Video Of The Week: My NYU Poly Commencement Address

Several weeks ago I gave a talk at the commencement of NYU Poly, NYU’s School of Engineering. I’ve been on the board of NYU and NYU Poly and this is the first time I’ve given a talk at commencement. It was fun.

The talk is short, about five or six minutes, and the video cuts me off at times, but you can see most of it and hear all of it.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Tom Labus

    Wow!! Congrats on a great honor and speech. That was a great smile when they gave you the award!!

  2. pointsnfigures

    But can an engineer figure out how to bring the Knicks a World Championship? Or the Cubs a World Series? Nice speech. IIT is the parallel in Chicago.

    1. fredwilson

      Never say never but those are hapless franchises

  3. Eric Satz

    Really well done. Both the message and the delivery.

  4. William Mougayar

    Great speech and it must be gratifying to receive the medal at the same time. But, wait… no jokes?

  5. Seth Godin

    I think the key lesson of your talk comes early on, “I reached out…”Part of the secret of your magic is that you’re an initiator, seeking out others who decide to initiate.It’s rare. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Thanks for showing us how.

    1. Rohan

      That is so true. Thank you so much for observing that, Seth.And, thank you, Fred, for sharing the talk!

    2. fredwilson

      Thanks Seth.

    3. Thomas McGreevy

      Here’s to the initiators… to you Fred, and to you Seth! Its great to have examples to emulate, but that would be difficult without the narrative that is your daily blog. Sharing your musings makes all the difference!

  6. William Mougayar

    Important message: “bring your ideas to life … change the world … also an exercise in wealth creation … and life-changing for your families.” I like how you tie the family part, which is a personal outcome of success.

    1. LE

      I thought that was great as well. Many people might have derided that focus though because it didn’t follow the typical pattern of how people think the world should operate. “Just help others, that makes you a good person, and change will come!!!” The fact is Fred can change and has changed the world because he can leverage himself and his influence as a result of the money that he has made and the influence that he has. Ditto for Joanne.

  7. Joe Neiman

    +1 to Seth’s comment. Taking that initial leap of faith to start the conversation is what got the ball rolling. Every fire starts with a spark. Real brave individuals aren’t afraid of making that first move, or if they are they still face their fear and push through and do it. That is where the magic begins. Great speech. I would have loved to be in the audience to receive it. Undoubtedly some of he best education they got in college was in those 5 minutes of you talking to them.

  8. Bob Struble

    Great stuff, congratulations.

    1. fredwilson

      Thanks Bob

  9. markslater

    just watched with my 3 year old Sebastian…… “whats an engineer dad?”…..great fun using my imagination to define one to a 3 year old!

    1. fredwilson

      That makes my day

  10. David Feldt

    Great speech. Also thanks for embedding the Youtube video with the corresponding start time and end time so we didn’t have to waste time looking for your speech. Brevity is a powerful force.

    1. fredwilson

      Youtube used to make that easy. Its harder to do that now

  11. Erin

    What a respectful, inclusive, and encouraging adress.

  12. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Well done! Your opening anecdote is indeed the best part, for many reasons. Personal stories are the best and, of course, can’t be gotten anywhere else but from the person telling them.I love this time of year when there’s so much anticipation and optimism in the air. So fun watching all these commencement speeches and feeling that energy.

  13. Dave Pinsen

    When watching this, for some reason I couldn’t help thinking of another prominent New Yorker’s recent NYU commencement speech: De Niro’s at the Tisch School of Arts.One discordant note in this speech was about the alleged “hatred and violence” between the haves and have nots. In reality, the have nots don’t seem to have a lot of hatred. It’s not the poor who tend to become terrorists, for example, but haves such as Mohammed Atta (another world-changer who studied engineering, by the way), the son of a lawyer and a woman from a wealthy family, and have-mores such as Osama Bin Laden, the son of a billionaire.Maybe the have nots have hatred in their hearts but lack the ambition or passion of terror entrepreneurs such as Atta or Bin Laden.Anyhow, otherwise, this was was a good and impressively concise commencement speech.

    1. LE

      But w/o the “have not’s” those “haves” would not have anybody to manipulate.the have nots don’t seem to have a lot of hatredNot a historian by any means but I will offer that (I think) one of the ways that Hitler came to power was by stoking the discontent in Germany among those who felt that they were getting the shorter end of the stick in life economically. In that case Hitler could have just as easily been a have but the point is without a base of have-not’s he (or anyone else) wouldn’t have gone anywhere.Curious on thoughts by anyone else that knows more about all of this than I do.In mafia culture (the way I have viewed it at least) the mafia has always managed to be able to have firm control by spreading the cheer around. Helping people out, buying Christmas Turkeys and so on. Taking care of problems that people had. And of course threats of violence. As a result people didn’t question their riches because those riches benefited them in many cases.

      1. JLM

        ,Hitler came to power for a limited number of reasons:1. The Germans were choking with the reparations payments required as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. One of the first things he did was to stop the payments. The allies, essentially, did nothing.2. Germany was in an economic malestrom — unemployment high, jobs low. Much like the way the US came out of the Depression, arguably in part due to WWII, Hitler delivered (promised to deliver) full employment.3. The Germans have always liked a large standing army–where the Hessian mercenaries came from in the American Revolution.Hitler promised to rebuild the army, the air force and the navy. This is also Treaty of Versailles issue.He also built what became the SS, which was also a military force of some considerable combat power. The SS was the legitimization of thugs and the thugs loved it.4. As a politician, Hitler was willing to and was good at manipulating elections. Germans prefer to forget they elected the POS.5. Hitler tapped into the underlying virulent anti-semitism of all of Europe. If one believes that racism drives much of American politics since the Civil War, then it important to note that the vicious anti-semitism of Europe (continent wide, not just Germany) was a powerful force.[Side note here: The French were probably tougher on their Jews than the Germans. The German persecution was state sponsored. No German citizen had to do anything. The French persecution was primarily by individual citizens and low level functionaries who were anti-semitic. The French turned their own citizens over to an invading power to execute. It is why the recent problems in France as so different.]6. The world — Neville Chamberlain — missed the chance to kill this shit in his cradle when they let him annex countries. The Germans were so weak at that time, the French and Brits could have rolled them up in two months.Hitler was, arguably, brilliant in understanding his opponents would believe his baloney — the parallels with the Iranians today are mind boggling. We are trying to get ourselves to believe a country that hasn’t kept its word in a half century and who enshrines that very power and trait in the Qur’an. Read it.What is bizarre about Hitler is that he wrote Mein Kampf and it was fairly well distributed. Every evil thing the SOB did was in that book. Go read it and use some imagination.Know who else gave us the blueprint of his intentions? Barack H Obama in his two books. Everything he has done is in those books. He, too, is a virulent racist. It is difficult to read those books and not see clearly his intentions.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. LE

          Excellent writeup (I will let Fred comment on the last paragraph though..)Re: France. One thing my Dad told me was that he felt that the Poles were much more anti-Semitic back when he was growing up than the German’s. (In Poland and Germany). That is one person’s perspective I don’t know enough to know more than that.How do you have such extensive knowledge about this by the way?

          1. JLM

            .Just a general study of history.The most interesting bit of history is the role the Swiss played with the Germans, the Jews and the Allies while pretending to be neutral.The Swiss housed Nazi R & R facilities (so the Allies couldn’t bomb them), let trains through to N Italy carrying German troops to fight in Italy, banked the Nazis, banked the German armaments industry, held the gold (identified by the crests of the countries themselves imprinted in the gold) of sovereign nations looted by the Nazis, provided foreign exchange and currency for the German overseas spy apparatus, stole the wealth of the Jewish merchant class, held looted art for individual Nazi bigwigs, served as a conduit to move wealth to S America — ALL WHILE PRETENDING TO BE NEUTRAL.At the end of the war, the OSS knew all of this but ran out of gas to pursue it.Bronfman and D’Amato had them nailed and they escaped for a pittance.The Swiss banks effectively stole every bit of money from every Jew who had a numbered account on the outrageous notion the heirs were unable to present a death certificate from a German concentration camp.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          2. LE

            Because he knew english (which was pretty rare back then I think) after the liberation my Dad worked for the OSS in Germany “hunting ex nazis”. I have pictures of him in an Army Jeep with American soldiers in an American Uniform.If anyone ever wonders why I am so serious, I guess it’s because the way that I was raised I was given the impression (indirectly) that one of the reasons that my Dad survived was that he had various skills that he had picked up (or knew enough to bullshit) and was able to work and had a value. People who couldn’t do work or were stupid perished. My dad managed to convince them that he was an electrician (he had worked in a bike shop). When he came to this country later he actually did work as an electrician at night (I remember going with him as a kid..)

          3. JLM

            .Through history, the Poles had regular pogroms and the wealthy Jews were merchants and manufacturers. They owned property and had cash flow.The wily Polish Jews would manufacture their goods in Poland, sell them in the west and stop by Switzerland on the way home and deposit their profits. In this way, they moved their wealth with manufactured goods.The English and French Jewish aristocracy (German also) were often financiers whose money could be camouflaged and, thus, they were less visible to those who would seek to punish them because of their envy.You can move money fairly easily but you cannot move a shoe manufacturing plant.If you buy Bally Shoes, you buy a product from a company who stole Jewish shoe manufacturing plants (with the complicity of the Germans and the Swiss) before WWII.When we allowed the Swiss banks into the US, we allowed balance sheets with stolen Jewish assets — even they admitted it when they ultimately paid reparations. These balance sheets were dipped in blood and smelled like ovens.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          4. LE

            I find all of this really fascinating. Growing up with a close attachment to people who survived (my Dad’s group of friends) the only thing that I was really aware of was that Germany paid reparations as I remember the “german check” arriving in the mail each month. (And still, to this day to my mother as a widow). Just heard about IBM a few years ago and their involvement. Literally never talked about.Wasn’t a subject that was ever discussed or whined about. Never ever thought anything negative about the Swiss. Never heard any of this!I don’t know how typical this all is. I went to a group once that was “children of holocaust survivors”. They were all very serious about what had happened and it was strange to me. I simply wasn’t raised that way my Dad moved beyond it all. I don’t know. (He lost both parents and 3 siblings (2 others survived) but all cousins, aunts, uncles died so it’s not like nothing bad happened..)I have a tape where he was interviewed. I will have to listen to it (I haven’t yet I just got it from my mom a few months ago..)

          5. JLM

            .Read these three books:1. Hitler’s Banker, John Weitz2. Hitler’s Secret Bankers, the Myth of Swiss Neutrality during the Holocaust, Adam Lebor3. Nazi Gold, Tom BowerThe Swiss were monsters. German monsters.It is amazing how tough really tough men can be. My Dad turned 97 four days ago and he looks like he will live forever. The things that man has conquered and done.I am in awe.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  14. LE

    When I started to roll this on mobile there was no audio. So I thought this was a prank post and the speaker was actually Fred Wilson the artist when the Dean got up to introduce you.(Pic of the artist and the Dean attached).

  15. WA


  16. LE

    Great speech. Re: “Taking apart”. I have always found that to be in business you have to mimic what an engineer does as far as taking apart, tinkering and reverse engineering. Be curious. Ask questions. Think about things. You learn more often by observing what others do, and making informed judgements on why they do those things than you often do from just reading what is written or from a course, article or blog. As a general rule may even follow the “fool at the table” concept. If a business does something and it doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface, it’s very possible that you are missing the non-obvious reason and that it’s important to figure out what that reason is.

    1. Twain Twain

      WHY is the key.Too often people focus on the ends but not enough on the means (all the why choices that were made) to get to the ends.The thing about engineering — whether it’s product, code, financial or business model (and I’m hands-on in all) — is to focus on the “Why?”

  17. Mike Chan

    Great speech, Fred! I’m an NYU Stern alum and think that the acquisition of Poly by NYU a was a necessary move, especially with the growing tech scene in NYC. How do you think that marriage is working out? Are they on the right path to becoming a top-tier engineering school? Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. fredwilson

      Its working out great. Poly has gone from #56 in the US at the time of the merger to something like high 20s now

      1. Mike Chan

        Awesome to hear. Hopefully Poly, Stern and other NYU colleges will continue to pump out great startup founders.

        1. realposter

          I assume many will come from Courant and ITP also.

  18. JLM

    .Fred, well played. Fabulous speech, great theme, well delivered. You need a few lightning bolts on your academic gown — like Rehnquist put on his SCOTUS robe.My third stint as a company commander, my Exec Officer was a Poly grad and was a very good soldier. A better engineer.One of the problems in the combat engineers is that the “combat” part is pretty easy — fight like infantry, blow stuff up, build/destroy fortifications, put in/take out mines, force river crossings.Simultaneously, you have to be able to build roads, dams, bridges, air fields while opening and running rock quarries, concrete plants, asphalt plants. All kinds of dirt work with dozers, loaders, buckets and trucks.The West Pointers are “OK” at most of the combat stuff and terrible at the civil engineering construction stuff. They didn’t even know how to design reinforced concrete.My Poly XO was a real civil engineer and at the time we had a very important war time mission — Viet Nam was over by this time — and a huge construction mission. This young man could do it all.He was an Italian from Brooklyn and one of the only officers I ever had to ask to “tone it the fuck down”.We were very close friends and I developed an appreciation for what a good engineering school he had graduated from. He would have been pre-1973 merger.He died, tragically, a few years after he resigned his commission.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  19. michel birnbaum

    Fred, As a graduate of Polytech NYU I could not agree with you more. Poly was one of the best choices I made. I became one of the first graduate of the GE Edison program then went on to work for H&Q with Dan Case and eventually working directly with entrepreneurs. As you mentioned in your commencement, english was my second language and I was the first to graduate from University in my family. I have been Vice Chairman of the Singapore Venture Capital Association and I am a long way from home but I am where I think there are plenty of opportunities to make an impact and provide wealth creation all around including for my family. Even though I am an aerospace engineer by training, I do quite a bit in healthcare since my H&Q days (thank you Denis Purcell!). Besides my other work, I am currently EIR at NTU (Nanyang Technology University, second largest engineering school in the world believe it or not!). I work with Profs, students who are looking to leverage their scienctific dreams and create spin-offs…eventually.Congratulations on the medal, well deserved as appreciationof your work in putting a shine back on NYU Poly, a great institution! Thank you.

    1. fredwilson


  20. Jim Borden

    Congratulations on your award, and thank you for your support of education.

  21. Ken Greenwood

    Well done!

  22. Twain Twain

    Offline until now. Firstly, congrats and WOW that medal looks like Olympics 2012 gold medal!Three parts I loved:(1.) Use it (personal power) with empathy.(2.) Reach out to help = be proactive => create opportunity for win-win.(3.) Because they (the founder-innovators) can’t stop thinking about it and “taking things apart and putting it back together”.Intro also informative: “Fred is not usually the type impressed by…He is impressed by what one does in practice.”********************************Grandmother didn’t graduate high school. Successful entrepreneur who created wealth, employment and comfortable life.Ditto Aunt, Uncle and Great Aunt were also successful entrepreneurs whilst mother (much more academically qualified) opted for safe company career in engineering. They all made more money than she did.

  23. Simone

    congratulations for the award and your mission

  24. Gary Chou

    Congrats and well done on a wonderful talk, Fred!

  25. Akeem Momoh

    Well done and Great speech for that matter, it must be gratifying to receive the medal at the same time

  26. Fred Kauber

    Congratulations on receiving the Polytechnic Medal Fred and thanks for supporting NYU Poly through your ongoing involvement. In addition to being a Stern alum, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as an adjunct professor in NYU Poly’s Management of Technology and Innovation Program since 2013 where I get to share my professional CTO experiences (including some from our days at Expression Engines/Bigfoot) with our students; it’s a wonderful program that is spawning better entrepreneurs and technologists.

  27. Toby Dattolo

    All parents need to watch this video, and more students aspiring to study law & medicine should consider shifting their focus to innovation & engineering. Interesting concept called frugal innovation has taken shape in countries like India & China, but will soon become much more relevant in the US. I believe engineers will be the biggest piece to our future progress. These are the minds who will be able to take minimal resources and create efficient technologies that serve to better all our lives. The fact you saw so much importance as to sit on the board to help preserve the institution, despite all other responsibilities, is not just impressive but truly commendable. Hats off and congratulations.