Speech by Mary Barra, General Motors Chair and CEO, at the 170th Commencement of Duke University
May 8, 2022
Well, thank you, President Price, and to everyone who has worked behind the scenes preparing for this special day.
Good morning, fellow trustees, distinguished faculty and administration, honorees, families, and friends.
And most importantly, the Duke University Class of 2022. Congratulations to each and every one of you!
As the proud mom of two recent Duke graduates, I have sat in the audience for commencement twice before, including last year, when John Legend was here.
When President Price asked me to speak today, my first thought was, “Oh no, not after John Legend?!” He will be very tough to follow, but I assure you: I have absolutely no plans to sing today. That would not turn out well for either of us.
It is an incredible honor to be asked to be with you today.
This is a very special moment – worthy of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it. And for those of you who started the celebration last night, and maybe celebrated a bit too much, thank you for making it here this morning.
Behind every high and every low – your family, your friends, professors, and mentors – have likely played a role.
Today is a celebration of you, and everyone who helped make you you.
And today is also Mother’s Day.
So for all the mothers present, elsewhere, or with us in spirit, we are here because of you, and nothing can ever replace you. So please, let’s once again thank all of the mothers for everything.
My story starts with my family because family means so much to me.
My mom came from a large family with eight kids and grew up on a farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She grew up during the Depression and they were very poor.
My dad grew up in Minnesota – in the Iron Range area – and also during the Depression. He earned a Gold Star and a Purple Heart serving in WWII, and he was at General Motors for 39 years as a dye maker. A dye maker is a skilled tradesperson who actually makes the forms for all of the panels on the outside of a vehicle fenders, hoods, etc..
And they both believed in the American Dream. That if you worked hard enough, got yourself an education, believed in yourself, you could achieve anything. They that instilled it in me and my brother, and I still believe it today.
And when I think about growing up, many of my memories are from our kitchen table. It was a brown Formica table with four chairs. I sat across from my brother and looked at the wall where my mom’s needlepoint was hanging.
Every day, after school and, eventually after work, we would sit and talk about the day at the kitchen table.
Often, we had extended family and neighbors drop by. There was always room at our table.
And what I didn’t realize it at the time was those conversations were some of the most formative of my life – who I am as a person, a wife, a mother, a friend and as a leader.
So what did I learn at the kitchen table? I would like to share 5 lessons:
One, do your best.
Two, find your purpose.
Third, listen to understand.
Fourth, be honest always.
And fifth, include one more.
I’ve learned time and again how fundamental these lessons have been and continue to be. So let’s get started!
#1 from the kitchen table: Do your best. Just three words.
Over the years, as a student, parent, leader, and mentor, I’ve met and worked with many talented people, but while talent gives you a head start, it’s not nearly enough to win.
You need more. And I’ve learned that one important trait that distinguishes those who truly excel in life is hard work.
When I was little, I was not athletic – my husband and kids can confirm this is still true today – no one wants to be my pickleball partner.
I was a nerd. And grades were really important to me.
After a test, I would worry that I didn’t do well, and my mom would always ask me, “Did you do the best you could?”
And I would say “yes”, and then she would say, “That’s all that matters.”
When I was younger, that voice sometimes annoyed me. I found it so dismissive.
But the older I got, the more I found myself calling home to hear those words after a tough test or a tough day.
I’ve always been a big believer in the expression – “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.”
And to quote Coach K, “Believe that loose ball you are chasing has your name on it.”
So if you chose to do something, do your best; work hard.
A degree from Duke will open doors and give you a boost. That’s for sure.
But speak up, volunteer, contribute, and when people need help, don’t look the other way.
It is the amount of effort you put in that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined.
#2 from the kitchen table: find your purpose.
I have been at General Motors my entire career. And it has been said when I was 18, I started as a co-op student, meaning I would work for 3 months and go to school, 3 months and I did that for 5 years. It paid for college. It’s where I met my husband, Tony, of 36 years.
My very first job at GM was being a quality inspector on the assembly line, inspecting the fenders and hood panels. And my only company-issued equipment was a clipboard and some safety glasses. And I learned working on an assembly line is hard work and the people who do it are talented.
Because I was a co-op student while going to school, I rotated through many areas, like the assembly line and I met many people.
To a person, they were generous with their time and taught me what I needed to know for my specific assignment. But I also got to see the company and the world from their perspective. Often, they would share their dreams and their struggles. And I learned empathy – putting myself in their shoes. Empathy – it’s the ability to share and understand the feelings of one another. And it’s foundational to any form of leadership.
Since that first job, I’ve worked as an executive assistant to the Chairman and Vice Chairman, in Communications, in HR, as a plant manager, and in product development.
And as I grew, my roots at General Motors deepened, and my empathy for the incredible people who poured their heart and soul into this company grew.
I slowly started to connect with my purpose, and I realized that I had a role to play with people – to help them be their best selves.
And with General Motors that I would be part of the turnaround to see GM once again become a respected industry leader.
Purpose is the answer to ‘why’. Always ask yourself why.
It’s a simple question and being honest with yourself will help you navigate big decisions and small ones. It will give you clarity and fuel you in challenging times.
Now, you may not have your life’s purpose figured out yet – if you do, that’s wonderful.
Treat it as your north star. And you may veer on occasion, but always find your way back.
If you don’t have it figured out yet, that’s OK. But seek it, because trust me: It will save you a lot of time just wandering around.