Guest Column: May 2020

What would I say if I were asked to give one this year?

Charles D. Morgan,
CEO, First Orion

THANK YOU, PRESIDENT So-and-So…or Principal So-and-So; thank you, distinguished faculty. I am honored and, yes, humbled, to be charged with the task of sending this graduating class out into the world armed with a bit of hard-earned wisdom.

First, let me say: Parents and grandparents, give yourselves a hearty round of applause—it’s no small feat to see a child through school! Congratulations!

Now, to you graduates. As I look out across this vast audience, gazing into your smiling faces….

Wait a minute—I don’t see any smiling faces. In fact, I don’t see you at all. And we all know why: You’re not here, together, celebrating your big day. Instead, you’re stuck at home commiserating with your fellow grads on Zoom.

This calls for some serious wisdom.

I’m going to start by quoting the author John Grisham, as he addressed the Mississippi State University graduating class of 1992: “If you’re sitting out there with a nice, neat little outline for the next ten years, you’d better be careful. Life may have other plans.”

That’s life for you, and it’s never been more life-like than now. So what should you be doing? How should you be thinking? What should you be planning?

I have three thoughts for you.

One: Use this time wisely. Two: You are your own start-up. Three: Change can be your friend.

For so many of you, this is a hurry-up-and-wait moment. You’re eager to get going, to launch your career, to move on to the next stage of your life.

Instead, you’re running in place.

I would suggest that this is a moment to use to your advantage. Don’t just fritter it away watching Netflix or playing video games. Think about who you are and what you want.

In normal times, I advise young people to project themselves 15-20 years into the future and think, Do I really want to be doing this at age 40?

But these are not normal times—today you need to be able to adapt quickly. That said, you’ll be happiest in your life if you choose work that you won’t grow out of. So think hard about the qualities of what you love, and don’t be so fixated on the specifics of the job title.

Think critically. Write down the activities, the situations, that make you feel good, that make you so happy you lose track of time. Then write down the ones that make you feel anxious, stressed, where the hours seem to drag on forever.

What do you do well—really well? What would you like to do well, but it’s not your strong suit? This is a time to be totally honest with yourself. If you do this self-assessment right, when time speeds up again you’ll have a better sense of who you really are and what you really want.

Which leads me to, “You are your own start-up.” What do I mean by that? I mean that you should now apply that critical thinking to the wider situation.

All entrepreneurs who launch start-ups begin with a couple of crucial questions: What need exists out there? And what makes me the one to fill it?

The world is in a mess right now, but don’t just allow your eyes to glaze over from the constant bombardment of bad news. Cut through the fog. When all the chips have been sorted out, who’ll be the winners and who’ll be the losers?

If you’ve long dreamed of a career in the hospitality or event planning industry, let me introduce you to the word pivot. Sure, you like people and people like you. But it’s going to be a while before crowds of folks enjoy your live events at hotels or convention centers or on cruise ships. It’s going to be a while before we hear a lot of carefree laughter at restaurants and bars.

I suggest you channel your innate people skills into a new profession that gives you the same excitement and satisfaction: sales, maybe. Because while you’re engaged in your self-assessment, companies are engaged in the very same thing. How can we operate more efficiently? How—especially—can we interact effectively with our customers? You may have just the spark they need.

And how were you planning to get to all those events of yours anyway—fly? I wouldn’t put my money on airlines these days—or on trains or buses or other forms of mass transit.

In the future, I see a lot more emphasis on driving—but not in cars that are dependent on fossil fuels. Electric cars. Teslas. You can take that idea and extrapolate to a resurgent role of roads and highways, and of course the infrastructure that supports them. I think that will be a growth industry, and we as a country will be better off for it.

So: Lots of changes coming, no doubt about it. But, as I said earlier, change can be your friend. Change creates opportunity.

Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, when I was just getting out of school, there was a famous movie called The Graduate. How appropriate.

In that movie, Ben, the young protagonist of the title, played by Dustin Hoffman, is taken aside at a party by an older businessman. “Ben,” the man says, “I want to say just one word to you—just one word: plastics.”

Well, that was then and this is now. But if I could take each of you graduates aside today and say just one word to you—just one word—that word would be “data.”

I’m not the Chairman of the Board of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences—ACDS—for nothing. Data is this era’s watch word. It doesn’t matter if you’re graduating from high school or from college, data—and by extension the data sciences—is the present and future of everything.

I mean it: every industry, every sector, everywhere, for every interest. It’s where the demand is, no matter what your preferred field. And this high paying work is perfectly suited for today’s world, because you can do it from the office, from home, from the woods, from the shore.

Also, there’s never been an easier time—especially for people here in Arkansas, no matter your age or education—to get into it.

If you’re just out of high school, you may be rethinking college—all that student debt, and where’s the guarantee? But you can apply for an IT apprenticeship through ACDS and get hired by an Arkansas company that will pay you while you launch your own bright, secure future.

The same goes for you current college grads trying to find your path, or for ex-military people looking for a new career. Or for employees in a company who want to change careers and upgrade their skills—there’s no limit to who can sign up for an ACDS-sponsored apprenticeship.

At the same time, more and more Arkansas companies are discovering that apprenticeships are the quickest way to acquire the tech talent that they so desperately need to stay competitive in today’s world.

I hope this thought brightens your day—as an employer who has hired more than 30 apprentices over the past couple of years, it certainly brightens mine.

Now I want to say just one more word to you—just one more word: “Arkansas.”

In the spirit of applying critical thinking to the wider situation, answer me this: Where would you feel most comfortable working these days—in the dense, highly populated canyons of Manhattan, or Austin, or San Francisco, or in the green open spaces of your home state?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Arkansas is seventh from the bottom of states with the fewest deaths from coronavirus per hundred thousand people. We’ve had three deaths per hundred thousand. New York has had 140 per hundred thousand.

If ever there was an argument for both data science and Arkansas, we’re living through it. Add to that the cost-of-living and quality-of-life factors, and it’s pretty much a slam dunk.

In closing, let me tell you a story. Not long ago I got a call from a friend who told me about a bright young graduate in marketing from the University of Arkansas. He had six job offers, in places like Kansas City and Dallas and I can’t remember where-all.

But now these job offers are on hold for a while, and my friend wanted me to meet with the young man and try to persuade him to stay in Arkansas.

Well, I did meet with him, and I liked what I saw. And he liked what he saw at my company, First Orion, too. He hadn’t applied to us because he hadn’t realized that we would be doing things that played to his strengths, to his passions.

As I write this, we’re still talking. And I bet you he’s going to stay in Arkansas and come to work with us.

In a sense, this young man sums up everything I’ve tried to tell you in this speech. He’s incredibly self aware, knowing exactly what he wants. But while change has thrown him a curve ball, it has also opened his eyes to new opportunities, new options.

I wish the very same for all of you.