Commencement Address at the Illinois Institute of Technology by Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF

May 16, 2015

By Christine Lagarde, Managing Director,
International Monetary Fund
Chicago, May 16, 2015


Good morning. It is a great honor to return to IIT and celebrate together. I would like to thank President Anderson for his kind invitation and all of you for your warm welcome. I would also like to thank all faculty members who have done so much to bring us here today.

Let me start with a full disclosure of my highly personal interest in today’s ceremony.

I am the proud mother of one of the 2,591 graduates whose accomplishments are being recognized today. As an immensely proud mom, I would like to extend a special welcome to all families and friends who are joining this wonderful commencement exercise. This is a joyous moment for all of us.

Today the center of our universe is right here in Chicago, on the Ed Glancy Field. Today you – the graduates of this great university – have the right to feel like the new masters of the academic universe.

Hard work, boundless energy, relentless curiosity, and incredible talent: these are some of the qualities that helped you achieve success in the classroom. These are the qualities that you can now bring to bear on some of the world’s most exciting challenges. The world is not short of that!

In other words, after writing the prologue, you are now ready to draft your own 21st-century legacies in engineering, architecture, business, design, law, and science and technology. What an incredible privilege, what a great responsibility!

Of course, many of you already know that the line from college to career is unlikely to be perfectly straight. There will almost certainly be plenty of twists and turns, ups and downs and bumps along your way.

But many of you will also realize that your starting point could hardly be better. And this is why we are here today – to celebrate the beginning of your journey, the starting point of a new adventure. It is a day of hope. It is a day of promise. It is a day of joy – for all of us.

With this in mind, I would like to talk about three things that could help along the journey:

  • First, reinventing yourself and welcoming change and risks.
  • Second, standing up for your values and ideas.
  • Third, encouraging transformational change in others.

If you will indulge me, I would like to introduce these points by briefly recounting personal experiences that have shaped my life. Of course, my experiences may not be the ultimate nuggets of wisdom. But as Mark Twain once said: “It is better to have old second-hand diamonds than none at all.”

1. Reinventing yourself and taking “smart risks”

So here is my first story – about risk and reinvention. Let me be clear, I am certainly not a risk junkie. I do not jump out of airplanes; I do not hang out in casinos; I do not even drink alcohol. So far, so boring. But there is a pattern in my personal journey that I would describe as going from “cozy” to “crazy”. As in: “Why would you give up your cozy life? Are you crazy?”

I heard the French version of that question 42 years ago, when I traded my cozy world in France for a new life – with my American host family and my American school in Bethesda, Maryland. I was 17, and soon enough I was homesick and missing my family and friends. And I was recovering slowly from a profound emotional and cultural shock.

But I was also incredibly excited to be exposed to new ideas, a new language, and new ways of thinking. And I am forever indebted to those people who welcomed me and who allowed me to experience the most transformational year of my life.

Let me give you another example of “cozy to crazy” – and it happened right here in Chicago. In 1999, after years of studying at law school and hard work as a young – and then not so young – lawyer, my partners at Baker & McKenzie elected me chairman of this global law firm. Working and living here in Chicago allowed me to thrive as a lawyer, as a leader, and as a mother of two wonderful boys. I could not have made it without the support and tolerance of my family and the help of my great colleagues and friends – some of whom are here today.

But in 2005, I received a call from Paris: the Prime Minister was asking me to join the French government. When your country calls you to public service, there is really only one answer you can give. So I gave up my cozy chairman’s life in Chicago, packed my bag and flew immediately to Paris. In my haste and excitement, I left my reading glasses behind. So for her first few days of office, the newest French minister was blinking and squinting a lot!

Going from “cozy” to “crazy” allowed me to move from the private sector to national public service to international public service; from France to the United States to the world.

One of the major lessons I have learned during that journey is this: be prepared for change, be willing to take “smart risks”, don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself.

This is precisely what you have been doing here at IIT. You have taken a financial risk – or maybe your parents have – by attending this great university. And you have transformed yourself through learning. You are no longer the person who stepped into the classroom on your first day.

I encourage you to take “smart risks” and to raise your risk-tolerance to the next level – the global level. In today’s hyper-connected world, I think it is more important than ever to take a global perspective in your personal and professional life.

Forty-eight percent of you – of all IIT students – are non-U.S. nationals hailing from 97 countries – which shows the remarkable openness and pulling power of this university. Traditionally, many of these students would want to stay here in the U.S. But a growing number of them will happily return home to pursue opportunities in fast-growing economies, particularly in Asia and Africa.

These students are taking a truly global view. They will overcome boundaries. So, too, will their American classmates who want to leave their mark on the world. Think of the IIT architecture graduates who have been reshaping the skylines of cities worldwide. Think of the IIT engineering and business graduates who are now reshaping the world of smartphone apps that drive our social interactions, financial transactions, and media consumption.

Whether you are from Milwaukee or from Mumbai, from Chicago or from Shanghai, from Paris or Panama City, you have the opportunity to bring your act to the global stage! Imagine that you have no boundaries, and please do not set mental boundaries for yourself – they are even worse.

But let me add a word of caution: taking “smart risks” and reinventing yourself also means leaving room for the unexpected, for the perfectly unplanned. And that is particularly true in business and technology.

Quick question: did you know that the world’s biggest hotel company does not own any hotels; that the world’s biggest taxi company does not own any cabs; that the world’s biggest news agency does not own any newspapers. Which companies am I talking about? Of course, you all know the answer: Airbnb, Uber and Facebook.

Only a few years ago, these companies did not exist and it would have been unthinkable to even ask a question like that. But ever since a little company called started selling books online, we have come to expect the unexpected. Disruption – through technology and market forces – is the only known variable. Everything else is guesswork.

There is only so much in life that you can plan and foretell. I am not suggesting that you can lean back and relax. Quite the opposite. It was Thomas Jefferson who said: “I am a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it”.

2. Standing up for your values and ideas

This brings me to my second story – about standing up for your values and ideas.

It does not always work. For example, I highly respect my fellow human beings and cannot accept the death penalty. So I decided to go to law school in Paris to become a criminal lawyer and defend death penalty cases. So much for my own values. In the meantime, a new President was elected in my country whose first action was to eliminate the death penalty. Never mind, I pursued my goal.

As a young lawyer, I interviewed with the best law firm in the country. I was told that I was hired at a good salary, but that I would never make partner. When I asked why, they told me it was because I was a woman. So I looked at them fiercely, walked out the door, ran down the stairs, and never looked back. I should have said thank you. I felt much stronger, even with no job.

In many ways, a situation like that is inconceivable in today’s corporate world. Any recruiter uttering these words would almost certainly face a discrimination lawsuit.

There are many values and ideas that are worth standing up for. Two things – including respect for others and gender equality – have always mattered to me; they matter to me every day.

To achieve greater fairness in schools, universities, and in the workplace, we need to remove the barriers that continue to hold back women – and that is especially true in the technology sector.

Your generation is already benefiting from major shifts in gender norms and expectations – and this is partly because of places like IIT. This university has a strong record of encouraging women and minorities, especially in its science and technology programs.

But the tech industry itself has been lagging behind. In Silicon Valley, for example, some of the hottest startups have yet to understand that holding back women is bad for innovation and bad for business.

Studies have shown that – without female leaders – women are significantly less likely to win endorsement for their ideas than their male colleagues. This translates into a loss of market opportunities and lower growth potential. What a great opportunity for your generation to stand up for your values and ideas!

By the end of this decade, your generation – the millennials – will make up half the U.S. labor force. And as a result, your values – on everything from gender, to ethics, to management style, to work-life balance – may become the workplace standard. But don’t rely too much on demographics. Increase your chances by standing up for greater respect and fairness now!

And while you are making a difference at school, at home, at work, many of you will also want to take a wider perspective on the pressing issues of our time. Protection of our planet, eradication of poverty, reduction of inequality: these are some of the topics that many of you already care deeply about.

You can do even more. Imagine that you turn your social media accounts into megaphones; that you pester your friends and foes alike; that you talk to those who do not already agree with you; that you go wild and put a bumper sticker on your smartphone. And that you don’t forget to vote – with your money, with your feet, and with your ballot!

Whatever you choose to do, ignore the barriers of mockery and conventional wisdom, stand up for your values at the local and global levels! Trust me: you will feel better and stronger, and the next generation will thank you.

3. Encouraging transformational change in others

This brings me to my third and final story – about encouraging transformational change in others.

The real heroes of this story are my great colleagues at the International Monetary Fund. In 2011 – at the height of the sovereign debt crisis in the Euro Area – they produced a highly controversial piece of research on European banks.

European leaders had been insisting that their banking systems were basically OK. But our analysis showed that these banks were sitting on massive amounts of bonds that were worth only a fraction of the value listed in their books. We were pretty sure that the emperor had no clothes. And we were extremely worried that this could be Europe’s Lehman Brothers moment.

So, I gave a speech to make a loud and clear call for action. The pushback was swift and hard – with bankers and ministers lining up to publicly discredit our analysis and criticize me. But over the next 12 months, these banks did exactly what we were calling for – raising hundreds of billions of euros in fresh capital. And European leaders began to revamp the regulatory structures to create a safer and sounder banking system.

This was a defining moment for me personally and, of course, for the IMF. As you know, the IMF lends money to countries in times of distress, so they can get back on their feet. But we also play a key role in sounding global alarm bells and encouraging global cooperation. At its best, the IMF is – in the words of economist John Maynard Keynes – a “ruthless truth-teller”. In 2011, we told an inconvenient truth – and it mattered.

My point is this: you can create a lasting legacy by encouraging transformational change in people, companies, and communities. And you can do this in two dimensions – to help resolve pressing problems, and to help others achieve their potential.

But there is a catch: you cannot really move others if you are standing still. If you want to inspire others – at work and in your private life – you need to move out of your own comfort zone. As the Roman philosopher Seneca once said: “It is difficult to bring people to goodness with lessons, but it is easy to do so by example.”

And always remember that transformation is a laborious business. It requires guts, grit, and generous amounts of time and energy. Many of you know exactly what I am talking about. Many of you feel the need to do even more: take a break, get off the grid, and spend meaningful time with others – as mentors, friends, professors, and engaged citizens. Whether you are teaching a class, running a summer camp, or listening to a heart-broken friend late at night, you have the chance to learn together, to dream together.

Imagine that you are transforming, inspiring, and improving not only others but yourself along the way. This will make you better and stronger!


Better and stronger: you have grown here, you have learnt here, you have made new friends and met new people, you have engaged, and you have loved it. Don’t be sad because it’s over; be happy that it happened.

“Les voyages forment la jeunesse.” “Young people are shaped by the journeys they make.” Shape your journey by welcoming change and risks, by standing up for yourself, and by encouraging transformational change in others! That journey will shape you.

I could not be happier and – as a mom – I could not be prouder to see you here today at this new starting point. Every day of our life, from the very first day, you have transformed us. We have conveyed our values and ideas, and we have watched you take risks – sometimes at your peril and always accompanied by our trepidation.

Your journey, your adventure continues from this new starting point. It will transform you, and you will transform us. Bon voyage!

Thank you.


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