RALEIGH – Before a packed PNC Arena at NC State’s spring commencement exercise on Saturday morning, IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty received an honorary degree from the university.

Staring out into a sea of red where more 6,100 graduating students sat in the pit, donning the school’s crimson cap and gown, she quipped: “I hope that makes me part of the Wolfpack pack.”

To which the crowd responded in the affirmative, bursting out in a cacophony of shouts and hollers.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty giving commencement address on Saturday morning.

Sea of red … graduating NC State students at Commencement on Saturday morning.

Rometty wasted no time, however, launching into her commencement address and reminding those gathered that the Triangle is home to one of IBM’s largest corporate campuses. Those assets will soon also include the Raleigh-based Red Hat, which Big Blue expects to close on in a much-reported $34 billion deal later this year.

“I have 34 billion more reasons to love this state,” she said coyly.

Again, the crowd erupted in cheers. But Rometty refused to linger long in their adulation, evoking the words of Franklin Roosevelt: “He said, You be brief, you be sincere, and you be seated.”

Growing up without a father

During the nearly 12-minute speech, she did just that, sharing three deeply personal stories with each featuring a distinct theme, protagonist and lesson.

The first centered on her childhood, growing up in a middle-class family, the eldest of four children, just outside Chicago.

Life was good, she said, until one day when her father left her mother – “but actually he left us all.”

“I was just a young teenager at that time,” she recalled. “Now my mother, who had never worked a day in her life outside of the home, suddenly found herself with four children, no money, no food, no home.”

Still, she persevered, earning an associate’s degree and working multiple jobs to support the family.

“She taught us, never let anyone else determine who you are. That, graduates, is my first lesson to share with you. Only you will define who you are,” Rometty said.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty at NC State Commencement exercise on Saturday.

Take a risk

The second story harkened back to her early career days when a male executive decided to promote her as his replacement.

At first, she recoiled at the proposition: “I said, no. It’s too early. I’m not ready. I need more time.”

That night she went home to her husband to discuss the offer, and he replied: “Do you think a man would have answered the question that way?”

She returned the next day and took the job.

The lesson: “Growth and comfort will never ever co-exist. Get comfortable with that feeling. If you feel uncomfortable, outstanding. It means you’re learning something. It’s true for people, for companies and I’ve learned also for countries,” she said.

Follow your purpose

Finally, she recounted when IBM and local educators in Brooklyn launched Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) back in 2011.

A six-year program combining high school and an associate degree, the model provides students in largely disadvantaged communities a viable career path in today’s increasingly digitized economy.

“If you’re going to build great technologies, which I believe we do, you have a responsibility to prepare society for them and create new pathways where lots of people from every different socio-economic background can participate,” she said. “This has become a passion for me.”

Her final instruction: Follow your own calling.

“If you find your purpose, I guarantee, you will not be disappointed,” she said.

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