Brand Strategist Andy Cunningham Speaks at Menlo College Winter Commencement

Brand Strategist Andy Cunningham Speaks at Menlo College Winter Commencement

Forty-eight Menlo College students graduated in the Winter Commencement ceremony on December 10, 2015. Reflecting the geographic diversity of Menlo College, the graduates included students from the US, Sweden, India, Madagascar, Germany, Guatemala, Pakistan, China, Japan, and the Philippines.

The graduating students completed internships while at Menlo, and most will begin jobs they’ve already secured. Some are pursuing graduate school. A few of the internship and post-graduation employers of this graduating class are: the educational institution Achieve Kids; accounting firms PwC, KPMG, and Armanino; tech firms SAP and Sales X; broadcasting firm ABC; real estate company Wilbur Properties; automotive businesses Rector Motor Car, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and MAcarbon; and professional services firm Accretive Solutions.

To commemorate Winter Commencement 2015, Menlo College invited Andy Cunningham to be the keynote speaker. Cunningham is the President and Cofounder of Cunningham Collective, a brand strategy firm. She spoke to the audience about how Menlo graduates can approach what’s next in their lives. Cunningham has contributed to the launch of video games, personal computers, desktop publishing, digital imaging, RISC microprocessors, very light jets, and clean tech investing. Her experience helping Steve Jobs launch the Mac was recently portrayed in the film Steve Jobs. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees at Menlo College.

Menlo College Commencement Speech

Andy Cunningham
Delivered on December 10, 2015

Most of you see this moment of graduation as the completion of what’s expected of you. A right of passage. The ticket to your future. You’ve spent a lot of effort trying to fit in, to be the same as your peers. And that served you well. You made friends, you complied with the rules, you have your degree.  But you are also anxious, undecided, still trying to find your passion and your purpose—your contribution to moving the human race forward.  As you begin the Great Adventure of Life as a fully formed adult with an education and a degree to prove it, consider that now may be the time to think different.

Your mentor and your tormentor, this imperative will help you find your passion and your path. It will help you stand up and stand out.
One of the very best ad campaigns ever was Apple’s Think Different campaign from 1997 in which a number of “change-the-world” people were featured including Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Thomas Edison and Frank Lloyd Wright. The point of the ad campaign was to show that people who “think different” are the people who change the world. Here’s what it said:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward… While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

This campaign might well have included Steve Jobs as one of the personalities because he was crazy enough to think he could change the world.  And change the world he did. He thought computers should be easy to use and beautiful. And now most of us think the same thing. He had an uncanny ability to bend things in his direction, to create a reality distortion field around himself that gave him the freedom to think different and others the excuse to offer their uncanny abilities to the cause.

So now that you’re done with all the classes, tests and requirements —the compliances— it’s time to ponder the questions that will begin to differentiate you from your peers, to separate you from the crowd.  What exactly is your uncanny ability? Your superhero power. Your own personal crazy? And what are the causes to which you will apply it?

Sometimes your superhero power is obvious. If you’re Stephan Curry, you control the entire game on the basketball court. If you’re Adele, your voice carries the emotions of mankind in a single phrase. If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, You connect people around the world in a new and compelling way.

But more often than not, your superhero power is not so obvious. Perhaps you are a Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and the man who discovered Elvis Presley. He was interested in hearing new music from new musicians and would listen, offer his advice and record whatever he liked. And he liked Elvis Presley.

The thing about Sam Phillips is that he was extremely good at providing just the right advice to just the right musicians. He was always looking for something different in music, even imperfection. He was very good at finding authenticity and augmenting it. As a result, musicians sought him out to record their songs. They believed in him because he believed in them. His superhero power—his crazy—was a combination of his feel for music and his patience with musicians. Not exactly listed in What Color is Your Parachute?

Or perhaps you are a Kathryn Gould, who sadly passed away just a couple of weeks ago. Kathryn was the founder of Foundation Capital, a local venture capital firm that has had multiple exits with outstanding companies and has helped shape the Valley’s reputation for innovation.  Kathryn had a real knack—a crazy ability—for identifying talent. She started her career as an executive recruiter in Silicon Valley and went on to pioneer female venture capital-ing: investing in just the right entrepreneurs at just the right time.

Or maybe your superhero power is photography. Maybe you’re a Tyson Rininger, founder of TVR Photography right here in the Bay Area. Tyson’s superhero power is his uncanny ability to take stunningly awesome and unusual pictures of airplanes while hanging out the open door of a chase plane. Crazy. Tyson is an aviation photographer and some say the best there is today.

Or you might be a Leon Hunt, my CFO. Leon started his career as an accountant at KPMG. He was on the team that served my start-up public relations agency, Cunningham Communication, in the mid-1980s. I loved his thoughtful approach and honesty and grabbed him for my own. It was his contribution to my firm that operationally coalesced us into a high-performing team. He is back with me again at Cunningham Collective and has become our Chief Value Officer because it is his superhero power—his crazy focus on value—that is driving us to disrupt the traditional consulting model.

But maybe you are a liberal arts person like me. I was an English major with a creative writing focus in college. I started my career after graduation at a truck trade magazine outside Chicago writing back-of-the-book product reviews from press releases. I quickly got promoted to feature writer where I had to make truck maintenance interesting. That got my creative juices flowing!

But I needed more money, so I found a job at Burson-Marsteller, a global PR firm based in Chicago. I arrived there in 1981 with a maniacal interest in the burgeoning computer industry and built a relationship with the lone Apple II we had in our office library. That passion caused my boss to take notice and share articles about Silicon Valley with me. I became so infatuated with the Valley that I decided to move here and do public relations for technology companies.

I couldn’t believe that I got a job at Regis McKenna, the venerable PR firm that launched Intel and Apple. And even more unbelievable was that my position would be leading the team that would launch the Macintosh in 1984. What luck!

But as they say, luck is nothing more than the intersection of preparation and opportunity. I had spent two years writing fascinating stories about truck maintenance—so I knew I could write. And another two years in PR positioning products for press coverage such as projectors, ladies clothing, watches, and fortunately for me, the famous Atari video game, Asteroids —so I had some experience in publicity.

I heard opportunity knocking and made the move to California. Wow! The chance to work with Steve Jobs! He was difficult and demanding, yes, but he also had a very pure agenda to make The Computer for The Rest of Us succeed. For the launch to work, he chose people with a passion for computing and a knack for translating his vision into execution. He selected 100 people for the team and sequestered us in Bandley II with a pirate flag flying high above to denote our separateness. As an agency person, I was an honorary member of that team charged with getting massive press coverage for the new computer.

The other 99 used their uncanny abilities—their superhero powers—to the do the impossible. Andy Hertzfeld with software. Joanna Hoffman with strategy. George Crow and Burrell Smith with hardware. Mike Murray with marketing. Dan’l Lewin with sales. And on and on. When I arrived in Cupertino the summer of 1983, I knew I could write, but whodathunk I would have had the opportunity to influence the world? I discovered my superhero power that summer. I was 26. I could write the words and create the environment that would shape opinion.
Growing up and becoming who you are is a journey. Many of you have completed internships in the field in which you want to work and still others have real jobs in the trade you’ve chosen. But as you make the journey of life, take special notice of those moments when you do something amazing and it feels as natural as breathing. When outsiders compliment you on a skill you didn’t recognize. When you are in the zone. That’s your uncanny ability. Your superhero power. You’re crazy.

With that knowledge and the journey in front of you, consider what’s not on the map. Watch for the signs that aren’t obvious, the turns that aren’t marked. To what cause will you apply your superhero power? How will the world be different because of you?

There’s so much to ponder as you head into the real world. Who are you and why do you matter? A question for all time. The answer must come entirely from you; but there is help available in the literature of a great poem from the 1920s, a children’s book from 1990 and that ad campaign from 1997.

Robert Frost offers the key message in the last stanza of his famous poem, The Road Not Taken.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And then there’s Dr. Seuss, who summed it all up in his children’s book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. Towards the end, he offers comfort and advice:

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
As you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
With many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s
A Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

For me, though, I found my superhero power working with Steve Jobs. He didn’t just think outside the box. There was no box!

So as you head out of here, take the road less traveled; step with care and great tact; and for God’s sake, Think Different.