Speeches & Presentations

Commencement Address University of Indianapolis, Class of 2012

John C. Lechleiter, Ph.D.

Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Eli Lilly and Company

May 5, 2012

Indianapolis, Indiana

President Pitts … distinguished faculty … proud graduates … parents … families … and friends. 

I’m honored to receive this degree … and to be with all of you here this afternoon. 

And let me begin by saying to President Beverly Pitts:  Well done! 

Since your arrival seven years ago:

  • this campus has been transformed …
  • the number of new academic programs has skyrocketed …
  • and so has the number of students taking honors and service learning courses.
  • And if this weren’t enough – you even hosted the Super Bowl Champions!

This entire community has appreciated your leadership … and we at Lilly, the opportunity we’ve had to work with the university on issues and projects important to our city.  We wish you all the best in your future endeavors. 

I also want to congratulate your successor, Dr. Robert Manuel … and to wish him well in his new role.

Class of 2012 … Good afternoon! 

This is quite a day – a day to celebrate your success as you commence the next stage of your life. 

The relative importance of my role really hit home with me when I had trouble remembering who gave my college commencement address.  Okay – that was way back there in 1975 – somewhere between Mad Men and Star Wars – and I mean the originals! 

Someone once told me that, when you give a speech … if you can get your audience to remember one thing, you’ve done well … and if you can get them to remember two things, you’re way ahead of the game.

I’m going to try my luck today and share with you two things that I’ve learned over my life and career … one for the near-term … and one hopefully for the rest of your life. 

Let’s start with the near term.

Last week or the week before … many of you probably had papers and deadlines and maybe just a touch of panic.

So, congratulations – you made it.

But next week, it really gets hairy: many of you might well be asking:

  • What now?
  • What’s next?
  • How am I ever going to find a job?

You’re all too familiar with the headlines:

  • A really tough job market.
  • Cynicism about our government and institutions in general.
  • Skyrocketing gas prices.
  • A war in Afghanistan and worrisome talk about the possibility of war with Iran.

But … Wait a minute! … Believe it or not … I’m not talking about today … I’m talking about when I was in your shoes, preparing to strike out into the world in the late 1970s.

We had our own economic recession, including gas rationing, high inflation, and double-digit interest rates to boot!  Some quick memories (that your parents will recall!):

  • Politically, there was a huge amount of disenchantment after Watergate. There was lots of cynicism about the future.
  • At the gas station, I remember that for a while, cars with license plates ending in an odd number could gas up only on odd-numbered dates … and those ending in an even number, on even-numbered dates.
  • The Soviet Union was the country in Afghanistan … and perhaps the biggest headline – Iran took our embassy personnel hostage, resulting in a long and frustrating standoff.
  • When I decided to go to grad school to study chemistry in 1975, people thought I was crazy because chemists were being laid off at the time!
  • From a technology perspective, we hadn’t quite hit the boom years. Desktop computing was just emerging from Steve Jobs’ garage. In fact, I hand typed my chemistry Ph.D. thesis, and had to use stencils for the chemical structure illustrations … “Cutting and pasting” back then really meant cutting and pasting! Six months of my life down the drain…
  • … And just to top it off, we had runaway inflation: when my wife and I moved to Indianapolis in 1979, we felt lucky to be able to buy a starter home with a state-subsidized mortgage carrying an interest rate of 13.75 percent! Can you imagine the un‑subsidized rate?

Now it wasn’t all dreary … we did have disco!  Fortunately for all of us, that craze faded! 

I’m sharing this ancient history not to depress you … but rather to give you a reason for optimism.

Because, when I think back … hidden in this lousy news were the seeds of many positive developments that we never could have recognized at the time. 

For example, many historians now see Afghanistan as a key to the collapse of the old Soviet Union.  For all the global hot spots today, no one would want to go back to the world where a nuclear war between the two superpowers seemed a real possibility.

Most people also did not foresee that we were on the verge of medical, technological and consumer product revolutions that would turbocharge our economy for decades to come.   

The first Apple computer – with all of 8k ram – that’s “k” not “g” – seems quaint today … but it was the first vestige of our modern information and electronics era.

Similarly, the Lilly I joined was a far cry from today’s company.  Our biggest product back then was a herbicide for soybeans.   

But three years after I joined, Lilly scientists produced biosynthetic human insulin – the very first medicine created using recombinant DNA technology – and, in doing so, ushered in the era of biotechnology.  Several years later, we launched Prozac – which helped revolutionize the treatment of depression and helped create the modern Lilly.

And, ultimately, the malaise of the ’70s gave way to two decades of almost unprecedented growth. 

When I think of these two intense eras … and reflect on all that has happened in the more than 30 years between … I can tell you with certainty what your future will look like:  it will look like change.  That’s the one constant you can depend on.

And with change comes opportunity!   

Whatever field you choose – whether it’s health care or education or business or the arts or any other field – keep alert for the change … look for the opportunities that change always creates … and take advantage of them.

My advice to you is to not only learn to live with change … but to lead change … and shape it to your own ends.  In fact, that – to me – is at the core of leadership.
Don’t let others define success for you … or expect them to hand it to you.  Take control of your own future … go after it … make it happen.  And your experience at UIndy has given you the tools to do just that.

As you commence the rest of your life … you’ll carry with you the knowledge … the judgment … and the discipline you’ve demonstrated by the fact that you’re sitting here today.   

You’ll also carry something else of equal importance – which is the second thing I want to talk about:  and that’s the capacity within each of you to take on some of the world’s toughest problems and make a difference for others.

You – the Class of 2012 – know what I’m talking about.  You’ve stepped up time and time again. 

Just look at last year alone:

  • A number of business majors here today traveled to Ghana and volunteered at the Precious Kids Academy. After seeing a classroom of eager learners forced to share a single book, you returned to UIndy … collected more than 8,000 books … shipped them to Ghana … and created a library in the process.
  • A group of nursing majors here provided needed care to people in Ecuador … Honduras … and the Dominican Republic as part of your annual mission trip.
  • Members of the Mu Phi Epsilon music fraternity raised money that funded musical instruments for an orphanage in Haiti.
  • A number of you took time out of your winter break to do home repair projects for low-income or elderly residents in Appalachia.
  • Many of you worked with the hundreds of Special Olympians who came to UIndy for the Special Olympics State Youth Basketball Tournament. Seven of you actually planned this year’s tournament.
  • And another group mentored IPS students – encouraging them to think about college and working to get them ready.

Regardless of the magnitude of the issue or the challenge … you did not hesitate to roll up your sleeves, look for solutions, and make a difference.

In fact, over the past academic year, UIndy students collectively contributed 120,000 hours of unpaid service, valued at $2-1/2 million – if we dare to put a price tag on it.

But the true value of your service is beyond calculation. 

Graduates, there is no lack of urgent needs that require solutions.  And not just in the remote corners of the earth.  Right here in the United States.  Right here in Indianapolis.

Tackling these problems is not always easy.  It takes empathy … vision … stamina … and courage.  It often entails some type of sacrifice – at least on the surface.

But – as you’ve seen over your careers here – when you make that commitment, you often find:

  • that your sacrifice is infinitesimally small compared to the challenges others face;
  • that it opens your eyes and deepens your connection to others and to the world;
  • and that what you get back – in terms of personal fulfillment – far, far outweighs what you give.

And that brings me full circle. 

I began by talking about the challenges ahead of you – challenges which at times might seem insurmountable. 

That you’re here today tells you that they’re anything but that … 

Class of 2012, I challenge you not only to be optimistic about the future … but also to shape and create our collective future. 

I challenge you to take on the world.  Find those issues and problems that matter deeply to you, and take action … find solutions … and make a difference.  In essence, do as Gandhi implored:  “Be the change you want to see in the world.” 

You are well prepared.  You’re more socially aware and globally oriented than any graduates in history.  You’re more adept at using technology and communication tools than any graduates before you. 

The skills you’ve acquired here – both of the head and of the heart – bolstered by the love and support you enjoy from the thousands of people here today – show that you are indeed ready to commence; that there will be no failure to launch! 

 Anne Frank said:  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Class of 2012:  never lose your optimism … never lose your passion for making a difference … and never forget your experience at this university – and I promise you’ll have many, many opportunities to fulfill your dreams and improve the world.  

It is your turn.  It is your time.

My best wishes to each and every one of you … and once again – congratulations! 

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