Expect the unexpected

By Gary Acosta

First of all, I’m glad we’re here and not doing this over Zoom . . .  Thank you, Dean Ian Williamson, professors, distinguished guests, parents and other loved ones. And most of all – thank you Class of 2022! Thank you for allowing me to join in celebration of this very special day. I applaud your perseverance through a once-in-a-century pandemic. You’ve remained positive in the face of unprecedented challenges – and doing the work required to graduate from one of country’s best business schools. Your resilience has provided you with a tremendous foundation for your future.

I know many of you have jobs lined up and have very clear plans on where you expect your career to go, and some of you have been working during the entirety of your program. It may be a cliché, but I feel confident saying to you that the sky is the limit for each of you.

However, . . . the first thing I can tell you is whatever your plans might be today – for most of you, your actual path, both in career and life, probably will turn out very differently than you currently imagine.

You’re all high achievers, successful people who often get what you want. Yet, as much as you want to control things, one of the greatest things to understand in life and in business is that you never know where the next door is going to lead.

I was a lot like you. I was a hard worker and had BIG plans. Soon after college, I started working at a community bank. I wanted to get some work experience, attend business school, and then work my way up the corporate ladder. I had it figured out! My actual career, however, turned out very differently . . .

At that community bank, I learned a lot about the mortgage business – something that was nowhere on my radar screen initially. And after the bank closed the branch where I was working, I decided to start my own mortgage brokerage.

I was 26 at the time, confident of my ability. In the back of my mind, I figured if it didn’t work, it would be a good experience and it would look good on my applications to business school. However, two things happened that I didn’t expect. One – the business was successful…not huge, but we made some money. Second – one of my original business partners was the woman that I ended up marrying . . . ! Trust me, that’s something that will definitely make you alter your plans.

Fast-forward 10 years: I was 36 years old, married with three kids, doing pretty well with my business. Yet, I knew I still wanted more, to achieve more and have a greater impact. I wanted monetary success, of course, but I also wanted to do something, consequential…something that had a positive impact on my community.

Being a mortgage banker is a fine career, but it didn’t completely satisfy what I had envisioned as the best version of myself. It was at this time that I co-founded the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) – with the goal to improve the professional apparatus that services Latino homebuyers and sellers, and to build wealth for our members – who were realtors and mortgage professionals. NAHREP was a passion project that was designed to benefit thousands of Latinos and their communities.

In a few years, NAHREP began to thrive, and it became the largest Latino business organization in America. Through NAHREP, I met Sol Trujillo, the global media-communications and technology executive and CEO, as well as music icon and visionary Emilio Estefan. Together we started the L’ATTITUDE event platform. L’ATTITUDE produces major events that showcase the best and brightest Latinos in business, entertainment, sports, tech and politics. L’ATTITUDE inspired L’ATTTITUDE Ventures, a $100 Million Venture fund that invests in Latino led start-ups.

Being a mortgage banker, running a large business organization, and being in venture capital has been great, and I am grateful for all of it, but here is the thing…I didn’t plan any of it. None of those things were on my vision board when I started my career…

Throughout everything, there are three concepts that stand out to me, and ultimately that is what I would like to share with you today.

First: it doesn’t matter where you start…just start, and go hard! Some of you might begin a job and feel like it’s not the right fit or path. That’s OK…just push forward. Things always change and evolve. Even when a work environment is atrocious, you are still learning and evolving. And if you pay attention, you’ll find your ultimate purpose and passion.

I’m not a big believer in artificial deadlines. You absolutely DO NOT need to figure it all out by the time you turn 25, 30… even 50 for that matter. Those timelines and milestones are arbitrary; everyone has their own unique road ahead. Life comes at you at its own pace and opportunities will appear for you, often when you least expect them. Today is getting you ready for that day. It’s important to allow life to unfold for you, and not forcing it. I believe that if you force things too much, you just might miss the one thing you were destined to do.

Second: take it upon yourself to be really great at something! You don’t have to be great at everything,. But try to be your absolute best at something. When I started NAHREP, I became the go-to person for anything related to Hispanics and real estate. Strive to OWN a piece of the business world where you are the GO-TO person for something.

You’ll often hear people say that if you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people. That may be true, but it’s also easier said than done. Really successful people are busy, they have things to do, and they’re probably not going to hang with you unless you bring something valuable to the table. If you are really great at something, you’ll have something valuable to bring to that table. No matter how small, it will open doors for you, people will seek you out.

Third: relationships, especially in business, are your currency. It is crucial that you invest in that currency.

I attended Pomona College just down the road where I played Division 3 basketball. Not like here where you play D-1 against the best teams. On a good day, we had 500 fans in the stands. Even though it was a small school, we had a tough coach, a great coach, a real ball buster. He was brilliant and pushed us to our limits. After my playing days were over, I lost touch with my coach. I wish I hadn’t. You know why?

Turns out, that coach was Gregg Popovich. Yes, that Gregg Popovich…the winningest coach in NBA history, five-time world champion, Hall-of-Famer, the GOAT! I didn’t stay connected to him, and if my business was sports, I might have some regrets, but I learned something . . .

You never know what the person sitting next to you will be doing in five or ten years. So be nice to people, take care of those relationships, help others, be authentic. In time those relationships can be game changers for you.

Now, I know you have a full graduation ceremony ahead of you, so I’ll get to my closing thoughts. I want to leave you with this . . .

As you are probably very well aware of, our world is changing rapidly and drastically. We have more opportunities and greater access than ever before. But by the same token, our country and the world are dealing with an array of threats, and our growing wealth and income disparities are near the top of that list.

There is little doubt that our version of capitalism has built the largest economy the world has ever seen, but it also has created horrifying inequality. These wealth and income gaps, particularly in our minority communities, pose an existential threat to the prosperity of our entire nation and threaten our leadership in the global economy.

The good news is that as the average age for Americans gets older every year, some specific groups are still young, vibrant and growing. Latino-Americans, for example, are the youngest and fastest growing demographic in the country.

In fact, the majority of our workforce, new business formations, and consumer activity in the coming years will come from Latinos and other diverse communities.

Regardless of your political views, this simply is the truth: it is a mathematical impossibility for our economy to grow and our nation to prosper if our minority communities aren’t also thriving!

Many of our business leaders understand this future and are acting to create opportunities within it. Marc Benioff, the Founder/CEO of Salesforce and a recent speaker at L’ATTITUDE, called on business leaders to embrace a broader vision of their responsibilities by looking beyond shareholder return. He implored us also to measure stakeholder return. This requires a focus not only on people who own stock in the company, but also on the people whom the company impacts — the employees, customers, communities and, yes, the planet!

You are our future leaders. With your hard work and success, you can play a huge role in how America evolves, in how equity and equality are created, in how communities thrive and prosper. This is a significant responsibility that not everyone is fortunate enough to hold. I hope you all can appreciate and honor just how much power you have to change your world.

I wish you all great success in your career pursuits, and I urge you to be part of the solution creating a new and more inclusive capitalism for America.

Thank you, and Good Luck!