Today I had the opportunity to give my first-ever commencement address, at the winter graduation for business department students at Misericordia University, a place near and dear to my heart.
While it was a little weird to give a graduation speech over Zoom, in my current physical state it probably couldn’t have happened any other way. I kept the speech focused on my professional career and didn’t talk at all about my battle with cancer — things just seem heavy enough these days. It was a huge honor and I wanted to keep it positive and light-hearted.
Here’s what I said:
It’s an honor to be with you all today as you graduate from a wonderful university and an outstanding college of business.
During my years on campus, I taught classes, I coached baseball, but most importantly, I became a Misericordia graduate myself. I knew from the moment I set foot on campus, as I’m sure many of you did, that Misericordia, and especially its amazing faculty, would make a big, big impact on my life.
But today is your day, a day to recognize and celebrate all you’ve accomplished during your time here. Needless to say, this is a strange venue for your graduation, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less special of a moment in your lives, or any less humbling for me to have the chance to share some thoughts with you and welcome you to the Cougar alumni community. Today you’re closing a chapter of accomplishment of which you should be very, very proud.
My career path is one you might describe as unconventional. In 2015, at age 29, I changed careers in a big way. I had spent all of my twenties — including three years at Misericordia — pursuing a career as a teacher and a coach. But something had begun telling me that it was time to try something completely new. As luck would have it, two childhood friends of mine had recently founded a startup out of a San Francisco apartment, a financial technology company focused on lending to small businesses.
I packed my entire life into two suitcases, bought a one-way plane ticket, and became their third employee in a tiny office on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. I lived in a bedroom the size of a closet in a small apartment with four roommates. I had no money, no idea what I was doing, and no plan if it didn’t work out.
At the time, I probably seemed confident in my decision. But in reality, I was not. I was anxious, unsure of myself, and insecure. I had zero experience to speak of in business, finance, or technology, much less in building a company. Everywhere I turned, I saw confusing jargon, acronyms I didn’t understand, and tools I didn’t know how to use. In every meeting, I encountered people with degrees and experience that intimidated me.
But then, slowly, something changed. The closer I looked, the less I saw a mysterious world that I was unqualified to be in, and the more I saw that there really was no mystery. As soon as I was willing to ask dumb questions, to risk sounding silly, to dismantle all that jargon that made simple ideas seem complicated, I realized that everyone I found intimidating didn’t know nearly as much as I had thought they did. It turns out, I was very well prepared to help build a great company — I just had to trust the foundation I had built as a business student at Misericordia.
Around that time, I became fascinated by Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple and an icon of the technology industry. In one of his best interviews, he said this: “Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” I love that quote because it reminds you of what’s possible if you keep the faith in yourself.
So, what became of our startup? We still have a long way to go, but we’re very much alive and kicking. We have nearly a hundred employees, we originated almost half a billion dollars in small business loans this year, and our investors now include some of the top venture capital firms in financial technology. Oh, and we’ve changed our name three times – turns out finding the right name for your company is a lot harder than it sounds.
As our company has grown, so has my role. I started out as a cold-calling salesperson, trying to explain to potential customers who the heck we were. Today, as VP of operations, I oversee all of the company’s sales, marketing, business operations, and product development. Best of all, I go to work every day with excitement and confidence. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still learning a lot, and I make more than my share of mistakes, but I no longer question whether I belong.
And so my hope for you, as you embark on whatever is next in your career, is that you step confidently into challenges that may scare you at first. You are prepared. As a graduate of the Misericordia business program, you have a priceless and unique skill set. You know how to think clearly, how to communicate concisely, how to work diligently, how to act with integrity, and most importantly, how to form meaningful personal relationships that are more than just transactional. That is the complete toolkit you need to be successful in basically any field, and you now have it.
So, go find the problems in our world that interest you, the products you want to build, the people you want to help. Don’t let a lack of experience, or fear of failure, or hesitation to stray from the conventional path keep you from trying the thing that truly excites you. Maybe it’s a certain industry, or a particular company, or even starting your own thing out of thin air. And if you don’t yet know what interests and excites you, that’s ok — keep looking. Now, more than ever, the world needs what you have to offer.
Thank you, and congratulations!
A proud Cougar, Andrew Bennett ‘13 is a recovering baseball coach-turned-fintech nerd. After teaching and coaching at the high school level for three years, he earned an M.S. in organizational management from Misericordia while serving as the baseball program’s graduate assistant coach. He then worked an additional year on campus as an adjunct business instructor, also continuing to coach baseball. After spending the 2014-15 academic year coaching at Midland University in Fremont, NE, he left higher education and moved to the Bay Area to become an early employee at Lendeavor (now “Provide”), a technology-enabled financial services provider to private healthcare practice owners. He is currently Provide’s vice president of operations, responsible for sales, marketing, business operations, product development, and – depending on the day – many of the other random needs of a growing startup. Andrew earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, graduating summa cum laude in 2008. Before becoming a teacher and coach, he enjoyed a brief and unspectacular career as a minor league baseball player. Originally from St. Paul, Andrew now helps oversee Provide’s office in Columbus, OH, where he lives with his wife Alexis and two-year-old daughter Addie. A colorectal cancer survivor, Andrew blogs at www.checkyourbutt.com.