Commencement Address by Amanda Slavin, CEO of CatalystCreativ
Gainesville, Georgia, May 1 and 2, 2015
Thank you so much, Dr. Schrader, the board of trustees, parents, friends, family and, of course, the Brenau class of 2015!
I am so excited to be in Georgia speaking today as Georgia has a significant meaning to me. Four years ago, I came to visit Gainesville for the first time to visit my best friend, Robert Fowler, and we went to church. During this church session with him and his family, there was a sermon all about the difference between “crowd” versus “community.”
A crowd can be easily swayed. A crowd can be easily deterred. A crowd overcomes the individual. It consumes individuals to sometimes make decisions they don’t necessarily even know why they are making. A community, on the other hand, fosters individuals’ passions and talents and supports independent thinkers by bringing them together for a bigger-picture idea.
What we have here today at Brenau is a community – a community of strong, powerful, diverse individuals who are going to go out in the world and make it better in your own unique ways.
Today, I want to share my story in how I worked my way to get to this very stage, invited into this very community and how I believe that, no matter where you go or what you have been faced with or will be faced with, knowing yourself and standing up for what you believe in will always set you apart from the crowd and create a space of community.
I have been building community since I was 3 years old. I guess I was an overachiever, because 3 seems a bit ambitious, I know. I would wake up every single morning in my diaper, and as my mother recounts, line up my stuffed animals on the stairs with such fervor, no one could stop me. I would march up and down, making sure they were all comfortable in their positions. I would take my seat at my green hippo piano and I would start my performance.
There I would sing with my biggest and best voice, “Party for friends, this is my party for friends,” over and over again until the only people that wanted to keep hearing me sing were my stuffed animals who had sewn-on ears that couldn’t hear. I did this every single day for an entire year, which I think is a critical lens into who I am at my very core – someone who believes in the value of building a community of diverse, unique ways of thinking (there were tons of different stuffed animals at my parties).
As someone who values the importance of a diverse group of ideas, I crowdsourced this speech a bit. Since Brenau has been around for 137 years and has obviously had to change with the times in order to stay thriving, it has included an online curriculum and it is using technology to stay relevant. So, although am a bit younger than 137 years, I thought the only way to stay relevant during this commencement speech would be to ask my Facebook friends what they would say if they had the chance to speak to a class from 2015. Out of my 50+ responses, I chose a few that I thought would be inspiring.
There were a few emotionally filled ones that I am sure you have heard renditions of, like:
“Do your dreams.” “Be sure you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the person looking back.” “Follow your heart.” “Appreciate others.” These are all very important, but what is not mentioned is how hard they are to follow.
My upbringing was built on the idea that education is everything. There was no other option than to get A’s in my household, although my incessant seven hours a night on the phone got in the way of this my freshman and sophomore year of high school. As I hit my junior year, my entire life transformed as the economy shifted. My sister and I were forced to move into three different towns schools in two years.
In two different high schools during my junior year, I found myself being bullied for being the new girl, for not having the social resources I had just a few months before in my old town. I realized that, if I wanted to get ahead in life, I would have to work really hard to do it because no one was going to hand me a chunk of money and say, “Here is your future.”
I was not in the mindset, of “follow my dreams.” I was in the mindset of “get paid so you can keep going.” I ended up on a hard work spiral, throwing myself into schoolwork, which led me to the college of my choice, and left me very little time to really look myself in the mirror and ask myself if I was proud of the person looking back. In fact, I didn’t even have time to look back at myself, because I was too busy looking forward. I was looking so far forward that I thought I didn’t have to look back. I didn’t want to look back in fear or regret, and so I was driven by fear to look into my future.
When I got into the college of my choice, and was freed of the bullies, the rich kids, and the people that didn’t get that I was paving my own future. I moved full speed ahead. I was all about getting a 4.0, going to every single event on campus, having three jobs, being the director of recruitment for my sorority, having internships while I was working, and maintaining an extremely avid social life. As a sophomore, I got into the Bachelor/Masters program at my school so I could receive a master’s in education. That was a decision I made because it was the only decision I knew to make: I liked kids; it seemed like a job that would always have security; so why not be a teacher? I kept moving forward, forgetting to appreciate my loved ones, my family, and the people I really cared about. I was so busy thinking about my success and running away from failure that I found myself in a lot of crowds, among a lot of people that didn’t really know me because I didn’t really know me.
OK, so this is where I stop. Because this is where you are right now.
You are at a beautiful and amazing crossroads where you get to control the outcome. You get to sit in these very seats today with those who love you, support you and appreciate you and you get to follow all of the advice that my Facebook friends helped me share with you. You get to do what makes you proud. You get to appreciate those who you love. You get to make the decisions to use what you have learned the past four-plus years and follow your dreams. How cool is that?
A lot of people graduate and think, OK now life starts; here we go; everything has to be perfect. I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I know it’s not.
Life is happening right now, was happening before you entered Brenau and will continue after you leave, it is up to you to take it by the horns and run with it.
Since I graduated from college and graduate school, I have a lot on my resume.
Four days after graduating, plagued by the same mistakes I made in college, I threw myself into a job that wasn’t the right fit for me, working 10 to 15 hour days in the hospitality industry, throwing parties where Lindsay Lohen, Leonardo DeCaprio and Rihanna would attend. Although on social media, my life seemed awesome, I was exhausted and drained and felt a big gaping hole in my heart that had not been filled since I was a teacher. You may ask how I went from teaching to nightlife. Well, that is a whole other story, but as I said, I have been party planning since I was 3 years old.
About four years into this life I had built for myself in New York City, I realized something was off. I finally slowed down just enough to realize that I wasn’t looking at a person I was proud of in the mirror, that I didn’t even know what really made me happy.
So, I started listening to my “internal GPS.” Some other pieces of advice from Facebook that I crowdsourced, which I find are fitting for this next part of my journey are: “Trust your intuition.” “Never be the smartest person in the room.” And, “People will only treat you with how you allow them to treat you”
When I asked myself questions like “What do I want to do?” and “What would I do if I didn’t have to worry about money?”, I started paving a completely different path. A path that gave back to the world as much possible, a path that connected me with entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders, and my current business partner, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos who helped me create my reality.
I started to put myself in rooms where I was far from the smartest person. In fact, I may have been the least smart person in the room. I was asking questions, learning from those who had created companies, who had helped build villages, who had created cities. I stopped allowing for those who did not serve me to treat me poorly. I started taking ownership of my own life. I stopped blaming others for my misfortunes. I started to turn my finger around on myself. I realized I had the power to make a difference not only in the world, but also in my own world.
So, with a full time job, I started taking on projects on the side. I started volunteering with nonprofits, helping for free with events that made the world better, exploring what made me happy, while I still was able to receive a paycheck each month.
Since I left my full time job in 2012, I have started a company CatalystCreativ with Tony Hsieh. We combine education and experiences to help brands connect with Millennials in an inspirational way. Can you believe it? I figured out a way to combine the two things I love, which many thought had nothing to do with each other.
CatalystCreativ has worked with brands such as Starwood Hotels, Ekocycle (Coke’s sustainability initiative), Dell and NPR while having other accomplishments like helping to build a city in Downtown Vegas, (yes, a city, with 300 businesses, and a park made of shipping containers) in the past three years. This year, I was awarded the Forbes 30 under 30 award, and CatalystCreativ will be on its away to a multi-million dollar company in the next two years.
Guess what? It never feels like enough, because it is not what you accomplish, but who you are that makes you feel it is enough.
It is making sure to call your grandma every week and tell your parents how much you love them. It is valuing your relationships with your loved ones, your best friends. It is making sure that you are doing what you believe in, not only for you but also for the world, and that you are applying yourself fully to be your best self.
My two last “crowdsourced” pieces of advice are as follows:
“The same people that call you stubborn now will be the same ones that call you visionary once your dreams are realized. Don’t get sidelined by insults or compliments, stay focused on your goals.”
And, “If you want to make a billion dollars, do something you would do every day for $0. Choose purpose and the profits will follow.”
Although you will not be able to please everyone around you (I promise you, you will not), you have to do what you love in life, not necessarily just in work. You have to believe in yourself. Most important, as you already all have done today at Brenau, you have to surround yourself with a community of learners, visionaries and smart people to help move you and the world forward.