Dr. Angelica Kohlmann speaking at IE Business School with Chair Guillermo de la Dehesa Romero and Dean Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño.

Graduation Speech IE Business School – Madrid July 21st, 2016

Posted by on Aug 1, 2016 in Business and Finance
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Buenas tardes estimados estudiantes, en la última clase, después de un año en Madrid y antes de recibir el diploma del Master, me gustaría de testar su español…

No, don’t worry, no Spanish test today – I’ll, continue in English!

Dear Santiago, dear Faculty, dear Parents, Relatives, Ladies and Gentlemen, and most importantly, dear Graduates,
It’s a pleasure to be here in Madrid, at IE, an internationally highly regarded university – in the heart of Europe.

When Santiago Iñiguez first asked me to give this speech, I asked myself what should be the message that I would like to pass on today. There is so much advice you all know and heard before. Like follow your heart, or try to find what makes you happy, not what makes you the most money. I wouldn’t want to bore you by repeating all that, but – it’s all true!

Today, I want to leave you with three messages of my own. All of them result from almost 40 years of building businesses, building a family, supporting young entrepreneurs and investing around the world.

The first message is a personal one.

I grew up in Brazil, as a result of persecution and war in Europe. As children, my parents fled from Germany to Argentina and Peru together with my grandparents. Among the few and most important things they could take with them from home were their education and knowledge, allowing them to succeed in a new environment. Even though they became wealthy, they passed on their conviction that money really doesn’t matter as much as what you have in your brain, to their children – to me. It is the only thing that no one can take away from you and that will allow you to start over if you have to. As we are starting to look into an uncertain political future once again, it still matters more than anything else today. Now, you may think, why am I telling you this? After all, I’m speaking to almost 600 students graduating in finance and management…

As a child, I was tired of listening to stories my parents told me about other people suffering somewhere else in the world, how hard a time they had and what drove them to succeed. Today, looking at my almost 90-year-old mother, who is sitting here in the audience, I understand why they told me and my siblings all those things. Those stories you never forget.

Life is about putting your priorities into the right order. About deciding what really matters. And what really matters to you, will depend on your story, your background, your life. To decide on your priorities, you should trust yourselves and your judgement – but also, never underestimate the importance of sincere advice from a more experienced person. My uncle Peter Drucker taught me that listening is much more precious than speaking. The right mix of your own judgement and taking the thoughts of others into consideration should be very important in your lives. And I say THOUGHTS, not opinions, as people generally don’t need to understand things to have an opinion, which became evident recently in a certain referendum. So find YOUR priorities and live accordingly.

My second message, is a professional one.

Be entrepreneurial, no matter if you work for a company, if you are in a partnership, or if you run your own business.

After I finished my PhD in medicine, I went into cancer research. As my father had died from cancer when I was only 22 years old, I felt that I was doing something of meaning. After almost 2 years of mostly lab work, I decided to quit. I found it too protracted – to make it short. Because of my research work, however, I had the opportunity of a great start into the pharmaceutical industry. At that time, I was your age – around 25-26 – and lucky to get a job without a direct boss, as they were still looking to fill the position of the Sales and Marketing Director. Although I had no idea what marketing meant at the time, it was decided that I should lead a product group with responsibilities in over 50 countries. In my new position, I had the freedom to take action – and I used it. I travelled to most of the countries under my responsibility and listened to employees in the subsidiaries to learn what their needs were. To my surprise, all the travelling yielded results very quickly as I closed the company’s first contract in China. Within a year, my group was the best-selling group in the company and the fastest growing within the parent company. I was by far the youngest manager at the time – and I was the only woman!

Filled with self-confidence, I decided to become even more active. I heard from a relative in the US that an interesting pharmaceutical company was up for sale. I called the headquarters of my company to speak to the Managing Board and let them know of this opportunity. The next day, I got a call back. They wanted to see me – someone who can lead a product group to such growth numbers and then calls to let them now about a potential acquisition.

Even though I started out with little expertise in a position, which seemed far too senior for me at the time, I managed to succeed. Looking back, there were a million ways I could have failed, but I was too naive to know that. I certainly made many mistakes – but none so bad that anyone would have noticed!

Always try to be bold and act as an entrepreneur. And as a leader, be bold enough to give your subordinates the freedom to make mistakes. Success stories come from action, not inaction.

My last message, is a general one.

A few weeks ago, I was in Washington, where I listened to a speech by President Obama. He argued, that if you could choose a time to be born, or to live, it would be NOW. Despite all problems the world faces, never before were poverty, as well as death-rates due to wars and diseases, so low.

You ARE here now! You are here with fellow graduates from over 90 countries, with different cultures and languages. You are leaving IE to start on a new journey. You will actively help create the future! But no matter what road you may take, in what direction you may go, you will often be confronted with situations where you can either start a fight or try to make peace. Where you either segregate or try to integrate.

As an investor, I once experienced a situation where a young, extremely talented tech entrepreneur surprisingly called off an investment with three investors in Switzerland, of which I was one and a leading bank was another – after months of due-diligence and the contracts being ready for signature. He had been contacted by a powerful Silicon Valley investor, who wanted to invest alone. After he let us know of this, during a telephone conference, there was complete silence. One could literally hear the shock wave. I was the first to break the silence by saying that I could understand, that in his place, as a young entrepreneur, I would do the same and that nothing had been signed – so it was totally legal. I felt his relief. Then the other investors shared my good wishes. Five minutes after the end of the call, this young entrepreneur calls me back. He wanted me to join the Silicon Valley investor in the financing round – which I did. Today, the company is valued at hundreds of millions of dollars and I am glad I had given the young founder my support in this situation and before, without expecting anything in return. There are many clever people out there – as you. But giving support, human credit and trying to unite rather than divide will lead you to find satisfaction beyond the financial value and lead to success in situations where you don’t even expect it.

There is a big responsibility in your hands to change the world for the better by uniting rather than dividing. I am sure that your experience at IE was not only of high academic, but much more, also of immense human value. You and your parents, as well as the faculty and staff that accompanied you can be very proud today.

Thank you!

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