengths. I continue to pursue my passions. It’s really important.

Number seven, remember your roots and keep your friends and family really, really close, and not just for the reason you think. It’s not just about work/life balance. What I call your personal board of directors, they’re the ones that you will always get truth from. They’re the ones you will always get unfiltered feedback from. They will be your foundation, they will be your compass, and they will keep you grounded.

Number eight, I think you already know this already, be prepared for every encounter. Calvin Coolidge taught us a long time ago that nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance, and I think it was Vince Lombardi who said, “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” So show up every day prepared. It doesn’t matter who you’re presenting to. I could be presenting to you, which I’ve prepared a lot for, or I could be presenting to a class of third graders as I was a couple of weeks ago at the NYSE. I prepared to talk to them too because guess what? – Everyone deserves that, right? So be prepared.

I feel like I’m having like one of those Rod Serling moments with the echo in the background, but it’s kind of fun.

Number nine, the high road is less crowded but it’s where you should always aspire to be. People are going to make it tough for you to stay there. The good news for me is I really hate traffic, and there are no traffic jams on the high road, so stay there.

Number 10, treat everyone with respect and kindness. It doesn’t matter who they are, it doesn’t matter what they can do for you, the measure of a human being is if you take care of people who you know can’t do anything for you the same way you take care of people who you know can, you’re a very, very good person.

Number 11, think about the difference between optimism and pessimism. The pessimist sees the challenges in every opportunity; an optimist, simply stated, sees the opportunity in every challenge, so for God’s sake be an optimist. Hang out with optimists. I had the chance to be with Colin Powell the other day, I introduced him at a conference in California a couple of days ago, and if you don’t like the guy already, which we all should,  he’s an amazing man, you’re going to like him even more when you hear his rules of leadership. Guess how many he has. He has 13 rules of leadership. Why not, right? And his 13th rule is to spread optimism because optimism is a force multiplier. So be optimistic.

Number 12, understand you’ve received a great deal and more will be expected of you, and that’s okay. Expect more of yourself and expect more of those around you. It will make your life a lot more fulfilling.

And last but not least, for number 13, in every situation you encounter, leave it better than you found it. Do it professionally and do it personally. Pay it forward, in other words. We all say it, too few of us do it, and find your own way to do it. A lot of people will say, “Well, I don’t have the means to do that or I don’t have the time to do that.” Find your way, and it will evolve as you go through your life. Alison and I have decided personally, along with our family, that our way of paying it forward is tied to autism. It is tied to raising awareness, it is tied to building schools, and now moving foward and housing these young adults with autism.

Professionally, I’ve spent a lot of time on financial literacy. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to create jobs in this country, and most recently getting very, very involved with veterans and talking all the time about the importance of hiring returning veterans and helping them make the transition to civilian life from military life. So the message on all that is be a giver and support those who give.

So in closing, as I contemplate somewhat jealously this wonderful journey on which you’re about embark, I’m reminded of Clarence Clemons. Those of you who follow Bruce Springsteen will know who Clarence Clemons is, the late great saxophone player, probably the best saxophone player I’ve ever heard in my life. He said to Bruce well into their career as they were going out on yet another tour, he said, “This could be the start of something big.” And for you guys, this could be the start of something big. It is going to be what you make of it.

So fasten your seat belts. No one’s going to give you an instruction manual but great news, your generation doesn’t need one. Nothing you buy any more comes with an instruction manual. The old people like me are still looking for one. You know, we get an iPhone, we get an iPad, we’re like, “Where’s the booklet?” Like, there isn’t one. So then you ask your kids and they teach you, and that’s great.

Pay more attention to your self worth than your net worth. Spend time with people who tell you what you can do not what you can’t do. Dare to do great things and hold yourself accountable to make a difference in the lives of others. Participate, don’t spectate. Have the feelings of victory and defeat, it will make you a stronger person. And by all means, keep Colgate close to you.

So finally as for that number 13, we will be celebrating the Newmark School’s opening later this year, the one conventional wisdom said wasn’t feasible, the one the experts said would never be built. When, you ask? September 13th because 9+1+3=13. But guess what: Friday the 13th happens to fall in September this year so we will be opening that school on Friday, September 13th, 2013, and you know what I would say?

Why not?