May 2014 Graduation Address by Mr. Marvin Ellison

President Martin, thank you for that wonderful introduction. Provost Dr. Rudd, it is an honor to be here today.  Graduates, let me congratulate each of you on what will be one of the proudest days of your life.

I'm a huge believer in planning and preparation. So as I readied myself for this very important address, I researched some of the greatest speeches of all times for inspiration.  I read some of the words of Susan B Anthony as she fought for women suffrage on the steps of the courthouse.  I read Winston Churchill passionate and prophetic first address to the House of Commons preparing his countrymen on the challenges of the upcoming war.  I re-read the Gettysburg Address to better understand the brilliance of Lincoln's communication style.  And I read a speech that occurred less than 8 miles down the road from where we are today where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr told the world about his simple yet elusive dream.  These speeches truly inspired me.  But I realized that regardless of the era that these wonderful works of oratory had been given, they all had one thing in common.  They were short.  Although I cannot promise you a legendary speech, I can promise you that I will be brief. 

Before I discuss the two points I would like to make today, let me tell you what makes today very special to me.  25 years ago I sat in a similar commencement ceremony receiving my degree from this same University, back then we called in Memphis State.  And honestly graduates, I cannot remember one single point made by any of the speakers that day.  It is not because they were not impressive individuals, my mind was simply preoccupied.  Instead of intently listening, I sat there with increased anxiety wondering what my life would be like in the upcoming years.  More pressing I was thinking: would I get a good job, was I truly prepared to make it on my own, would I achieve my goals in life, would I make my parents proud and what would happen to that very cute girl I met in the library just 2 years prior.  Those thoughts and not the commencement speaker occupied my mind.

As I replay the last quarter century from that commencement ceremony until today and think about the wonderful life that I live, I feel enormously grateful and blessed.  You see graduates, I traveled all over the world. I am responsible for the careers of tens of thousands of wonderful men and women. I interact with the titans of business and Wall Street. I have met the President a couple of times and even dined at the Whitehouse.  I have made my parents proud and they deserved that.  I have two wonderful kids, Donavan and Gabrielle who are in attendance today.  Donavan will be attending the University of Memphis as a freshmen this fall.  Most importantly, that cute girl I met in the library, her name is Sharyn and she is a 1991 graduate and we will be celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary in Oct.

Besides God's favor, what has allowed me to achieve this wonderful life?  I will share with you the two simple principles taught to me by my father Ivory T. Ellison and reinforced to me during my time at this wonderful university. 

The first principle is EFFORT.  I wake up every day willing to give more effort than the person working next to me.  Let me take you back to Physics Class and discuss two numbers, 211 and 212; more specifically, 211 degrees and 212 degrees.  At 211 degrees water is very hot but at 212 degrees, water boils, creates steam and steam can power a locomotive...just one degree difference.  Here's a question.  How much more can you achieve in your life with just one more degree of effort in everything you do?

Let me tell you a quick story when I failed to follow this principle.  My first salaried job out of college was a glorified Security Manager of a retail store. This was not what my degree was in, it was not the job I wanted, but because we were in a recession, I took the best available job that I could find.  Remember I had also met that cute girl so I wanted to stay in Memphis.  In my mind I rationalized that because this was not my dream job, it was just temporary until I found something better, I did not have to place much effort in what I did each day.  So I became content at being average.  I came in each day and did the minimum required...no more and no less. 

Six months into this routine I had my first staff meeting with all my colleagues in the market.  We gathered in a large impressive conference room to discuss the strategic plan for our department.  As my boss solicited input from the team on various business issues, processes and initiatives, I came to the realization that I knew less than anyone in the room.  I kept a brave face but I was embarrassed.  Graduates, I will never forget, I sat there and made a silent prayer..."Lord, if you let me get out of this meeting without being exposed as a fraud, I will commitment that I will place extreme effort in being the best in this role (whether it's a dream job or not).  Graduates, God answered my prayer.  When I returned to work, I put my 1 degree of effort philosophy into action. I read every manual, report and source of data I could find on how a retail business worked.  A funny thing happened; I became better at my job & I became a resource to my peers.  Another thing happened; I began to enjoy what I did.  I actually fell in love with retail.  And guess what, I got promoted.  Not once but again and again and again.  So graduates, I challenge you to get up each day looking for that extra degree of effort that moves you from hot, to boiling, to steam that powers a locomotive.

The second principle is to BE THE BEST me in everything I do.  I grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee, a small three traffic light town 80 miles northeast of here.  As an African American I have worked in environments where no one looked like me.  I've worked with colleagues with elite educational backgrounds and impressive resumes.  I have to admit that on occasion I have felt slightly inferior that my credentials or my background did not measure up.  So if you don't measure up, what do you do?  Well, you try to blend in and be more like them.

On occasion I would think to myself, "How can a guy from Brownsville compete in a corporate environment with people who clerked on the Supreme Court, have worked internationally or attended Ivy League Schools?"  Whenever I begin to feel inferior I would hear a message in my head repeated to me by my father as I grew up in that small town.  He would say "you are no better than anyone and no one is better than you."  He would go on to say "when times get tough remember NO ONE CAN BEAT YOU BEING YOU."  In other words graduates, leverage your unique abilities to differentiate yourself from your peers and that's what I did and that's what I continue to do.

Each person here today has unique gifts that are exclusively yours.  Whether it's your ethnic background, your love of math, your natural leadership, your communication style or your resiliency and refusal to lose in anything you do.  Graduates, identify these natural gifts, perfect them and make these part of your daily leadership portfolio.

In closing, Graduates this is your time.  You control your destiny.  Whether you choose a life of Public Service, the Arts, Education or Business this is your time.  You have to see yourself as a sculptor with a smooth stone and a sharp chisel with the ability to create a unique piece of art.  Your future and career is that unique piece of art.  This is your time, seize the moment, find that one-degree of effort and be the best you to live the life of your dreams. God bless you and I wish you much success!