Valedictory Exercises 2012: Ackerman Speech

Valerie Ackerman
Valedictory Exercises, May 19, 2012
University of Virginia


Thank you, Nitya.   It’s a tremendous privilege for me to be here, and I want to extend a very special thanks to you and the class of 2012 for inviting me to speak today.  I also want to congratulate this year’s award winners – what an impressive group.  Wow!  My hat goes off to all of you.

I’m sure many of you have mixed emotions today – I know I did when this day was happening to me.  It’ll be 31 years ago on Monday that I pulled away in my Volkswagen Beetle from a parking space behind my room at 25 west lawn, heading up 29 north to my hometown in New Jersey, where I planned to work for the summer while  figuring out my next thing.  

I can’t lie -- I couldn’t have felt more displaced than I did that day.  I mean, practically my whole world was here in Charlottesville, and in one fell swoop I was picking up and leaving it all behind.  Sure, I’d probably come back to this place for visits, but in my heart I realized that an important chapter in my life was over and that after some appropriate mourning period I’d have to find a way to switch gears and move on.  

So I cried the whole way home.

But as you can see, I survived!  If you happen to be feeling the same way tomorrow or Monday or whenever your move-out day may be, my advice is to relax, take a deep breath, accept that whole new chapters are about to unfold for you and embrace the journey.  Trust me, it will be a journey.  So let your anxiety be a form of adrenalin.  I promise, you’ll do fine.

Your time here at UVa was, I’m sure, filled with some hard choices and probably some angst.  Well, get used to that -- other, even tougher decisions are in store:  iPhone or Droid?  PC or Mac?  Hybrid car or not?  Actually, maybe you’ve already dealt with those, so let’s move on to some others.  

How about where to work?  Wall Street?  Facebook?  Google?  The Peace Corps? Or something else entirely?   How about where to live? Will you rent or buy?  Have you decided whether or not to go to grad school?   Will you get married?  To whom?  How about having kids?   And if you do decide to become a parent, how will you juggle the demands of your family with your job and everything else that life will send your way?

No one can make these decisions for you – they’re highly personal, and all of you are going to find yourselves in unique circumstances, where the advice others give you may not be of much good in the end.  My advice is to trust your instincts -- remember, you graduated from UVa, so that means you have the smarts to make good choices, be they easy or hard.

When I graduated from UVa in 1981, with my degree in political and social thought and 4 years on the women’s basketball team among my credentials, I had some general ideas about my future.  I knew I wanted to go to law school;  I was burning to travel, since playing sports here precluded me from studying abroad;  and I had a vague hope that someday I’d find myself back in sports as a career.

Well, all of that came true, eventually, but it didn’t happen overnight. 

On the contrary, my life path after I left UVa was anything but a straight line.  In fact, if my post-Charlottesville journey taught me anything, it’s that there isn’t always a direct route to your destiny and that you shouldn’t approach life that way if you’re going to make the most out of it.  

When I graduated from UVa there was no WNBA to aspire to, so that wasn’t an option for me – truth be told, despite the basketball successes I had here, I doubt I could have played at that level anyway.  So I began to set my sights on my ultimate dream, which was to become a lawyer.   

But I had an overarching desire to see the world and travel, so instead of going right to law school I took a year off and played basketball for a club team in France – in a small town about 2 hours south of Paris.  I didn’t speak French and didn’t know a soul over there but hey, in my mind they were just minor obstacles.  

My parents, of course, were in panic mode about this adventure – keep in mind, this was long before e-mail or cell phones and all the other devices that let parents keep tabs on their children.  But I had wanderlust in a big way and there was no stopping me, so off I went.  

Well, living in another country turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.  I completely broadened myself – I got to immerse myself in another culture, I made some money, I picked up a little bit of French, and my understanding about how to be independent took one giant step forward.  

When I came back to the states several months later, my journey continued.  I moved back in with my parents for a few months (that was real fun!), and then I went on to law school at UCLA – another good life experience to live in a different part of the country.   When I graduated, I was intent on finding a job as a sports lawyer, but it was very difficult to land one, even with my playing background, simply because I had no prior experience in the legal profession – no sports organization I spoke with seemed the least bit interested in hiring an untrained law school grad.

So I wound up instead at a prestigious Wall Street law firm, where untrained law school grads are the fuel that feeds the beast, and I worked there for 2 years as a corporate and banking associate.  It was as high-end a legal environment as you could find – it was well-paying and fast-paced, and I was surrounded by incredibly impressive minds.  While I didn’t see myself as a legal genius, and still don’t, I probably could have stayed and carved out a decent niche for myself there.  

But you know what?  Corporate law wasn’t me.  Deep inside, what I wanted more than anything was to get back into sports, because that’s what I knew and that’s what I cared about the most.   

As this truth was revealing itself to me, life got in the way.  I ended up meeting and getting married to another lawyer at my firm.   Since it was against office policy at that time for the firm to employ married couples, my husband stayed and I graciously moved on.   

I spent the next year on an active search for the sports job that had eluded me coming out of law school.  As luck would have it, in late 1988 I was offered a job as a staff attorney for the national basketball association.  Despite the steep cut in pay from my job on Wall Street, it was one of the happiest days of my life.  

The NBA was a sports league I had followed for as long as I could remember.  Even though I’m from New Jersey, I grew up a huge Boston Celtics fan, and without WNBA stars for me to look up to as a kid, my heroes were men’s players like John Havlicek and Bill Russell and Jerry West of the Lakers, the great NBA stars of my childhood.   So here was a job I could relate to and get genuinely excited about, and I was absolutely pinching myself that this opportunity had come to be.  

But I’ll say it again – getting this dream job didn’t happen overnight.  More than seven years passed between the time I graduated from UVa and the day I walked into the NBA as a card-carrying employee.  

After I joined the NBA, my journey continued.  Within 18 months I moved out of the legal department and into the commissioner’s office, where I joined David Stern as his first special assistant.  I had a myriad of duties at the league and two kids along the way, and all in all I had many good days at the office and a few bad ones (it was work, after all).   

I spent 8 years at the NBA before I wound up with the real job of my dreams – as the founding president of the women’s NBA, a position I held for that league’s first 8 years of operation.    

My job at the WNBA simply couldn’t have been a better situation professionally.  It was just an amazing opportunity.  I was in a field I understood completely, working in a sport I actually played, at the ground floor of a fledgling business, and doing something important, if not ground-breaking, for women.  

But guess what?  Life got in the way again.   My two daughters were 3 and 1 when the WNBA launched, and my years at the league, though exciting and exhilarating, in time became a blur as I scrambled to balance the demands of being a sports league president with the responsibilities of being a parent to two small children.

The rigors of my work were compounded by long hours and nearly weekly travel.   And the demands just kept coming -- sometimes it felt like every time I crossed something off my to-do list 10 more items were added.   

Fortunately my husband was very engaged at home, despite the demands of his own job as a Wall Street lawyer, plus we had a dependable and caring babysitter, and my mother and mother-in-law lived close enough to be able to pitch in when needed.  

So for a long time I was able to “do it all” and make all the pieces of my life fit together.

But after a while I ran out of steam.  In 2004, after 2 years of run-up to the launch of the WNBA and another 8 as president, I made the decision to step away so I could spend more time at home and be a more regular part of my daughters’ lives.   It was a very difficult decision in some ways, and a very easy one in others.

For those of you who have kids, either today or in the future, I’d venture to say that you’ll also be faced with some form of work-life decision someday.    If you’re career-minded, this aspect of life isn’t easy to figure out, so just be forewarned.  All I can say is that you’ll need to follow your gut, just like I did -- and if your experience is anything like mine, the passage of time will convince you that parenting is the highest calling you can have and being present with your children really does matter. 

In the years that have passed since I left the WNBA, I’ve been involved with a number of different undertakings, so my journey has continued.  In 2005 I was elected president of USA Basketball, which oversees the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic basketball programs.  I held this post through the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where I’m proud to say that both of our teams brought home gold medals.   That role led to my appointment in 2006 as the U.S. representative to the International Basketball Federation, known as FIBA, an appointment I still hold today.  

My work with both USA basketball and FIBA has allowed me to travel around the world and to interface with people from many different countries.  Keying off my earlier point, if you get the opportunity to travel or work abroad, I recommend it highly – nothing is more eye-opening than to experience first-hand what people who live in other countries think about the United States, and to hear the impressions they have about American people.  

Sometimes you read or hear that the U.S. has taken on a bad reputation in certain quarters.   But when you actually travel around, you realize just how much people look up to us a nation.

They respect our open society; they love our sports, and our music, and our technology; they think of us as leaders in thought and in action; and they listen when we have something to say.   

I’ve sat in many meetings behind little place cards with my name and the American flag next to it, and I can tell you that nothing can make you prouder or feel more of a sense of responsibility than to represent your country and to express the American point of view to a group of international colleagues.

As an aside, if you’re fluent in another language, good for you – it’ll certainly come in handy if you decide to “go global.”   If you’re not, and you want to work in a multi-national setting, my advice is to put foreign language classes or Rosetta Stone on your to-do list.  It’s not too late to get started.    

While English is far and away the language of choice in many global business settings, it’s much easier to forge and deepen relationships with people from other countries if you can converse with them in their native languages.  You’ll definitely get points for trying.

Let me shift gears and talk for a minute about the subject of leadership.

One of my current undertakings is to teach a class at the Columbia University graduate sports management program.  The class is about leadership and personnel management in the sports business, and during the course of the semester I and my co-teacher discuss the wide range of issues that confront leaders in the sports industry and the kinds of skills that we think would best equip one to function successfully in a sports leadership role.

Many of the topics we address in the class apply equally outside of sports.   For example, we tell our students that leaders come in all shapes and sizes.   

What that means is while not everyone will go on to become  an industry titan in the mold of a David Stern or a Roger Goodell or a Bud Selig, there’s plenty of room for individuality when it comes to serving in a leadership role, not only in your job, but in your personal life as well.  

We tell our students that a critical part of the process of becoming a leader is developing the style that best suits your personality, your strengths, and the setting in which your abilities are being put to use.  

For sure, you can emulate leadership qualities that you see in others, but imitation will only take you so far, and at some point, effective leadership has to be about the real you.

We also spend time in the class talking about the kinds of skills that set leaders apart from followers, good leaders apart from ordinary managers, and great leaders apart from everyone else.  

There’s been much written on this topic, as books about leadership abound.  While many of these books can start to sound the same after you’ve read a few, I suggest you add a couple to your personal library from time to time -- you can always pick up a tip.  

Since you happen to have graduated from this particular school, you should learn about what kind of leader Thomas Jefferson was if you don’t already know.  The Walter Isaacson biography about Steve Jobs is, in my mind, required reading as far as leadership profiles go – it reveals Jobs’ idiosyncrasies and what he didn’t do very well just as vividly as it describes all the ways that his genius profoundly changed our world.  

And I think any analysis about Mark Zuckerberg is worth reading by all of us, since he seems to be creating a whole new set of conventions  about decision-making, fund-raising, corporate growth strategies, and of course social discourse in the modern age.  Not to mention business fashion.  Soon we may all be wearing hoodies!  I’ll bet 19 billion dollars can buy a lot of hoodies.

I may write a leadership book myself one day – it’s on the bucket list – but until that day comes, here’s my executive summary about what good leaders do well:

They inspire.

They communicate a vision.

They find a way to link vision with action and to bring ideas to fruition.

When presented with the necessary facts, they make good decisions.

When confronted with unforeseen circumstances, be they good or bad, they react competently, and without undue delay.

The reason I touch on this is because all of you are leaders in your way.  You wouldn’t be at the University of Virginia, sitting here in this audience today, if you weren’t a leader. 

And all of you owe it to yourselves and our world to continue to act and serve as leaders, in new ways, in the years ahead.

Given the many difficulties facing our country in recent years, starting with the state of the economy and the tightened job market, compounded by a seemingly endless array of social and political issues, it’s perfectly natural for many of you to wonder what you’ll do post UVa, where the good jobs are, where your opening will be, what sort of impact you can make, where you’ll eventually make your mark. 

This is where leadership comes in.  More than ever, we need people in our world, men and women alike, who are ready and able to lead in their way, and to meet with vigor and optimism and some amount of courage the challenges and the opportunities of the modern age. 

We may well have the next president of the United States in the audience with us today, or the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or Hilary Rodham Clinton or Sheryl Sandberg, or the next Terry Sullivan, for that matter.  

But even if none of you go on to reach those heights, there’s still a lot of room in our society for capable, energetic people who are very good at what they do, who can make smart decisions when decisions are called for, who don’t panic when confronted with difficult tasks, and who by their words and deeds contribute positively to the world in both big and small ways.

If you think the world is full of problems, find a way to be a problem-solver and I guarantee you’ll have permanent employment.  Don’t be afraid to look critically at situations and think to yourself, would a new approach work here?  How can this be made better? 

In my experience, there’s room in most any field for big thinking and fresh ideas, so never shy away from using your imagination and embracing a spirit of curiosity and innovation in whatever it is you decide to do.   

I don’t mean you should advocate change just for the sake of change, but effecting change for the sake of improvement is the stuff that history is made of.   Good leaders know there’s a big difference between the two.

All of you made it to UVa for a reason.  The skills and traits that got you here are the same ones you’ll need as you move on to the next phase, so go out and keep using them.   And if you have to, cultivate some new traits.   Know that the people who have made, or are making, a difference in their fields, frequently have all or many of the following qualities:

They’re smart, decisive and intellectually curious about the world.

They take pride in the quality of their work.

They’re ambitious and want to be the best at what they do.

They have a sense of hopefulness and excitement about the future.

They don’t give up easily.

They have good people skills and know that relationships matter.

They understand what Woody Allen meant when he said that 90% of life is about showing up – and so they show up.

And they recognize that opportunities aren’t just handed to you and that ultimately you have to work for what you get.  You can rest assured that there will always be others who want what you want and will work very, very hard to get it.  So you have to be prepared to put in your time and make sacrifices to achieve your goals.

A famous man once said:  do you want to know who you are?  Don’t ask.  Act!  Action will delineate and define you.

These words belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  I encourage you to think about them every time you reflect on your time here in Charlottesville and whenever you need an extra push when that alarm clock goes off in the morning.

UVa is an incredible place, and you’ll quickly understand how well your time here has prepared you for the next phase of your journey.  I hope you’ll stay connected to the university in the years ahead – as an active alum I can attest that the folks here would be very happy to keep you involved if you’re so inclined.    

Congratulations to all of you on everything you’ve done, and I wish you nothing but the best in all that follows.  Enjoy the weekend!  Wahoo wah!