Governor Terry McAuliffe
Commencement Address, May 16, 2015
University of Virginia
Good morning, everybody. You fired up? Great.
Thank you, Rector Martin, for that kind introduction.
And let me say this, folks, as governor in Virginia, I can say whatever the heck I want and I’m telling you today, the University of Virginia is the greatest school in Virginia and in the United States of America!
President Sullivan, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, proud parents and loved ones, and above all the graduating class of 2015, it is an honor to be here with you in the great land of Thomas Jefferson–-the University of Virginia.
I know this year that you’ve experienced what it’s like to be at the center of the public eye. I can tell you as someone who’s been in national politics for over 40 years, I understand that feeling, and I know that sometimes it is difficult. But let me say this, on behalf of every citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we are all proud of you. You showed the world that this University can triumph over any obstacle because of the education and values this fine institution instills in its students every single day.
As Governor, I travel all over the Commonwealth and I must say this, folks, there is no place like Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Grounds of UVA are filled with history and traditions, from the Rotunda to the world famous Little John’s to our favorite place to cheer on the best college basketball team in America, John Paul Jones Arena. Not only are you home to the two-time defending ACC regular season basketball champions in men’s basketball, but over the last four years, you’ve won bragging rights for NCAA championships in women’s rowing, men’s tennis , men’s soccer and I was just informed for the first time in your history, you have placed in college snowboarding. Congratulations.
I am here to congratulate all of you for the hard work that you’ve put into today’s achievement.
I also, too, want to thank the professors, the parents, the family and friends for the support that they’ve offered you graduates to help you reach this milestone. I know they’ve asked you to clap for them, but, folks, that was a weak clap. Let me tell you this: I want all the graduates to stand and give the loudest cheer for your parents, your faculty, and everybody who got you here today. Now, that’s what I’m talking about.
Now Class of 2015, I know it’s hot and I was sitting where you were 36 years ago and there’s nothing worse than a long commencement speech. So start your watches. I will be up and down in 10 minutes. That’s always a great applause line.
Folks, I’m here to congratulate you for the hard work that you put into your achievement and to give you just a little bit of advice. There are three things that I have told my five children as they’ve planned their careers. I’ve always said to follow their passions and do what they love to do, and today, they’re doing exactly what they love because they’ve followed these three simple pieces of advice.
Last year, I had a daughter graduate from college. She immediately went over to Africa to save elephants. Who knew? On Friday, I’ll have a son graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy who will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Saving elephants, fighting ISIS. It’s all together, folks. It’s following what you want to do.
My advice has always been three simple things: Think Big. Always Take Chances. And never ever be afraid to fail.
Let’s start with the first one, Thinking Big.
I don’t know if many of you know how I started my career. When I was 14 years old, I realized that the only way I would be able to go to college was to pay for it myself, so I knew at 14 that I had to start my own business. I had no idea what that would be until one day I was walking home and I saw a gentleman out tarring his driveway. He was sweating, he was cursing laying that hot tar on driveways. I said, that’s it. I went home and typed up a letter and handed it out to my neighbors. I had six jobs my first day. I went and ordered business cards: McAuliffe Driveway Maintenance, Terrence R. McAuliffe, President. It was only one employee, but folks, I was in business! I had a successful first year.
The second year, I said I gotta go big. I gotta start doing parking lots, but in order to do parking lots, you gotta buy that tar in huge barrels, 55-gallon barrels of tar. They’re heavy, you need a big truck about from here to the end of this platform, so I called up my Uncle Billy [Burn] who owned a dairy and I said, “Billy, you gotta have one of these old trucks.” He said, “yeah, we got some out in the field.” He said, “you can get one started, you can have it.”
I drove out there to North Syracuse with some gas, some oil, spark plugs, I worked on this truck for about two hours. Huge truck. I’m 15 years old. But, folks, I remember to this day. I still get chills. When I turned that ignition in this gigantic truck and that engine roared to life, I took it out of that field and I drove it down Interstate 81. I passed a state trooper substation. They’re all out having coffee. I am honking the horn. I am waving. I have no driver’s license and I have no license plates, but folks, I was in business. I thought big as a young man and I gotta tell you, that feeling I still have to this day. I never thought that by starting that driveway business, I would go on to start several dozen companies, become our nation’s youngest bank chairman at the age of 30. I’d been an entrepreneur my whole life. I’ve seen the ups and downs.
Some investments you make money, some you lose money, but the point is, you gotta be in that arena. It’s important, so I don’t want the parents to think here I’m telling your children to take up driveway sealing, but I do hope as you begin the next phase of your lives, that you act boldly, that you think big and you think big now.
The second piece of advice I have for you is to take chances. You will never ever achieve your goals if you’re not willing to take some risks and chance.
My greatest lesson in the power of taking chances changed my life. I was your age. I was 22 years old. I was attending Georgetown Law School the first month in school. Lived in a big group house, 14 guys, a keg in the tub, the whole deal. I had a buddy of mine come home who lived in the house and he said, “you want to go work on President Carter’s re-election?” It didn’t look good the prospects of him being reelected, so I called my mother who was not happy about me leaving law school to go work on what could’ve been a doomed presidential campaign which it ultimately was. But I took a chance. I left law school. As a young man of 22 years old, I end up going to 40 states. I’d only been to two in my life before that. I ended up raising more money than anyone else. I’d never done it before, but for some reason, people liked to give me money.
What’s the worst thing, folks, they can say to you? No. I wouldn’t have had had a date in high school if I took no for an answer. So, I ended up doing that and become our nation’s youngest finance director of a presidential campaign ever, but had I not taken that chance and that risk, I wouldn’t be standing here today. So I just want you to take some risks, take some chance. That chance changed my life.
Now, I’m not telling the parents here either that I want you to leave graduate school to go work on a presidential campaign [laughs], but if you do, I got a great woman you could possibly work for, but-- Right. It’s time for a woman to be president of the United States of America. They’ve done it everywhere else. We can do it here in America. But what I honestly hope you do remember from today, that that there is a difference between accepting a comfortable life and reaching out for an exceptional life.
When I look back on all the experiences I’ve had, I am glad I took that chance. Each of you will have opportunities to make decisions like the one I made that will change your life. Taking every risk that comes your way is not wise. But neither is passing on every opportunity out of fear of risk of the unknown.
Finally, my last piece of advice is a follow-up to the previous two. If you are bold, if you take chances, guess what? You are going to fail. You are going to experience rejection at times, but folks, please, please, don’t ever be afraid to fail.
Few people are more qualified to offer this advice than I am. As I’ve said, I’ve seen it in business, the ups and downs in business, but I’ve also failed miserably in politics. As some of you may recall, I actually applied for this current job more than once. Back in 2009,
I decided to run for governor because I thought I could make this Commonwealth a better place. I had a good life, I had a great career. I enjoyed what I was doing and everybody said, Terry, you cannot do it. First of all, in Virginia, if one party wins the White House, the other party wins the Governor’s Mansion. This has gone on for over 30 years, so it wasn’t likely that a Democrat would be elected in 2009.
Second, they said, you’re a New Yorker, and you want to run for governor of Virginia. Oh. Okay. They said you’ve never held elective office before. But, you know what? I wasn’t afraid to fail. I started a campaign and brought my case to the voters. Traveled all over the Commonwealth and I said, we need to change Virginia. Think big. Renewable energy. High-speed rail. Take us to the next level and I said, “If you don’t like my big ideas, don’t vote for me.” Ha, And you didn’t. That’s all right. I had a great time.
But I do remember waking up the next morning, having fallen so far short of my goal and deciding that that’s what I really wanted to do and I meant what I said in the campaign about creating jobs and making Virginia a better place for families, then I just would have to do it again. So the next day I suited back up and got back out there. When the first campaign began, I didn’t know how the journey would end and I ran a very unique campaign the second time around. I said Virginia has to be open and welcoming to everyone. You want a diversifying economy.
I told women I would be a brick wall to protect their rights because a woman’s decision should be between them and their doctors.
To be open and welcoming for businesses, you had to be open to members of the LGBT community and I’m proud I was the first candidate in the entire south statewide to come out for marriage equality. And guess what as governor? I actually have performed a gay marriage and the sky didn’t fall in, folks. All we’ve done is create more jobs here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
So I got back out there and guess what happened? I won. And I am now the 72nd governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, folks.
So tonight when you go to bed and that head hits the pillow, I want one thing on your minds: Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Terry McAuliffe. Isn’t this a great country?
So, folks, let me just say this: failing is a part of life. It’s really what you do the next day that really counts. I hope you will adopt some of the advice I’ve given you today. Think Big. Take Chances. And Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.
In closing, I just want to give you a few other little things I’ve learned along the way:
No. 1: there’s no such thing as a bad day. Every day you wake up has the potential to be a great day. If you’re having bad days, then get a new line of work, folks. Do something about it!
Never take yourself too seriously and always be positive. People want to be with winners, not whiners. No negative energy. Do what you want to do. It’s your life. You only live once, folks.
Sleep when you are dead! You don’t get a second shot at life.
And finally, if you remember one thing from today, in whatever you do, always, always have fun!
I thank you for having me here today. And I am expecting great things out of the Class of 2015. Go, Hoos!