Graduation speech: Marina Fenner MBA’17D

Marina delivered the following speech at her class’s graduation ceremony, held on 21 December 2017 at the Théâtre de Fontainebleau, France.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon to my wonderful classmates of the INSEAD MBA 2017D.

It is an honour to stand here today on your behalf, and I’m so thankful for this opportunity. I would also like to thank all the faculty members who have worked with us during this year. It was a great privilege to learn from such competent and inspiring personalities, and I hope we stay in touch.

Today, I would like to share with you some stories about pioneers, because INSEAD has always been a place of pioneers, right from its origin. Take INSEAD’s founder, Georges Doriot. Throughout his life, Doriot had the spirit of a pioneer. He was born in Paris, but at the age of 27, moved to the US to study. This was in 1926. Among his peers, hardly anyone did such a thing.

Doriot later founded one of the very first venture capital firms in the world, and is often referred to as the “father of modern venture capital.” As if all of that wasn’t already enough, he later returned to France and founded INSEAD at a time when MBAs were barely known in Europe.

Two other pioneers of INSEAD were Hélène Ploix and Solange Perret. Hélène and Solange were the first female INSEAD MBA students, and they started exactly 50 years before us.

I sometimes wonder how they must have felt. While they probably got a lot of attention at every party, this was definitely not the case for career events. Hélène, for example, was interested in consulting, but all the firms she applied to told her, “No, we don’t hire women.” In the end, she was only employed as a research associate, unlike her male classmates.

Being Hélène or Solange, you could also be sure to be in the minority in every study group, and I imagine it to be difficult to find role models. Even today, it is hard to find women as protagonists in case studies. Fifty years ago, this was basically impossible.

Personally, I have often felt as much intimidated, as inspired, by people like Hélène and Solange who stepped out of their comfort zone and paved the way for others despite all challenges. After all, I know a lot of things I could be better at, situations where I wish I had been more outspoken, more proactive, braver. In an environment like INSEAD, it is especially easy to feel like this—because — look at you! — you are an incredible group of smart, cosmopolitan and empathetic people, and we actually have quite a number of pioneers among us.

So I started wondering: What does it take to be a pioneer? I’ve thought a lot about this question during the past year, and I’ve discovered that pioneers seem to take certain decisions in their life over and over again. I would like to talk about two of these decisions today.

The first decision pioneers take is to surround themselves with people who believe in them. What does this mean? To use Michelle Obama’s words, “Choose people who will lift you up. Find people who will make you better.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of this kind of people among you. Indeed, one of the unique things about the INSEAD community is the support of each other. Yes, the pace was high throughout the year, but I was impressed how you still found time to encourage each other, to help each other, to ring the famous Ding Bell at Freddy’s together, and to celebrate successes.

Many of us have also found throughout the year how important our partners and loved ones are in making this experience possible. More personally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my husband, and I think I can say this on behalf of a lot of my classmates. If we didn’t have partners like you who have supported us throughout the year and who believed in us when we didn’t, this year could have looked very differently. Thank you.

The second decision pioneers take is to also believe in themselves. One of the very first things I wrote in my green INSEAD booklet back in January was, “Don’t let anybody else’s dream become your dream.”

“Pioneers have a dream, a mission, or whatever you may call it, and they chase it independently of what others say or do.”

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How is this possible? I realized that in the end, my value doesn’t depend on my performance or pay check, and that the way I measure success is a very personal thing.

“My value does not depend on my performance or pay check. This gives me freedom to try. Yes, I might fail, but if I fail, I want to be able to say that I stayed true to myself, my faith, and my values throughout the process.”

In this context, we should not underestimate the power of self-talk. While the words of others do have a huge impact on me, the person who is talking to me most is myself. I cannot leave the job of cheering me up only to those around me. I have to play a crucial role in this. But how often do we spend time dwelling on our weaknesses and failures, instead of focusing on our strengths? When the SAP CEO Bill McDermott came on campus, he said, “The best thing about you is you, but you have to believe in this.”

Why do I share these reflections? Do I believe they will make all of us pioneers the world will talk about? Sorry, probably not. But I hope they will encourage every one of us to get out of our comfort zones while staying true to ourselves, and identify opportunities where we can pave the way for others, just as Hélène and Solange did. I’m already looking forward to hearing your stories five years, 10 years, 20 years, and maybe even 50 years from now.

To finish, I would like to go back to where I started, to Georges Doriot, because there’s one thing I didn’t mention about him before. Doriot had served in the US Army in the Second World War, and he founded INSEAD in 1957 because he believed in business as a driving force to unite Europe. Today, this vision does not only encompass Europe, but the whole world. In our batch alone, we have 75 different nationalities.

I have thought a lot about this vision, especially during the last weeks. In November, my husband lost his grandfather. He was born in 1925 in what was then called East Prussia. When he was 18 years old, he had to go to war, leaving his home and family behind. He would never see his parents and his older sister again.

In 1945, when the war had ended, he was suddenly a refugee and had to figure out where to stay, what to eat, and how to earn some money because he had nothing in his hands. His whole life and the lives of his loved ones had been shaped by these experiences, and I know that some of you had to live through war much more recently.

Given this background, I am worried to see that nationalist movements in more and more countries have gained momentum, that it has become more normal to use pejorative language when talking about people coming from other parts of the world, and that distrust, and not curiosity, often dominates the discussion about somebody foreign.

“In times like these, Georges Doriot’s vision is as relevant as in 1957. In times like these, INSEAD and every single one of us have a powerful message to give.”

When reflecting on the past year, a lot of special moments come to my mind, moments of hope. I still remember lively discussions until late at night with my beloved study group in P1/P2, and how my Greek friend and I could disagree on politics, but deeply care about each other personally. I also remember walking through Berlin, once the symbol of a divided country, together with my friend from South Korea, while the media was full about the tensions between the US and North Korea.

Probably my favourite moment was the celebration of Passover this April organized by the Jewish community at INSEAD. What a moving moment that I, as a German, could join these festivities despite the past, and that my classmates from Lebanon and Palestine joined these festivities despite the present.

“I wish that we never forget moments like these, and that we share with our families, friends and communities that difference does not need to lead to division, and that what we have in common is so much more than what sets us apart.”

Because, after all, INSEAD is the business school for a better world. Thank you very much.

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