And just like that, my two year residence in the Haas Undergraduate Program is over. On Monday, May 19, 2014, I joined 384 other Haas students as we bid farewell to the prestigious business school at the Greek Ampitheater in UC Berkeley.
Dean Lyons’ Opening Remarks
The event began with Dean Rich Lyons welcoming everyone to the Haas undergraduate commencement ceremony. In his opening remarks, Dean Lyons referred to Haas undergrads as an “energetic and high-performing” group, and commended Haas students for being some of the most outstanding students in UC Berkeley. He shared that getting into Cal was already difficult in general, and being admitted into the Haas undergraduate business program was yet another challenge. Dean Lyons exclaimed that after graduating, we will be joining the ranks of successful alumni and business leaders who have affected the world profoundly through our shared ideals of the four defining principles, namely Question the Status Quo; Confidence without Attitude; Students Always; and Beyond Yourself.
Stephen Etter’s Introduction of Commencement Speaker
Stephen Etter, founder of Greyrock Capital Group and Haas School Lecturer in Corporate Finance (UGBA131), who earned his Bachelor’s Degree and MBA from the Haas School of Business, and whose dedication to students is reflected in three teaching awards he has received as a GSI and Professor, walked up to the podium next to introduce this year’s graduation speaker. It is one of Haas’s traditions to choose an alumni to speak at commencement, ours was Mark DiPaola (BS ’99), co-founder and current Chairman of the Board of inMarket. DiPaola was one of Etter’s most memorable students. During his time as an undergraduate, DiPaola had been chosen by Etter to participate in the Texas Case Comp team because of his innovative leadership and ability to question the status quo. Nonetheless, Etter says it was not obvious to him then that DiPaola would “assemble an unbelievable record of achievement at a very, very short time.” DiPaola had founded a company with his brother Todd, a fellow Cal alum who also took Etter’s UGBA131 class, called Vantage Media, before selling it to launch their second venture, inMarket. Outside the entrepreneurial world, Mark and Todd set up the DiPaola foundation to give back to education, environment, and other non-profit services. Mark Dipaola was deemed as one of Haas’s youngest innovative leaders.
Mark DiPaola, Class of 2014’s Alumni Commencement Speaker
Mark DiPaola began his speech by sharing his own experience as an undergraduate during his Haas commencement day. He pointed out to the seat he vividly remembers sitting at, talked about providing horns and pans for his family to bang, and stitching “Hi Mom!” on the back of his cap. DiPaola was just like the students of Class of 2014. He had a plan for post-graduation; he had just landed his dream job at a strategy consulting company and imagined flying around different parts of the country to meet CEOs and give his “nuggets” of advice for his clients’ approach to pursuing “new verticals” and increasing their business’s efficiency, among others. He would work their for maybe 8-9 years, become a partner, then relocate in “rustic Italy” or “sunny south of France” where he would put up a new office. While DiPaola enjoyed his job as a consultant, he never made it to his end goal (Italy), as he got laid off after his second year at the firm during downsizing.
While losing his employment hurt, he later joined a startup that sought to change the world. The startup would also “fail spectacularly,” causing DiPaola to consider returning to school for an MBA. Unfortunately, none of the graduate schools he applied to offered him admission. Hence, to save money and make his new company work, he moved back with his parents at age 25. It was all good until the company he started fired him. DiPaolo states that business authors call these events “pivots.” DiPaolo laughingly shares his conversation with Etter earlier that week who thought otherwise, “in my days, we didn’t call those pivots. We called them failures.” DiPaolo acknowledges that Etter was right, but affirms that the failures were the best things that happened to him. His failures pushed him to build Vantage Media, a $100 million company, which he sold. His failures pushed him to start the DiPaolo family foundation, which gives millions back to great causes, like UC Berkeley. His failures continue to help him today as he aims to develop his new company and potentially set new records. DiPaolo adds that “in fact, I can directly trace each of my pivots to creating the awesome life that I’ve enjoyed since leaving your seats back in 1999.”
DiPaola’s talk was an exploration of what went wrong over the last fifteen years since he graduated that allowed him to speak in front of us and back at Haas. He also gave pieces of advice to help students maximize our odds for success when everything is going “wonderfully wrong.” DiPaolo outlined two characteristics that assisted him through his journey: focus and flexibility. By this he meant focusing on one or two things that were really important and could make a difference to us; and by flexibility he refers to being able to roll with life’s “little hints” if our first plan does not work out.
Last year, DiPaola went heli-skiing with his brother. He only had two goals in mind: “don’t die” and “don’t be the slow one that makes everybody else wait for you.” Their first run was steep, deep, and filled with trees with only a couple narrow snow paths in between. To ensure he doesn’t die, he asked their guide for tips to avoid hitting the trees. The guide’s response, “Don’t look at the trees, if you look at them, you will hit them. Focus only on the white space, and that’s where you’ll end up.”
“As human beings,” DiPaola said, “we can’t not think something.” Thus, focusing on “avoiding trees” would almost basically means focusing on getting squashed. Consequently, he urged that the graduates focused on what we want versus avoiding what we don’t want. Furthermore, he reiterated the need to have only one area of focus instead of doing everything. This focus was what helped make his first company, Vantage Media such a success. DiPaola had started the company during the time when the Internet was just in its early stages. He was passionate about matching students up with colleges of their interest, hence his firm focused on education. Nonetheless, he remembers receiving many criticisms, “Mark, why focus just on schools? Cash for gold is the future!” or “My uncle knows a lot about adjustable rate mortgages, now that’s a business!” However, these did not deter DiPaola on the one thing he cared about, and he eventually got better and better at it each year. His company later introduced three million students to schools, and was approached by private equity firms six years later due to the recent explosion of online education space. DiPaola asked the audience who we thought the private equity firms would call first, “the company that did ten things so-so, or the company that did one thing exceptionally well?” He insisted that having expertise at the one thing we are passionate about is key to standing out.
So how does one identify his passion? It is difficult to recognize whether our passion is the right one for us, especially if it is uncommon, not something our classmates are pursuing, not what our parents want, or not the ABC’s (Accounting, Banking, Consulting)! For DiPaola, Vantage Media was emerged as a passion, not a business idea. It was, for him, a means of experimenting with new technology, and tinkering and figuring things out. He posed thus the important question that we should all be asking ourselves, “What do I have a hard time stopping myself from doing?” Nonetheless, being passionate about something doesn’t diminish the risk of failure. DiPaola, himself, hit a lot of trees since graduating from Berkeley fifteen years ago. When this happens, learn to be flexible. Vantage Media had been successful during its first six months of existence, there were new schools added to the platform regularly, students were being helped, the company was making a difference! However, DiPaola had left all their sales operations to a sales agency. Therefore, after significant disagreement between Vantage Media and the sales company, their partnership was dissolved and Vantage Media ended up with zero customers and many bills to pay.
DiPaola had never done sales before. However, the experience forced him to be flexible and pursue activities and operations outside his comfort zone. He was terrified he would not have the correct answer to questions, or that he would say something stupid on voicemail. It took him three months to close his first deal, but it ended up being worth more than his whole business before. He sold a couple million dollars of Vantage Media’s services over the next few years. Thus, he recommended that the audience do something once a year that really scares us; something we can actually fail at. In this way, hopefully we maximize our odds when we will actually need it in life. When we overcome something we have felt accustomed to failing at, we will become much more fearless and confident.
Finally, he shares resourcefulness as an important characteristic in flexibility. People often blame lack of resources whenever something goes wrong, when in reality, there is plenty! Resourcefulness, not resources, thus is what constrains us. One of Vantage Media’s clients who purchased services from DiPaola’s competitors for instance, never responded to any of his calls or voicemails over three years. One morning in December, he decided to be resourceful and flew to the client’s corporate headquarters in Chicago. The meeting turned out great! The client loved what Vantage Media had to offer and began working with DiPaola’s company within six weeks after his visit. DiPaola doesn’t know why the client never picked up his calls, but he learned that resourcefulness was key to his success.
DiPaola ended his speech by wishing the graduating students of Class of 2014 lots of challenges, right decisions, and wrong ones; follow our passion; and have as many opportunities to learn from our mistakes and turn each pivot around into being one step closer to our true passions.
Nishant Budhraja, Undergraduate Student Speaker
Before proceeding to the student walks, Nishant Budhraja, Haas Undergraduate Commencement Speaker for 2014. While at Cal, Budhraja was an active member of Berkeley Consulting, where he served as President this year. He also built a startup with fellow Berkeley students that one first place at the Berkeley University Mobile Challenge in December 2013. After summers interning for Deloitte Consulting and Microsoft, he will be joining Bain & Company full-time as an associate consultant.
Budhraja thanked the parents of the graduates for their love and support at the beginning of his speech. Graduations are an important milestone. Budhraja shared that it is difficult to come up with messages that match the momentousness of the occasion. Since he is not old or experienced enough to provide sage life advice, he has opted to look back to the great times we had together in the class by presenting the “Top 8 Things Only the Haas Class of 2014 Will Understand”. Read the list and see GIFs here.
Congratulations, Haas Class of 2014!
Class of 2014