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Commencement Addresses


  • Date: 02/20/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron - 2001 Sales & Marketing Executive of the Year)
  • Location: 29th Annual National Sales and Marketing Awards Program, Sales and Marketing Executives Association of Akron
  • Thank you Phil Maynard for your thoughtful and all too generous introduction.

    And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your invitation and special recognition of all that we are doing at The University of Akron.

    Let me begin by congratulating the eleven outstanding area sales and marketing professionals who are being honored tonight.

    Also, I want to recognize the Sales and Marketing Executives Association of Akron for its commitment to the continued professional development of sales and marketing executives, and for supporting the educational pursuits of this area's sales and marketing students, including SME's scholarship to our Fisher Institute for Professional Selling at The University of Akron.

    I was privileged to be with you last year, when you recognized Phil Maynard, and as many of you know, I asked Phil for permission to use some of his special remarks as the basis of one of my commencement addresses last spring.

    He is a tough act to follow!

    And tonight, I am most honored, and at once, profoundly humbled.

    Honored, because your professional judgement now becomes testimony to what the University has achieved and is still becoming; and humbled, because your selection carries with it the added recognition of so many others without whom none of this would be possible.

    So in accepting your recognition, I do so on behalf of all my colleagues at the University, from the Board of Trustees, on to the faculty, staff, students, and all alumni and friends of The University of Akron. Indeed, all of you in this room!

    And I accept your generous recognition also on behalf of my wife, Theresa - my wife of 18 years. You know the saying, that behind every successful man there is a woman. But in this case, it is an exceptional woman who has been alongside me and who has made and continues to make significant contributions of her own.

    I also am humbled because I remain, in many ways, still a newcomer to Akron and to Ohio, and because there is still so much else that we must do for the University to achieve its promise and to fulfill its destiny.

    When Donna Early instructed me on the protocol for this evening, she told me I should tell you about myself.

    Now, don't misunderstand me, presidents have large egos and we always welcome a platform, but I have never wanted to have the kind of "eye" problems that get spelled with a capital "I."

    Sales and marketing is largely what presidents do, day in and day out.

    It is a very personal mission in which we often succeed by selling ourselves.

    And sometimes that is a difficult balancing act, because it is important that one's sense of personal identity not get confused or blurred in the process.

    So, to honor what Donna asked me to do, I will first tell you a bit about myself, and then tell you how I have come to approach sales and marketing here in Ohio.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, let me acknowledge at the outset that I am not a scholar of sales and marketing. Rather, I am an educator, a neurobiologist, and a student of politics, as well as of many other human endeavors.

    I was born in Mexico and Spanish is my native language. For all practical purposes, I have lived in the United States of America since age 11, having come to a boarding school in the 7th grade - the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia.

    And if you do not hear a southern accent in my voice, it is because, as my wife likes to say, being southern is contextual, not congenital.

    I can tell you, that I began to travel at age 4, and that as early as age 8, I was more interested in being a citizen of the world than of any particular country. I could not understand why we could not have a global passport or no passport at all.

    Since that time, my travels have taken me to some unconventional places, such as Siberia, Greenland, and Antarctica, and I have lived in more places than most people even have a chance to visit.

    I also can tell you that I see myself largely as a product of an eclectic American education; that I am a generalist in spirit; and that if I am successful at sales and marketing, it is only by necessity.

    Any sales and marketing skills that I might posses I credit to a few experiences.

    First, the progressive leadership roles I assumed in military school, which, by the way, also caused me to learn how to project my voice forcefully enough to be heard by 500 cadets.

    Second, an assignment in Washington, D.C., and one in the office of the president at the University of Georgia, both of which showed me how much more I enjoyed working on behalf of others than in the laboratory.

    Third, the opportunity and good fortune to observe, emulate and learn from others, some of the best in the business, including my parents, my wife, Theresa, and many others, still to this very day.

    And finally, the many opportunities that I have been given to practice and continue to hone these skills.

    So it is from the vantage point of these many experiences that I comment on three fundamentals of sales and marketing.

    First, tell the truth. "Truth in advertising!"

    This may seem obvious, but it is the one rule you cannot violate, and yet it is one rule that many people do violate.

    If you are going to be credible and if your message is going to have lasting value, whatever you say has to be objectively supportable. It has to be the truth.

    Second, remember that this business is like talking to a parade.

    Your message has to be simple, brief and repeatable. Repetition helps!

    That is the power of a smartly crafted slogan and of the properly selected "sound bite."

    And, third, take a new look at the obvious. And here I want to take a little more time in developing this theme, because a good message will jolt you into seeing things as if for the first time. It will arouse your sense of WOW!

    I call this "the strangeness of the familiar."

    And this is something we have all experienced.

    Think about it. As the driver of a car, you know the streets you use to get home or to work. But if you ride as a passenger down those same streets, or if you walk, you suddenly see things you never saw when you were the driver. It is, indeed, as if you are seeing things for the first time.

    And that is precisely what I mean by the "strangeness of the familiar."

    But why do I tell you this?

    Because imagine my surprise in finding that not only did you in the community not know much about the University of Akron, indeed, imagine my even greater surprise in finding that the University itself did not know about its points of strength or comparative excellence.

    And, imagine my surprise in also finding that Ohio was equally ignorant of key facts about higher education in our state.

    Taking a new or different look at the obvious certainly jolted me and aroused my sense of WOW! And being able to see the "WOW!" in things is the first step to an effective message, to a message that uses the power of language to arouse our emotions at the same time that it informs.

    So, as you know, much of the publicity campaign that we have underway has been designed to have you see the University as if for the first time - to arouse your sense of WOW!

    And much of what has been the basis for my public remarks about Ohio is similarly based on a new and "fresh" look at our state.

    I will share a couple of examples about Ohio and a few about the University of Akron.

    I was struck, for example, that Ohio seldom refers to higher education in the same breath with investment. Rather, the state's appropriation to higher education has been called an "instructional subsidy."

    Not only is this grossly misleading, because a subsidy suggests little more than an obligatory gesture, but it is just plain wrong.

    So, I ask you: Why would our state continue to use a pejorative term (subsidy is not a "good thing" as Martha Stewart might say)?

    Why when in so doing so, Ohio not only communicates its ignorance of the facts, but worse, it dooms Ohio to self-imposed economic mediocrity?

    Likewise, we looked at promises made 30 years ago by Ohio Governor James Rhodes and by the Board of Regents - promises that no Ohio student would ever have to pay more than 30% of the cost of a public higher education.

    And we noted how promises made were not promises kept, because the student share has now climbed to 50% or 60%, while the national average is at 20%, so that our students are not getting a fair bargain; they are paying more than they bargained for.

    And equally striking language can be generated about our polymer industry - the state's second largest industry, $22 billion and one-fourth of Ohio's manufacturing output.

    Because while the state seems willing to invest $100 million annually in support of the coal industry, an industry that barely accounts for six-tenths of one percent of Ohio's GSP, it has invested less than $1.5 million in the polymer industry.

    Nations invest 2.4% of their GNP, and industries invest 2.9% of annual sales in R&D, while Ohio invests less than one one-thousandth of one percent for an industry that is vital to Ohio's economy, the polymer industry.

    That is the power of looking at things as if for the first time, of telling the story in fresh and unexpected ways!

    As to The University of Akron, here are just a few of the things that surprised us:

    This is my favorite: The University of Akron is the only university in Ohio, public or private, to have a science and engineering program ranked among the top five nationally - not Ohio State, not Case Western, not Cincinnati, and certainly not any other!

    ...And the only one so highly ranked that serves an industry, Ohio's second largest industry - the polymer industry - with annual sales over $22 billion, second only to agriculture and far ahead of any other. WOW!

    The University of Akron has so much excellence in so many other areas and in many other programs - exhibiting depth, breadth, and quality in service to our sponsoring society. WOW!

    What is more, The University of Akron has turned out thousands of success stories, including many of you in this room, and more than 150 school superintendents, principals and school administrators in Northeast Ohio, and 117 judges, including two Supreme Court justices, CEO's of Fortune 500 companies (including the top two executives at FirstEnergy Corp, Pete Burg and Tony Alexander), investment bankers, Congressmen, state senators and representatives ...and the list goes on. WOW!

    We found that for too long, The University of Akron had been an under-celebrated resource. It had just been there, quietly serving you ...receding into the background of your thoughts, almost disappearing from active thought.

    So it was time to tell the story, and that is precisely what we have been about!

    You have heard the language, heard the message, and seen some of the associated images as well . . .

    "The University of Akron is investing $200 million in your future . . ."

    "We are creating a new landscape for learning, . . . where you can dream, dare and do the things it takes to change the world"

    ". . . And setting the standard for excellence and student success in northern Ohio"

    "Set the stage for your future at the University of Akron . . ."

    "Experience the Akron Advantage! Join us, and together we will shape the future."

    We have enjoyed crafting some evocative language to tell ourselves and others about who we are.

    And, we have talked with energy about our university mascot, that adorable kangaroo that we affectionately call Zippy.

    Because you need to know, in the metaphors of financial markets,

    That this kangaroo is bullish on Akron and on Ohio;

    It packs quite a punch, puts quite a zip into everything we do;

    And is always one giant leap ahead of the competition!

    Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this evening.

    I am honored and humbled to have been selected for this special recognition; proud to be associated with SME; and deeply indebted to all of you who every day make The University of Akron better and better.


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