A Return To Campus Spurs Memories And Inspiration

November 17, 2014


I had a most extraordinary and inspiring experience last week when I returned to Indiana University (IU) for the first time in nearly 35 years.

This visit was part of my responsibilities as this year’s Poling Chair at IU’s Kelley School of Business to shIU Groupare my entrepreneurial experiences and insights with students. I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness as I prepared to share my “4 P’s Of Entrepreneurial Success” with graduate and undergraduate students.

As soon as I arrived on campus and checked in, I was awash in memories.

I recalled the table in the student union where a girlfriend broke my heart. I stopped by the popular off-campus bar, Nick’s, where a stainless steel pint pail with my name once hung on a hook. I poked my head in my old room at the fraternity house, not so surprised that it essentially looked and smelled about the same.

IDaleIUphoto hadn’t returned to IU since my graduation in 1980 and I was surprised at how much the campus and community, for all the new buildings and other improvements, still seemed familiar and friendly.

But the real highlights of my visit came in my interactions with students. They asked insightful, penetrating questions as we discussed their current academic pursuits and their prospects in business.

An undergraduate exchange student from China asked, “Isn’t it better for us to know ourselves before we worry about networking?” As I tried my best to answer her question, I couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t nearly as introspective and mature when I was in college.

Several students asked if they would be better off seeking first-job opportunities in start-ups versus more established companies. This question wasn’t even relevant when I went to business school at IU—start-ups as we know them today didn’t exist, and you either went to work in the family business or sought jobs from a big-name company.

I also fielded several questions that all amounted to the same query—“How can I be sure if I’ll be happy in my career?” To me, the frequency of this question belies both the pressure today’s students feel to make the right choices, and an ingrained fear that a wrong choice now will yield dire consequences in the future.

I urged students to remember that college offers a rare opportunity to experiment and try new things. Their goal, as students, should be to understand what makes them tick as individuals, and to recognize the reality that life serves up a series of twists and turns that can render a good decision today irrelevant for tomorrow. I also shared a page from my life—that sometimes it can take years to recognize the signs that suggest your career path may not be as fulfilling as another might be.

As I left IU, I also couldn’t help but think that we’ll all be in good hands when these students become business and civic leaders in communities across America. Collectively, they showed a level of ambition, focus, gratitude and wisdom that I recall being rare among my college contemporaries.

I’m inspired to help these students, and I can’t wait to return to IU next spring.