Alumna commencement speaker to grads: You’re in charge of your destiny
These remarks were made by Jocelyn Wong during the Purdue University summer commencement ceremonies on Aug. 7, 2021. Wong spoke to undergraduate, master’s and professional degree candidates.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — First, my enormous gratitude to President Daniels, the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, and most importantly, to the graduates of the Class of 2021 for allowing me this moment, an incredible moment for me personally.
Thank you to my family, especially my parents for supporting me as they always have. If I’m being honest, I was a little surprised at first by this gracious invitation. I mean, sure, I did invent the soybean crayon as an undergrad here at Purdue, but I always figured the most that would ever get me was a round of drinks at Harry’s.
So to be back here as a commencement speaker, well, let’s just say that thought never crossed my mind. Now when I received the invitation my first thought was, “Why me?” But then my thoughts turned to, more importantly, “What should I say to all of you?”
This opportunity has forced me to reflect on the last 24 years. To remember how I felt when I was in your shoes. To be clear, today is a momentous, incredibly important milestone in your lives.
Hopefully, after today or sometime very soon, your safety net will be gone and you’ll be responsible for your own data plan, car insurance and Amazon Prime membership fees.
That’s the hope!
So what do I want you to take away from my remarks? My objective is to leave you with one idea. That there is no “easy break,” no fast track, no lottery ticket on life. If you’re searching for that one person that can change things for you, then take a look in the mirror.
Know your truth.
If you’re lucky like me, you will be surrounded by amazing friends and family, maybe even mentors that will influence you. But make no mistake, you’re the one that has to be in the driver’s seat. The one to walk through the door.
I’m standing today, on this podium, as someone who has had a career in marketing, reaching the highest ranks at big and exciting companies. But I did it with an engineering degree.
An unexpected turn.
And here’s another – I very recently walked away from all of that. I don’t have a big fancy job title right now, except for being my kids’ chauffeur. Again, veering away from the original plan. But what you have to know to really understand the story I’m about to share is that my parents brought our family to this country from Hong Kong when I was young, and they did it specifically for me. To give me a better life and to be the first in our family to go to college. That created an expectation, spoken or not, that I needed to be someone.
To do something. Career failure was not an option, and an engineering degree from Purdue was a way to ensure success. And it would be fair to say in that moment, back at graduation in 1996, sitting exactly where you are right now, I thought I had all the answers and knew exactly where I was headed. But the funny thing about degrees, and careers, and life is that you never know where they’re going to take you, and success is never quite what you think it will be.
So, after barely getting through my years at Purdue … through my dreaded physics class, calculus, and organic chemistry, I did actually land a great job because of the soybean crayon, which made up for my lacking grades. My career was off to the perfect Purdue start, with a job at Procter & Gamble as a process engineer in an oil refinery plant. But when I think about that first “perfect” job, what I recognize now is that’s the moment in my life when I started to learn some hard truths about myself.
And the one thing I knew for sure in that moment, is that I wasn’t happy.
A friend of mine, an author by the name of Eric Liu, wrote a whole chapter about me in his book. Here’s how he described me:
“Jocelyn couldn’t bear to think what her parents would say. She had come to Procter & Gamble because that’s what they wanted. Rewind. She studied engineering at Purdue because that’s what they wanted.
“And then she’d come to here to do this, to fulfill what she knew to be the expectation. And it was terrible. The kind of terrible that felt like running underwater, wholly submerged, lungs burning, mouth sealed shut, every gesture beset unbearably by an atmosphere of compression.
“It was just that working in manufacturing, and then research and development as Jocelyn had for more than two years now, felt stifling. What made it truly bad was that she wasn’t even good at it. She was middling at best, and her ratings showed it.”
Remind me not to hire you as my biographer someday. Now, I read this deeply personal excerpt to you in order to make a point. You see, when I was in that job, what I saw when I looked in the mirror was what others wanted to see. My vision was blurry and unfocused.
I was consumed by reaching those goals and lost myself along the way. I saw someone that was trying to be someone else in order to meet the expectations of others. And now my state of mind at the age of 22 is forever documented in a book, because that’s how we did it before social media.
I eventually learned to see a strong young woman who just happened to be in the absolute wrong job coming out of college. As it turns out, I was someone who had a passion for marketing and was ready to embark on my own journey, not that of anyone else.
So I made the switch. It wasn’t easy, and it was a risk. I didn’t know if I’d be any better at marketing. And this change was scary. Failure, more failure, I should say, was possible. But I walked through that door of opportunity with the belief that it was important to try.
Now, that didn’t make my years here at Purdue a waste of time or effort. Quite the opposite, actually. The problem-solving skills that I learned from professors like Dr. Tao and Dr. Okos, and the engineering degree I earned, gave me an advantage in the field was I being drawn to.
My Purdue engineering background helped me to think through issues, and marry the creativity of marketing with the analytics and measurement needed to drive results. I wish I could have been a phenomenal engineer. That was the plan. But it wasn’t my plan. I had to be honest with myself. And that moment of truth about who I really was would fuel my growth and ascension up the corporate ladder for the next 20-plus years.
It brought me to the place I thought I would finally find the ultimate happiness and fulfillment and likely brought me here to this podium today, the C-Suite.
Ah, the C-Suite, that golden land of amazing perks like reserved parking spots and financial independence. The first one is a nice to have. But the second, that was a need to have. You see, we didn’t have money when I was growing up. My parents worked harder than anyone I knew just to be able to provide for us. I remember working side-by-side with my mom, cleaning other people’s homes. I learned that there is no shame in hard work. But I wanted to have the financial independence we never had growing up, and I wanted it so that I could give my parents the kinds of experiences I knew they always longed for.
And then a few years ago I stumbled across another moment of truth. After a rise that took me to chief marketing officer of a Fortune 50 company, and chief customer officer of a great startup, I had to once again look in the mirror. And what I saw was someone who was getting sucked into the game and losing myself again. The “why” was no longer what drove me when I was younger. It had become a competition of sexy titles and “winning,” whatever that means. I needed to take a step back to truly understand the price I was paying for my career, and when the stakes started to include things like my values and integrity and far too many sleepless nights, I knew that price was getting way too steep. That was not an easy truth to come to terms with.
I worked hard and sacrificed much to reach what I thought would be the pinnacle of my career, only to discover that it wasn’t what I thought it would be when I got there. So by walking away from a successful career of more than 24 years, I got to end that game on my terms.
And so ironically, here I am, back in West Lafayette on commencement day, in a familiar place that I was in back in 1996. Except this time, I don’t know what the next step looks like. And that’s OK, because once again, I’m reminded of who I am. I no longer have anything to prove to my parents, to others, or to myself. I see a strong woman who is a wife, a daughter, a mother, a sister. Someone who is resilient and not defined by her Linkedin or Instagram profile.
I have new goals, and new opportunities to create and pursue. I will challenge myself, and learn to inspire and be inspired once again. As it turns out, what began with lectures and labs at Forney Hallwas actually the start of a lifelong journey of personal discovery.
A journey that saw me evolve from someone who was trying desperately to meet the expectations of others, to someone who was furiously trying to climb the corporate ladder, to someone who is now focused solely on other things that matter. I am not a finished product. I’m still a work in progress, still trying to figure out what it is I want to be when I grow up. Much like you.
One of the few things separating me from you, other than alcohol tolerance and incredible metabolism, is the 25 years of experience I have. But … much like you I’m full of optimism, and maybe a little scared.
My resume may have landed me this opportunity today, but it only shows the mileposts along my journey. The real lessons are found in between the lines. And the reality is that my career journey continues. Maybe I’ll write a book of my own. Maybe I’ll teach a course. Maybe I’ll go back to school. My options are open, and at a time when technology and social media try to turn us into a monolithic entity that only accepts one path or one definition of success, it’s important for you to know that individualism isn’t dead. You control your own career. You decide what success means for you. It won’t be measured in your Linkedin profile or by creating the perfect façade with your posts and then seeing how many likes you get.
You can write and rewrite your own ticket as many times and in as many different ways as you want. You will grow through your failures, and you will flourish. Remember to look in the mirror and challenge yourself to really “see” who you are, and who you’re becoming. Then walk through the doors that present themselves to you, and take the risk even if you don’t always know what’s on the other side.
If you know your truth you’ll never get lost. There are no easy breaks in life, but you’re a graduate of a world-class university and that’s a pretty great place to start.
Enjoy your journey Class of 2021!!