I am deeply honored to be addressing you today.
Allow me to start with a confession: I have endured weeks of fear and anxiety at the thought of giving this commencement address, I think I’ve lost some weight in the process…, which on and by itself, is a good reason to be standing here today.
The challenge did not come from a lack of lessons or anecdotes to share with you, but rather from trying to comply with President Haidostian’s request, that I squeeze three decades of experience into an 8-minute address. A daunting task, especially when you consider that I come from Venezuela, where the average length of a President Hugo Chavez speech is more like 8 hours!
The journey of this graduating class has paralleled that of a world in constant and dramatic change, and a region undergoing historic transformations, that just a few months earlier would have been unthinkable. Class of 2011, these are rough times, but these are your times. Your times to challenge the circumstances! You have been given the skills and the values that will help you to navigate successfully these rough waters, and today you will receive a powerful tool: a Haigazian degree, which will be instrumental in helping you build the future that you all deserve. Congratulations!
In pondering what to say to you on this very special occasion, I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation 30 years ago, and decided to talk to you about three points that have shaped my life and my professional career.
I would like to start by addressing a matter all of us here have encountered in the past, and you graduates, as you move on, will encounter again and again. How you deal with it, will determine to a large extent your success or failure in life. I am referring to the matter of setbacks and adversities. They have been a determining factor in my own life.
A major setback in my professional career occurred 20 years ago. I had just made a difficult and life changing professional decision to leave a comfortable position as Managing Director, in investment banking, at Citibank New York, then the world’s largest bank, in order to embark on what my friends and colleagues had called a crazy, senseless adventure, of joining a little known Spanish bank, called Banco Santander, in Venezuela. I accepted to team-up with Santander primarily because, at the time, Venezuela was not only Latin America’s richest economy and the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, but also because it had enjoyed more than 50 years of stability and uninterrupted democracy - unlike any of its neighbors.
Well…, 8 months after moving to that country, and at the dawn of the day I was to sign with the finance minister the country’s largest Eurobond offering in years; I was awakened by F-16’s breaking the sound barrier above Caracas (something some of you are unfortunately familiar with in Beirut, but a never before seen event in Caracas). It was the 4th of February 1992, and the beginning hours of the first coup d’état in Venezuela. My mother, who is here in the audience today, must remember the event well, as she and my father were visiting from Beirut.
Needless to say, not only was the Eurobond issue pulled from the market, but I had to also shelve all of our bank’s ambitious development plans for that country. A week later, I remember confiding in my wife that I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life by leaving Citibank and accepting to move to Venezuela. The weeks that followed were pretty scary and depressing.
After that huge setback, I somehow found the strength to get back on my feet, get on an airplane, and start looking for opportunities elsewhere in that region. I was practically without a job, so I had no other options and very little to loose. This eventually led me to establish investment banking units for Santander all over South America, and these units, a few years later, became the cornerstone of what is today Latin America’s largest banking franchise, with banks in 10 countries, more than 8,000 branches, and 100,000 employees.
Adversities and setbacks in life are inevitable, believe me! I’ve had more than my fair share of them. They have taught me things about myself that I could not have learned in any other way, and, in the process, they have made me stronger and wiser.
I’ll tell you today what I’ve told my bank staff so many times over the years:
The real mark of your character comes not from how you react to your successes, of which I am sure you will have many, but rather how you react in the face of defeat and failures, of which there will be a number in your lifetime. How you deal with adversity will reveal your true character. How quickly you get back on your feet after a setback will determine just how far those feet of yours will carry you in this world.
What kept me going in the face of adversity and setbacks was Love. Love of life, love of family and love of my job. And that takes me to my second point:
In order to be successful in life, you’ve got to find what you love to do, and be passionate about it. You’ve got to seek happiness. That reminds me of Khalil Gibran in The Prophet, when he says: “What is to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with the threads drawn from your own hearts”. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied, and to move ahead in your career, is to do great work. And the only way to do great work is to be happy, to love what you do, whatever that may be.
Remember however; love and happiness are a journey not a destination. If I’ve had any success as a banker, it is because I found a way to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. I had as much fun, as a 22-year old banking trainee living in Bahrain and chasing client deposits in Saudi Arabia’s most remote provinces, as I did for over 12 years, as Chairman and CEO of Venezuela’s leading banking institution, rubbing shoulders with heads of state and other “world personalities”.
It is rare for your first job to be your “dream” job, but it matters little what the job entails, so long as you find something in it that you can be passionate about. And that passion will eventually guide you to success.
Now comes my third, last, and probably most important point:
Today, as you celebrate this marvelous occasion, surrounded by family and friends, you should take a minute to reflect upon the responsibilities that come with the privilege of having earned a degree from one of Lebanon’s most prestigious universities.
Allow me to take a minute here, to pay tribute to Haigazian University - a great institution that over the past 56 years has served the Armenian community, Lebanon and the region exceedingly well. It has upheld international standards of academic excellence, and has been a source of leadership and independent thinking.
Perhaps the achievements of Haigazian are best summarized by a recent article from Hagop Terjimanian, an alumnus, when he says, and I quote: “No other institution of higher learning has given Armenian communities throughout the Diaspora and the entire Arab Middle East so many distinguished leaders, teachers, principals, pastors, social workers, and business professionals as has Haigazian University.”
Well;…friends, parents, alumni and graduates, please do not take Haigazian for granted. It is a living, vibrant institution that needs everyone’s help and support to keep growing and to keep serving.
Class of 2011, your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, and the education you have received, give you a unique status, and with this status come unique responsibilities. You must never forget that you are part of a larger society. As Lebanese members of the Armenian community, as Lebanese from all other communities, and indeed as human beings, you have the responsibility to contribute to those communities, to Lebanon, and ultimately to the public good.
As you move on in life, and as your status and influence grows, have the courage to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice, do not forget those who have not been as lucky, or as blessed as you have been, and continuously ask yourselves what it is you can do to make a difference in your communities, and how you can contribute to a better future for Lebanon and for all Lebanese.
Well friends, today I am fortunate enough to be living these words to the fullest. After many years of absence, I am privileged to have been able to come back to my roots, to my country of birth Lebanon, to establish a Foundation, in memory of my father Ambassador Jean Goguikian. The Foundation’s final aim is to contribute to shaping a better future for Lebanon and for the Lebanese-Armenian community, through the training of its brilliant youth to become leaders of tomorrow.
So, what I humbly ask of you on this commencement day, on this day of new beginnings, is that in 10, 20, or 30 years, when you have a chance to stop and reflect on your life and what you have done with your wonderful abilities and great ambitions; you judge yourselves not only on your professional accomplishments, but also on how well you did on giving back; giving back to your university, to your communities and above all, giving back to this wonderful land – Lebanon.
May you live a life rich in happiness and fulfillments.
Congratulations, and God bless you.