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IBM Chief Gets Standing Ovation at Commencement

Rometty tells Class of 2015 they're graduating at ‘truly unique moment in history’

  • Rometty, two other distinguished individuals receive honorary degrees.
  • Class of 2015 speaker: deeply humbled to shift the spotlight to the people who got us here
  • Rometty: ‘every important decision mankind makes will be informed by a cognitive computer’
  • Lesson number one: ‘Never let anyone define you. Only you define who you are.’

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Virginia Rometty, the first woman to head IBM, came home to her alma mater today to deliver the main address at Northwestern University’s 157th commencement ceremony, stressing to her new fellow alums that they were graduating at “a truly unique moment in history” -- the dawn of a new era of computing made possible by big data.  

“What steam was to the 18th century, electricity to the 19th and hydrocarbons to the 20th, data will be to the 21st century,” said Rometty, chairman, president and chief executive officer of IBM. “That’s why I call data a new natural resource.” 

She teased the audience about an anecdote that she would later share about her “significant other,” Watson, the IBM computer system that took the world by surprise in 2011 when it beat the best of human contestants on the television show “Jeopardy.”

Watson and the cognitive computer systems that followed aren’t programmed, Rometty stressed. “These systems, like humans, reason; they deal in the grey areas; they build hypotheses; they test them with vast amounts of data; and they rapidly determine possible answers with explicit degrees of confidence.” 

She predicted that in the future “every important decision mankind makes will be informed by a cognitive computer system like Watson -- and our lives and the world will be better for it.” 

With temperatures hovering in the low to mid-60s, on a sunny and unusually cool day for Northwestern’s commencement, approximately 15,000 people attended the 90-minute ceremony honoring approximately 5,900 undergraduate and graduate students. At the peak of Web viewership, about 850 people also watched the webcast of the ceremony.  

The graduates’ loved ones were out in full force fueling the commencement cheer, and, in his much beloved welcoming tradition, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro called on the graduates to stand and applaud those who supported them. He called out first to parents, then grandparents, siblings, spouses, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, other family members and friends -- with the president’s enthusiasm and the applause building as each group stood to be recognized. 

One of today’s most prominent business leaders, Rometty, too, received an enthusiastic response to her heartfelt remarks about her journey to the top.

After her father left the family when Rometty was a teenager, she said, her mother “found herself with four children and soon no money, no home and no food.” But through quiet perseverance, she said, her mother ended up with a college degree and a 25-year career at a hospital. 

“My mother was determined to never let anyone define her as a victim, a single mother or, worse, a failure,” she said. “Through her actions, she taught us all: Never let anyone define you. And this is lesson number one that I would like to leave with you. It has served me well to this day. Only you define who you are.”

That lesson resonated, with loud applause from the graduates.  

Rometty and her three siblings ended up with five degrees from Dartmouth, Georgia Tech and, “of course, Northwestern,” she said. 

Her second lesson was about risk-taking early in her career as an executive. When presented with a great opportunity to advance in her career, she questioned whether she was ready. “That evening my husband of 35 years now sat and listened patiently to my story,” she said. “He then said only one thing: ‘Do you think a man would have answered that way? I know you. In six months, you will be telling me how you are ready for the next challenge.’”

That experience, she said, led to lesson number two: “Growth and comfort never coexist.”

She told the graduates to close their eyes and ask themselves when they have learned the most.  “Probably when you have felt at risk,” she said. “So when you start to feel anxious, that’s actually a good sign. You’re learning!” 

Her third lesson to the graduates: “Work on something that matters -- have a purpose.” 

“You will have many more goals in the years ahead,” she said. “And I have no doubt you will achieve them. But do not confuse goals with purpose. You may find that purpose in business, or in public service, an NGO or academia. You will choose. Yet today, I hope all of you leave this campus with the purpose to change the world.” 

For the fifth year in a row, President Schapiro acknowledged five high school teachers in the audience who were honored with Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards that recognize their influence on the 2015 graduates who nominated them for the honor.

Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer introduced the three distinguished honorary degree recipients and their presenters:

  • Virginia Rometty, a 1979 graduate of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, joined IBM in 1981 and rose through the ranks to become the first woman to head the company. In February, Rometty was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors for engineering researchers and leaders. For the last three years in a row, she has been the top-ranked executive on Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business.” (Presented by William Osborn, chair of Northwestern University Board of Trustees)
  • Dan Shechtman is the Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He is a widely published researcher whose groundbreaking discovery of a fundamentally new category of materials overturned a centuries-old scientific paradigm and created an entirely new area of research. For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. (Presented by David N. Seidman, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science)
  • Margaret Beale Spencer is the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education and professor of life course human development at the University of Chicago. She is a psychologist whose work centers on the effects of ethnicity, gender and race on youth and adolescent development. A member of the National Academy of Education, she has written more than 100 published articles and chapters as well as three edited books. (Presented by P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, associate provost for faculty and Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, School of Education and Social Policy)

Representing the Class of 2015, A. J. Roy delivered a message of gratitude to “the people who matter most.”

“I’m a theater major, so a desire to be the center of attention is basically a prerequisite for the industry,” he said. “But today I am deeply humbled to shift the spotlight away from myself and the rest of the Class of 2015 and honor the people who got us here: our families, friends and the entire Northwestern faculty and staff. 

“There wouldn’t be a single person accepting a diploma this weekend if it weren’t for you,” he said. 

In a particularly touching moment, Roy cited his father who passed away earlier this year. 

“He used to say to me, ‘A. J., I always love watching you onstage, but my favorite part of your performances is watching the rest of the audience, watching them discover what I already know: that you are extraordinary.’ 

“To the Class of 2015, the world is about to discover how extraordinary we are,” he said. “Because we are extraordinary, and these people know it best. Their love replenishes us, reminds us why we started this in the first place, and as we endeavor beyond our time at NU, that love will continue to drive us forward. We may not always be able to see them, but we will always strive to be the people they know we can be.” 

In her remarks, Rometty recalled sitting where today’s graduates sat today, lifting the curtain on her vision of the third wave of computing. 

Watching Watson compete before millions of people on television, talking with Alex Trebek and “understanding the clues and puns and metaphors,” was a definite highpoint of her journey.  

Cognitive systems like Watson, she said, learn. “They analyze more data than any human being can possibly handle. They understand natural language -- words and ideas in context – and understand the specialized language of professions.” 

The sheer volume, variety and velocity of data today are staggering, she said, alluding to the blogging, posting and tweeting that the graduates were doing as she spoke. “You simply cannot understand that with traditional computing systems.” 

Calling these cognitive computing systems artificial intelligence isn’t quite accurate, she suggested. “The reality is this technology will enhance our thinking. Instead of being artificial intelligence, it will augment intelligence. It will not be man versus machine. It will be man plus machine.”

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