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Commencement Address 2005

Rochelle Lazarus '68, LHD '05, May 15, 2005

Commencement 2005

Rochelle "Shelly" Lazarus, who for three decades has built the brand images of such household names as American Express, IBM and Kodak, was the speaker at Smith College's 127th commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 15, 2005.

President Christ, Provost Bourque, distinguished faculty, trustees, family and friends, and, most specially, the members of the Smith College Class of 2005: Good afternoon. This is a wonderful day for all of us. I am enormously pleased to be here with you, and to have the honor of addressing you on the day of your commencement.

You are about to commence, to go forth, to begin, a journey. The question is what journey? Some of you probably have the start of the answer to this question. Get a graduate degree, get a job, get married, travel, become a reality television contestant.

I can only tell you that when I was graduating from Smith, when I was sitting down there as you are some 37 years ago – it seems impossible that it was 37 years ago – I had no idea that the life I was embarking on would turn out as it has.

To start with, I never dreamed that I would some day be standing on this platform getting an honorary degree, and giving this speech. I can only describe this as an out-of-body experience. If somebody had told me on that day in May, that I would some day be the CEO of a global company, that I would sit on corporate boards with giants of industry and be listened to, and that I would be a role model for working women and working mothers, I would have laughed. I had no such ambitions.

You know, we are all such products of our own expectations. When the world portrays us in a certain way, we tend to see ourselves as pictured. Accept it and expect it. And what I expected was to get married and have a family. I even had the man, a nice Yale student who was a year ahead of me, on his way to medical school and now my wonderful husband, George Lazarus, of 35 years. That was about as far as I had commenced in my life plan.

I am being honest with you here. I never set out to be a role model, to get to the corner office, or to have a big career – or any career for that matter. After Smith, the only reason I went on to get an MBA from Columbia was because I needed a job and I heard that if a woman had an MBA they probably wouldn’t make her type, which is what you had to do starting out in the commercial world at the time if you were a woman. By the way, this was only a hypothesis, not proven fact. There weren’t enough women MBAs to know if they would still make you type even if you had the degree.

I needed a job to make money so I could get married and George and I could eat. Simple as that. And I didn’t want to type.

Marriage. Children. That was the expectation. Even here, even at Smith, where I was surrounded by some of the most capable people I had ever encountered who just happened to be women. And sure, there were some of us who were going on to law school or to get PhD's but what most of us thought about, what was most important to us really, was getting married and having kids – who, in turn, would go on to Yale and Smith, and the cycle would just continue.

I’m inspired, standing in this quadrangle, to present the best evidence of our collective values at the time: When I was at Smith, there was a tradition of having the graduating class race each other rolling hoops across this very lawn. You know that old-fashioned children’s game with a big wooden hoop sticks. But the interesting thing is because of the class size, we were divided into two heats. And you were placed in either the first or second heat depending on…what do you think? Alphabetically? By state? By house? No. The class was divided by whether you were engaged or not. Yes, this is absolutely true. Naturally, the engaged girls went first.

Tradition was that the girl who won the first engaged girls heat would be the first to have a baby, and the girl who won the second “singles” heat would be the first to get married. There were girls who actually went home to get engaged before the day of hoop rolling, just to be in that first heat. I am not kidding. Who could make that up?

The engagement ring was all the status we wanted, it was not careers and jobs. If anything, work was something done to pass the time until the real work in life, the real commencement, the real fulfillment which was husband and kids, began. That’s the way it was in 1968.

As I look back though, that lack of career expectation, that lack of a “plan” for my working life was probably an inadvertent benefit. If my life wasn’t defined by my work, then the problems associated with getting that work were just not that difficult. And there were problems.

When I first started my career it was perfectly acceptable in this country for a prospective employer to say to a woman, "We'd love to give you a job, but there are so few spots, and we couldn't waste one on a woman."

What is shocking to me now is not so much that this happened regularly (and it did). But the shock, in retrospect, was my lack of moral outrage! And I wasn’t the only one. There were no women storming out of these interviews. When I didn’t get the job because they clearly didn’t want a woman, I just thought, well I guess this isn’t such a great place for a woman to work anyway. Good thing I found out early.

So I didn’t get mad. I didn’t even really feel a need to “get even.” My story is not one of the “I’ll teach those guys who wouldn’t offer me a job, I’ll become their boss” variety. Far from it!

The truth of the matter is my own career path “commenced” because somewhere along the way, I fell in love, with an industry, with a company, with the commercial world in a way that made it easy to give it everything I had. I was lucky. That’s all it was. I found advertising and I found a company that valued ideas over gender, that balanced hard work with humanity, a place that allowed me to be as successful as I wanted to be. I didn’t go looking for the corner office. It found me. I didn’t “choose” to be a working mother. I simply didn’t want to give up the work I loved.

Fortunately, I was not alone on this journey. In the last three decades there have been many women who have found themselves on this same journey. Breaking down barriers, pushing up the ladder, elbowing our way to a seat at the table – lots of tables.

In fact, the last few decades have been a great time to be a woman. Sure it was a little rocky at first. But once we got our footing, what a ride. We have made so many inroads. We’ve just kept on coming, insisting that we assume our rightful places. Not because we were women, not because we had something to prove; but because we were capable and we had something to contribute. We never needed “remedial help.” We don’t need special programs. All we needed was the proverbial even playing field, the opportunity to demonstrate we could lead. And lead we have.

Now, of course, with our success have come new challenges. Once it became clear that women could do well at any level in the professional world, the debate moved on to the cost of that freedom. Could women have big careers and be good mothers? What would that do to the children, to their lives? What about the husbands and their careers! A woman CEO? How interesting. How “charming,” but was it a good thing for society? Who was now going to do the mothering in this country?

The big question became, “Could women really have it all?” And because we are the products of our expectations, this can be an agonizing issue for many women.

Believe me, in the business world I have heard this played out many ways. “Oh, she gave up her career to have a family, poor thing.” Or: “You know, she just got so caught up in her career she never made room for a family, poor thing.” Or: “She’s working and she’s got those three kids and she travels and she chairs the Board of Smith College. I don’t know how she does it.” And that was not a compliment.

I got really tired of that debate, because I always thought it was the wrong question. It wasn’t about having it all. It’s never about “having it all.” It’s only about having what you want.

The “having it all” notion is an external measure. It reflects somebody else’s goals. It’s society’s judgment of what you must aim for. I have come to know that when you let others define your success, you always lose. Believe me, though, it is very hard to resist this path.

I have a friend who just this week resigned from a high-powered job because she could not give up doing the laundry and cooking dinner for her husband and three children. She could not get beyond her own expectations of herself, which clearly included gourmet meals and perfect pressing, even when she recognizes they’re foolish goals and of another era.

For me, having it all meant having both a great family and a great career, and terrific partners and friends to work with, and having fun doing it.

That was my having it all – but were my kids always dressed neatly? No. Did they get haircuts on time? No. Was my house always clean? No – never. But who cares? A friend always liked to say, “dust has no emotional content.” Did I know my eldest son had chicken pox for a week before the pediatrician discovered it during his regular check-up? But it all turned out OK. My kids are great. I brought them as evidence. They’re here – all three of them – and they are lovely, happy people.

Teddy, Sam, Ben are here in this audience. They are beautiful.

Yes, I was lucky but so are you. My generation was about proving we could get to all the places we wanted to go and where we had not been allowed before as women and in numbers that mattered. You don’t have to do that. Today there is nothing that you can’t consider for yourself – in business, in the arts, in public service, in education, in life. Work, stay at home, have a smashing career, follow your artistic heart. Farm. Raise your kids full time. Or do all of the above in combination or in sequence. Whatever your hearts desire.

In fact, if the generation that went before you, my generation, did anything for you it was this: We bought you freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom to pursue whatever you love. Freedom to mix it up, trade it off. Be a big-time corporate lawyer but only if you want to. Be a fulltime mother, cook, volunteer at school but only if you want to. Do all of the above but only if you want to.

The question for you is not “Can you have it all?” The question for you is “What do you really want? How can you have a life where you enjoy everything in it?” Today, right now, you can’t know the answer to that question. Life is just too unpredictable. But you can keep asking the question as you commence this new journey.

Can you have a life where you enjoy almost everything in it? Absolutely. I know so. But first, you must jettison the things that just don’t matter, the things that don’t engage you, the things that don’t have meaning to you. And then take every ounce of energy you have and dive into what you love. There is a great truth that I have learned on my journey. You will always be able to fit into your life all the things you love. It’s the tedious and the frustrating that are hard to fit in. And you shouldn’t even try.

Now you’re going to have to be your own judge and jury. That won’t be easy. Remember we are products of our own expectations.

There is a waitress who works in our local coffee shop in Manhattan. It’s a nice neighborhood spot – everybody knows everybody – kind of like Cheers without the beer. She’s about 40. She graduated from Mount Holyoke and she has a master’s from Middlebury. Graduates from prestigious Eastern colleges are not supposed to end up as waitresses. But she loves her job. She’s happy. It lets her fit lots of other things in. Lots of other interests. It’s in the neighborhood. It works for her. Do not judge.

My point to you as you commence this next chapter is to be willing to let life take you to places you never imagined, to be relaxed about letting life just unfold at times, knowing you can never ever anticipate exactly how it will all play out. That’s the fun of it. The unexpected should be thrilling, not frightening. But do be vigilant in pursuing what you find you love – because it’s the only way you will find balance and happiness in your life.

Now, I do know from personal experience that you have one great benefit as you head out on your road – it’s what you take from your years here at Smith. I know that had I not gone to Smith, I would not be who I am or where I am today. Smith taught me to think. Smith opened my mind to ideas and made me hungry to experience everything new and unexplored. Smith taught me that women can do anything because I had seen the “live demo” – that’s what we call it in my business – watching my classmates during my four years here. My commitment and my gratitude are unending.

So walk out of this special place today, confident in the knowledge that you have gathered, and pursue your path, your loves, your life. You are free. You are free to go. We have given you freedom. There cannot be a more precious gift. Use it wisely and use it well.