Media Relations

Gary Cohn, Kogod School of Business
Commencement Speaker

Text of speech (as delivered)

Word Cloud Representation of Gary Cohn speech.

A "word cloud" representation of Gary Cohn's commencement address.

President Kerwin, thank you so much for those gracious words. Alexis, I know I succeeded in life. I’ve never found a meal that I didn’t love. If you look at me I haven’t missed a lot meals in my life, so I guess we finally answered the rule that I was trying to get to when I prepared this speech. Mario, congratulations to you and everything that you’ve accomplished. You’ve made extraordinary decisions in your life except for the last one…you’re going to work for JP Morgan?

Let me take a little liberty here and first start by reading something…an article that I’ve highly edited and probably will make no sense to you in the next two to three minutes, but hopefully I can make it have some sense in a few minutes. This will be the hardest thing that I do up here today. It’s not really highly advised for a dyslexic guy to stand in front of a room full of people and actually read someone else’s work, but here we go.

“The economy entered a severe recession and labor market conditions deteriorated throughout the year. The unemployment rate, already high by historic standards at the onset of the recession, reached higher than at any time during post World War II history. Housing, automobiles, and steel, plus many of the industries that supply these basic industries, were in a prolonged downturn spanning three years. Unemployment rose, the overall rate had reached double digits for the first time since 1941, a total of 12 million persons were jobless by year end.”

I’ll let you think about that for a few minutes.

Congratulations to the Kogod class of 2009. Congratulations to the parents. As a parent of a daughter entering college next year, I understand exactly what you’ve gone through for the past five years. A year to get your child in and the four years to keep him here. So I am very sympathetic and very in touch with your feelings. When I sat down to write this graduation speech, I wasn’t at all sure what to write. Usually, I have a direct mission and some point that I’m trying to accomplish when I stand up and speak in front of people. So I sat there and pondered. Am I speaking for the parents? Maybe, maybe not. Am I speaking for the students? Maybe, maybe not? Should I be funny? Maybe, maybe not. Should I make some striking observations on the world because there are plenty out there to make. Maybe, maybe not. Should I make a political statement? I am in Washington, D.C. so it’s right place to make a political statement. Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t. What I’ve actually chosen to do is none of the above. What I’ve chosen to do is ask the students of Kogod for questions. I have from them about a 130 different questions over the AU Internet system. I am now going to try to address some of the concerns and some of the things that are on their minds.

Going back to the original blurb that I read, I know many of you are wondering why did he read that. We know exactly what’s going on in the world today. We didn’t need this guy to fly down here and tell us what’s going on in the world today. Well, lo and behold, that article that I just read is entitled, “Employment continues to rise in 1982 as the recession deepens.” I stood, well, I didn’t stand, I sat in those seats at American University in 1982. I’m a 1982 graduate of the Kogod School of Business. I understand what you are going through. I understand what you are feeling.

There’s a striking resemblance between what you are thinking and what you are going through today and what I was thinking and what I was going through then. In fact, in April of 1982, unemployment in the United States was 9.35 percent; on its way to 10.8 percent by the end of the year. Today, April '09, unemployment in the United States is 8.9 percent. GDP in the United States Q1 – while I was sitting there in 1982; minus 6.4 percent. Today Q1 GDP, minus 6.1 percent. Interesting. Interesting, that we— you and I—sat in those seats in a very, very similar economic environment.

That said, when I graduated 27 years ago in the dark ages, little did we know how much was going to be accomplished in the next 27 years. All of the things you as students that you depend on and rely on and think of in normal course of business did not exist when I sat out there 27 years ago. Think about that. I did not have a personal computer. I did not have a cell phone. I did not have a fax machine. I didn’t even have Federal Express. I don’t even know how we survived. In fact, one of my favorite activities at American University was spending late nights in the Mary Graydon Center on the second floor programming Fortran through, you got it, keypunch cards. I was great at punching cards.

Upon graduation, believe it or not, I had no job. I had no interviews. I had no prospects. I had no worries. What I did have, I had passion. I had enormous passion. I had passion for financial markets. I had fallen in love with financial markets. So, like every one of you, I did the only smart thing to do, I moved back home and started having a great time enjoying my life, until that one, early Monday morning at 6:30 a.m. when my father walked into my room and turned on my lights. I had been in bed for about an hour, I think, and said, ‘what are you going to do with the rest of your life.’ I ironically told him, ‘you’re looking at it.’ That did not go over very well in my house.

So, I went through what I consider to be the formality of trying to go out and seek a career and seek a job. I ended up luckily landing a job with a division of the United States Steel in Cleveland. Not a job that I had any aspirations for, not a job that I really wanted, but I had to appease my father and I had to go out and get a job. The only good news is that I was at that job from July 1st to Thanksgiving my graduation year. By Thanksgiving I had found a way into the financial markets, by pure drive and perseverance. I’ll tell you a little story about how I got my first job in the financial services industry.

As I said, I was working for the United States Steel in their home products division. I was in Long Island for the week working with one of the sales offices. I made sure that I worked very hard Monday through Thursday and got all of my work done and convinced the gentleman that I was working for that I had never been to New York City and I wanted to go see the city and could I leave early on Friday. He agreed to that. I literally took myself to the commodities exchange center which at that point was in Four World Trade Center, went into the commodities exchange center…found my way up to the visitors’ gallery and realized that everyone in the visitor’s gallery was just like me, trying to figure out what was going there. I figured out that if I go down one floor, I’m actually down at the trading floors. I got down to the trading floors and I don’t know what I thought I was going to do. I stood at the security entrance to the trading floors and stood there for about three or four hours, trying to figure out what to say to someone…trying to figure out how to get a job and trying to figure how to introduce myself.

About four o’clock, I literally gave up. I walked to the elevator bank. I dejectedly hit the down button to go down to get a taxi cab to go to the airport to come back. And, I hear a gentleman say, ‘I gotta run, I’m going to the airport.’ I jump in the elevator with him and say, ‘I overhead that you are going to the airport. He said, ‘yes, I am.’ I said, ‘what airport are you going to to?’ LaGuardia. I said, ‘Do you mind if I share a taxi with you? He said, ‘Sure, by all means.’ I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. I said, here’s my shot. I’ve got 45 minutes, in traffic on a Friday afternoon to convince this guy that I’m hirable and need a job. He literally went through and grilled me on my knowledge of financial markets, grilled me on my knowledge of certain aspects and I think I moderately passed. By the end of the taxi ride, he says, ‘what do you know about options.’ I said, ‘everything.’ He said, ‘great, I want you to come back Monday, I want you to interview. I’m trading options, it’s a brand new market that’s opening and I don’t know how to trade it and I need someone to stand behind me and tell me exactly what to do.’ I said, ‘no problem, I’m your guy.’ I literally got home Friday night and my first stop on the way from the airport was the bookstore. I bought the McMillian Options is a Strategic Investment book and read it four times–as I said, dyslexic guy read it four times over the course of the weekend and came back in and interviewed and was offered a job. That’s how I started in my financial services industry.

So, in my answer to my first question here from the students on career advice let me make it simple. Have a goal. Know where you want to end up. Knowing where you want to end up is a lot easier than figuring out how to start and how to get there. You will figure out how to get there. Do not chart your career. Trust me; you do not want to chart your career. In fact, I worked on the floor of the commodities exchange and everything in my life was perfect. My wife was pregnant with our first child and we could not have been happier. At that point, I got an interview…I wasn’t really looking, but Goldman Sachs at the time was trying to draw me into their organization, something that I had no intentions of doing and I really sweated the decision, do I want to leave what I’m doing now and go to Goldman Sachs or do I want to stay at what I’m doing. In fact, I went home and talked to my wife and my wife said, ‘you got to be crazy. That would the craziest decision that you ever made.’ I said, ‘you know what. It’s one of these opportunities that may come along only once in your life; I know that going back to the floor exchange is always there.’

So, be flexible, have a goal, don’t chart your career and most importantly understand your competitive advantage. Understand what differentiates you from someone else; make sure you have a way to distinguish yourself from everyone out there.

Number two: How to stand out. I thank God that President Kerwin did not read my resume from Goldman Sachs because it reads like I’m a guy that can’t keep a job; every two years it seems like I seem to be doing something else in the world. So, I’ve worked in a variety of jobs, I’ve worked in a variety of locations. Every time you get into a new job, new location, you have an amazing opportunity in front of you. You get to play dumb for as long as people will allow you to play dumb. You get to ask all the dumb questions, you get to ask multiple people the dumb questions, and you get to make mistakes. That’s how you stand out in the crowd. You stand out by asking the questions, whether they are smart, whether they are dumb, but you have to have that desire to learn. Those that have the desire to learn will stand out. Those that work hard will stand out. The old adage that hard work will get you what you want is 100 percent true. Work hard, ask questions, and take risk. If there is one thing out of this on how to stand out, it's take risks.

Everything I’ve done in my career and everything that most of you have done to this point is to take risks. You may not have quantified it as a risk decision, but believe me it was a risk decision when you choose to come to Kogod, it was a risk decision, you’ve could have gone somewhere else. When you chose to get up and come to work this morning—never mind, you didn’t come to work, when you came to graduation this morning, you made a risk decision. How were you going to go? Was there going to be traffic? Was there not going to be traffic? Understand the decisions that you are making and try to wave them in your respect. Failure is not a problem. In fact, I always saw, that 95 percent of my great decisions started out as bad decisions. It’s one thing that I learned when you trade and you trade your own capital for a living is that you are usually not right, it’s recognizing when you are not right and correcting it is when you take the biggest advantage of the opportunity.

Keep yourself motivated. You’ve got to be motivated, you’ve got to wake up every day and understand what that day is about; you’ve got to have personal goals—short term goals, intermediate goals, and long term goals. Be flexible in getting to those goals, but if you do not have goals, you will not achieve them. You are competing. Every day you are competing and every day you are playing to win. So remember, wake up every morning and figure out how to win.     

Next question I was asked quite a bit about is how to balance my career and my life. I will tell you, for those of you that asked this question, and it’s a great question, it’s clearly the single hardest thing that I do. I am the father of three teenage daughters and it is a very demanding group of young ladies that I have in New York. We somehow seem to balance those decisions. Like today, making the right choice…I think its Mother’s Day. Congratulations to all the mothers in the audience. My mother’s in Cleveland, Ohio; I will call her when I land in some other continent in about 14 hours from now. My wife is in New York with our daughters and I’m here. Of course, I make all the right life balances. These are tough choices and you should always make sure that you’re thinking about those choices.

Now, a couple of more points that I want to make here. And, this is probably one of the most interesting questions that someone posed to me in the questions here. If you listen to one section of this speech for those of you in the blue garments like myself, this is the important part. The question goes something like this: What do you know now that you wished you had known when you graduated. How long do you have? Let me start with the basics.

You have the skills. You have the education. You’re education is virtually the same as everyone that you are going to compete with. I know, we hire six to ten thousand kids a year. I must interview, conservatively 1,000 different kids a year; and I will tell you this: You’re education and their education is exactly the same. Most likely you have the same textbooks, you have the same books in your library, you’ve got the same access to the same data on the Internet today that they do and you have the same education as they do. You might not be as confident as them. Trust me; you might not be as confident; some of you may be as confident. Confidence is the easiest single thing to fix, so remember that. I got the same, the same education that I am competing with. I have to make sure that I walk in that room, walk in that interview, and walk in that first day at work with the confidence that everyone else has. Just because you went to an Ivy league school doesn’t mean you are smarter, doesn’t mean that you got a better education; it may mean that you got a little bit more confidence because you think you got a little bit of an edge going in there. That is the easiest thing to overcome.

Let me tell you a little anecdotal story here. This is probably the easiest way to drive this point home. Every summer at Goldman Sachs, we bring in about 1,500 student interns; most of them are juniors going into their senior year. The highlight event in our summer experience in the division that I was running at the time which is the securities business, which is all equities and fixed income trading, is that we have the entire summer class sit down and we do an interview question and answer session with the operating committee of the securities division. So, we get the five or six leaders of the division on a global basis into a room in front of the students and we let the leaders introduce themselves for about three to five minutes and then we open it up for about three hours of questions. I will tell you the most striking part of that day and it’s always my favorite part of the day. We ask each of the operating committee members to introduce themselves, tell the group of students to tell them a little bit about themselves and we ask them to tell where they went to college and what they’ve done. I will tell you that the last time that I chaired this group, of the five individuals sitting in front of the room—and I will admit that the vast majority of our summer intern class comes out of the Ivy League schools—I will tell you that the five individuals that introduced themselves the last time I chaired; me as the division head, American University; one of my other partners, Bucknell University; one of my other partners, Hamilton; one of my others, Rutgers; and then we had this weird guy at the end that went to Yale University. But, that to me was probably the most striking moment of the summer for the kids to come into Goldman Sachs and it really tells you about having the desire, having the drive, having the need and having the want to succeed. It is a level playing field out there. It really is.

As far as being good alumni, I think all of us want to be good alumni. As you sit there today, thinking about your experiences at American University, I’m sure you all think you’ll be great alumni and that American University will have a place in your heart forever. It will have a place in your heart forever, every time you are introduced, every time you are in a crowd, every time you are making a presentation, people refer to your academic background. I will tell you this, as a Board of Trustees member, as involved in some of the Capital Campaigns around here, not all of you will remember that you went to American University when we ask for you to give back to the university; whether in time, effort, money, any of the ways you can give back. Being a great alumni is being proud of your academic university…being willing to tell people where you went to school, wanting to tell people where you went to school, recruiting potential students. This is a competitive business. Running an academic institution is a competitive business. We need your help. You are our biggest advocates; you are our biggest recruiters out there. And, if you want to be a great alum, just partake in any one of the activities that I mentioned here.

On a few a final thoughts, tying back together the 1982 scenario when I was sitting out there with the economic scenario of today which are very similar, this is truly historic times. You are watching history write itself, or rewrite itself. In the financial markets, in the business community, in the political community, in the regulatory community, the world that we have known since literally the 1930s, which was the last time that we really saw the regulatory community in the United States change. We saw the business community in the United States change, we are going through a complete revamp of the world. You have a front row seat. You need to get involved. You can make a difference. You will see things that will surprise you, you will see things that will shock you. But I will tell you this, that said, in times of fear, times of uncertainty, times of confusion and times of turmoil, there are the greatest opportunities to contribute and succeed.

I know most of you feel like, oh my God; I am two to three years too late in graduating and I wish I had been there a few years earlier. It would have a hell of a lot easier….there were an abundant jobs, there were an abundant opportunities. That is the farthest thing from the truth. For those kids that were graduating into the workforce two to three years ago, they had a very short-lived experience; they saw the top of the market and they really didn’t have the time to learn because the environment was so chaotic. You are entering at the optimal time, like I did in 1982 to enter the work world and to really get long lasting real experiences to drive you for the rest of your career. The world needs you to be great citizens and great leaders. Once again, congratulations to all of you and congratulations to your families. 

Cohn was one of five commencement speakers. Click here to access transcripts and watch videos of all commencement speeches.