GE CEO Jeff Immelt Urges Graduates to Be Optimistic

Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Company (GE), told Hamilton’s Class of 2010 to be optimistic at its commencement ceremony on May 23. Acknowledging that we are in economically difficult times, Immelt emphasized the need for creative and independent thinkers and the importance of maintaining a spirit of reality-based optimism.

Immelt gave the address at Hamilton’s 198th commencement in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House where 498 students received bachelor’s degrees. He was awarded an honorary degree, along with Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; Martin Hirsch professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a 1960 graduate of Hamilton College; and Christie Vilsack, executive director of the Iowa Initiative and a 1972 graduate of Kirkland College, Hamilton’s former sister institution for women.

Six female graduates, absent from the ceremony, were recognized by President Stewart. Matilda Andersson, Kayla Bettenhauser, Kate Fowler, Audrey Nebergall, Liz Rave and Hilary Saverin were competing in Gettysburg, Pa., in the NCAA Division III National Women's Lacrosse Championship game which began during the commencement ceremony. Following their game, the six players received their diplomas during a commencement ceremony on Gettysburg College's campus presided over by Associate Dean of Faculty Patrick Reynolds and Dean of Admission Monica Inzer.

In his address, Immelt outlined four lessons that help him “navigate in these volatile times”: recognize that no task is beneath you, know that solving problems requires passion and determination, align your success with helping others and live with a spirit of optimism. “In this country, the next generation can always become the Greatest Generation. Americans always have a sense the future will be better than the past because it is their responsibility to make it so.”

Immelt also addressed some of the issues in the news today. “By 2020, I am convinced that we can take control of our energy future. We can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, create jobs and reduce pollution. There is no reason why we ever need to witness environmental disasters again. Passion means nothing without the courage to act. So be determined to solve problems. Be a dreamer, and a doer,” he said.

Addressing the public’s dislike of Wall Street, he said, “What they [people] really feel is a sense that they have been left behind by the decisions and mistakes of others, and are powerless to do anything to change it. Nothing is more contrary to the American character than this kind of hopelessness, and we all have a responsibility to help remedy it.”

Encouraging his audience, Immelt said, “But I don’t mention [these problems] to discourage you. On the contrary, I hope they will summon your greatness. … The world awaits your leadership. Don’t waste it. Be confident. Be compassionate. Be brave. Believe you can do anything. Make the most of your advantage and your opportunities. The whole world depends on it.”

Class valedictorian Kevin Rowe (East Grand Rapids, Mich.) addressed his class’ future responsibilities. “Endowed with the unique privilege of a Hamilton education, I believe, we are charged with the lifelong responsibility to raise questions, pose challenges, and engage opposition.”

“The worlds we enter are messier and more complicated than we can ever tell from up here, but they are also full of possibilities. So, as we now plunge into our adult lives, it is not only death and taxes, nor spreadsheets and bureaucracy, that lie before us, for we have all the skills not just to reproduce these worlds but to make new ones—worlds that are richer, more diverse, and more inclusive,” Rowe said.

Corinne Bancroft (Tucson, Az.), recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize, also addressed the audience. In her remarks she questioned and later affirmed that the world can really change. Referring to members of her graduating class, she said, “We created the kind of community that transcends bounds of race, class and sexuality.” Quoting Proust, she concluded, “The creation of the world did not occur at the beginning of time, it occurs every day.”

The Soper Merrill Prize is awarded to the member of the class “who, in character and influence, has typified the highest ideals of the College.” The winner is selected by the faculty.

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