2017 Commencement address by Billie Jean King


I want to thank Northwestern University,
the Board of Trustees, the faculty, Provost Linzer, Professor Woodruff and
President Shapiro for this honor. For this honor is so amazing, I can’t tell you. Congratulations to all my fellow honorary degree recipients. To be in your
company is very humbling, and I just… It was great meeting you last night, and I
really appreciate everything. I want to congratulate those families. You were
really great up there when the President pointed out to you, and I want to thank
so much that… How much you’ve given to others to help these young people, and
sometimes not so young, to graduate. So congratulations to the group. Congratulations to the graduates of the Class of 2017. You rock! I have had so many many people talk to me about this this commencement
speech, I cannot tell you. People have stopped me in London; they stopped
me in Chicago; they stopped me in New York; they stopped me in the
West Coast. I was at a play the other night. Somebody
came up to me during the intermission to the play. What is it that everybody
knows I’m giving this commencement speech? It’s amazing. I just figured maybe… It must have been painted on the Rock. Now it had to be painted
on the Rock, or maybe with Saturday Night Live… You know, Seth Meyers was here last
year, and I don’t know… You know SNL has more actors from Northwestern
University than any other university, so it’s got to be that maybe. I don’t know,
but it’s a privilege to be part of the Northwestern community – a place where
inclusion and equality are an important part of the culture. You know Deloitte
did a study on Millennials, which includes some of you, and shows that you
are by far the best generation ever so far ever to deal with inclusion. I am
telling you, it’s changing, and it’s because of people like you. I had a chance to talk with some of the… a few of the graduating students,
and I want to thank them for taking time because it was during finals, and I felt
so bad. So I want to thank you for helping me prepare my speech today, and
they told me they’re really looking forward to the day when they are not
measured by their GPA but by their contribution to a common goal. I thought
that was great, just listening to them and learning from them. I hope you will
accept that challenge and bring all of yourself – this is really important – your
mind, your heart and your guts to everything you do. You have to do it that
way – leave your guts on the court, so to speak. We’re all part of the Northwestern family, and I have a feeling we all
bleed purple, especially today. It’s my favorite color. It is. The more you know
about history, the more you know about yourself. The more you know about history,
the more you know about yourself. The late Coretta Scott King once said
struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it,
and you win it in every generation. Today, it’s time for your generation to win and
to shape the future. There are those who think life is a marathon. I don’t agree. I
think life is a series of sprints. You get to start over and over and over
again, always adapting to the long and winding road in front of you. Along the
way you’ll have failures, but if you choose to see these failures as feedback,
it will help you plan your next step. I’ll explain… When I used to play a long time ago that game of tennis, that sport of tennis, the ball
would be coming to me. Each ball is a new opportunity. I have to make a decision, so
I have to accept responsibility. In less than a nanosecond, I have to decide where
I’m going to hit it. If I hit the ball, and it goes wide, I take in that
information; I correct it in my mind’s eye; I delete it
from my computer, my brain; and then I correct it, and I enter that in my
computer, my brain. So I am ready for the next time I get a similar shot, that I
can make that correction. So if you think of… If you think it’s feedback, not
failure… Okay, just think about that. It’s feedback not failure. You know it’s funny, they asked Warren Buffett and Bill Gates the same question. They said… And
they were asked independently. They didn’t know this was happening. What is
the most important word associated with doing well, and they said “focus.” Focus. I want you to be mindful and pay
attention. Listen to your body because health is wealth.Health is wealth. You may
have fears about your future – what job will you have? Where will you be in five years? In 25 years? You don’t have to have all the answers right now. Take a breath. Breathe.
But I hope you will not always just sit around and wait for the answers either. Women in this class may be the first generation of women to actually see
equal pay for equal work in their professional life time. A lot of things have to come in place to
do this, but I recently saw a new research that said all women – I mean all
women. That means all women. – in developed markets will be the first generation to see the gender pay gap close. But only if this
class of 2017 and your contemporaries make strategic choices and gain more
digital and STEM skills and if businesses, government and academia
provide crucial support. This is absolutely vital. The earliest this will likely
happen in developed countries is 2044, and for developing countries, it could be
as early as 2066. I was hoping I’d see this in my lifetime, but
I don’t think it’s going to happen. Anyway, what a bummer. Equal work for equal pay should not be a
dream. It should be one of the freedom, of the freedom cries for your generation.
I’m telling you, it’s absolutely important to make this world better. A
recent Harvard Business Review study also showed that, men, you are so
important. You will play such a vital role in the
quest for equal pay. Male champions of the cause have learned that gender
inclusiveness means involving all genders in the advancement of leadership roles for women. These male champions practice leadership that is
inclusively focused, not self focused, and because of that everybody wins. Last Sunday night, I was watching the Tony Awards. I don’t know if any of you
were. And I was so moved by the 23-year-old
Ben Platt’s acceptance speech. When he won Best Actor in the musical for Dear Evan
Hansen, he said, quote, “To all the young people watching at home, don’t waste any
time trying to be like anybody else because the things that make you strange
are the things that make you powerful.” I loved it, so be yourself; be your
unique self. Ed Willard, who used to be the CEO of DuPont – and he and I have been
friends for last 20 or 30 years, and he became a mentor. And the one thing we
always talked about is… What do what do you notice in
people? We kept talking about this all the time – the people that have inner and
outer success – who are these people? What kind of… What do they have? What do we
notice about them? We just talked about it constantly. We came up with three easy-peasies here about… Here they are and not necessarily in this
order: Relationships are everything, to yourself, to others. You guys are smart. You guys can figure this out. Number two, never stop learning,
and never stop learning how to learn. And number three, be a problem-solver. Be a
problem solver. And we’re always checking back in to see if we still believe these,
but it can be other things. Relationships are everything. Why did I come and speak
here today? I came here because of relationships. Diane Donnelly Stone, who
went to Northwestern… she won the NCAA doubles in tennis in ’87
with Katrina Adams. She has been my executive assistant for 28 years, and
Mike, her husband, played golf at Northwestern. So do they bleed purple? You bet. Mike was a top-ten golfer in the Big 10. The top 10 in the Big 10. Your first
job very well may come from a connection of one of your your relationships, but
that’s why I’m here. It’s relationships. The second one is never stop learning,
and never stop learning how to learn. Just make this a part of your daily life. Be a problem-solver. Once you identify the problem, it’s so important for us to
always be in the solution. This is the area, I think, where true champions in life
prevail. In coaching, I use a couple of key phrases: champions adjust or adapt
and pressure is a privilege. Christine Brennan, another alum of Northwestern, and I wrote the book, “Pressure is a Privilege.” Christine is going to be inducted
into the Northwestern University Athletic Hall of Fame in September Sometimes it’s important to lead, and
sometimes you have to be in a supportive role. And you’re going to have to be able
to recognize the difference. There’s a great story about the CEO of Salesforce,
Marc Benioff. It’s an equal pay story. Of course, it’s about equality. Two women – Layla Second and Cindy Robbins – approached him and said, “You know, I know you talk about equality, Marc, but it’s not really quite.” And he said, “Really? He’s pretty skeptical.” He’s looking at them. “Really?” He said, “Well show me. Show me the data.” So they show him. He goes, “Whoa.” First of all, women and girls were
taught not to ask for what we want and need, so Layla and Cindy really had a lot
of courage to do that – number one. Number two, Marc is a leader. He’s all about
inclusiveness, so he said, “I see that you’re not quite equal. I
we’ll fix that.” It was fixed immediately. Those are the things, because somebody
had the courage to ask. That’s what makes the difference. Your happiness should drive your future. You can follow the money, which is not
bad actually. Money, money, money is not that bad, but
only if you never lose sight of your moral compass. Do not lose sight of your
moral compass. If you do tiny acts of kindness every day, there will be a
ripple effect of positivity because it’s contagious. You will find happiness if
you open your heart and your mind to those who are different than you. Be
receptive to those who don’t look or sound like you. These people will
challenge you. You will learn from them. We are all immigrants. Every single one
of us is an influencer. Every single person, and most importantly, we are all
in this together. It is not what we can get out of life; it is what we can give
to life that matters. That’s my favorite thing of the whole speech. It’s not what
we can get out of life; it’s what we can give to life. Keep writing. I see write or with your phones or whatever. I’m always
looking for different poets or poems or things to say at kind of the end, and I
always keep coming back to this one, so you’re going to have to forgive me. It’s a few words from a poet of my generation, Bob Dylan. Well this is good. “May you grow… may
you grow up to be righteous. May you grow up to be true. May you always know the
truth and see the light surrounding you. May you always be courageous. Stand
upright and be strong, and may you stay forever young. Dream big, and go for it.
there’s only one more thing. This is very exciting because I know you want to go
celebrate. I get it. We’re going to be playing the Philadelphia Freedom song right now, and I’m going to have some help come up on stage. Hello, come on kids. Let’s go. These are going to be seven… these are seven… Are there seven of you or nine? I think there were. Anyway there’s… Okay these
are our tennis players who are seniors that are graduating. They’re going to
help me. There we go. Seven, I had it right. Elton John… I met Elton John in 1973, and
in 1974, we’re going to a concert. He looks at me and says, “I want to write a
song for you, Billie Jean.” I’m so embarrassed, and I’m turning red and he
goes, “What are we going to call it? What are we gonna call?” “I don’t know. I don’t
know.” Well he had come to watch me play with the Philadelphia Freedoms and World
Team Tennis in 1974. He sat on the bench in his uniform. He used to cheer us on. He
gave us a bad time. He says, “Why don’t we call the song Philadelphia Freedoms.” And he calls Bernie Top He says, “Bernie, I’m writing a song for Billie Jean. We’re calling it Philadelphia Freedom. Write
the lyrics. Go.” And then, you know, Bernie faxes the lyrics. Elton puts it in front of the piano. It takes him about 15 minutes
usually to write a song, and that’s how Philadelphia Freedom came to
fruition. And it became number one, and then really importantly to Elton, it
became number one in R&B. That made his day. It made my day. So I just want to
give you some background, and we’re going to hit a few balls into the stand, into the crowd. We don’t have that many because I don’t have 20,000 so or
whatever we have here. So I just want you to know
how much I love being here. Go Cats! Go U! NU!

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