May 27, 2008
Marcus: Don’t give up; do give back
Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus used to dream about becoming a
doctor. “Little did I know it was going to happen today,” he told graduates after accepting an
honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
For a 79-year-old man whose claim to fame is that I am a marketer of hammers, I am humbled to have the responsibility of speaking to you.
They call me a philanthropist, but the truth is, I am just really giving back. Giving back to this great country for the opportunity it gave me to achieve success.
Giving away money is a long way from how I began my life. Mine is truly the story of America, and the reality of living the American dream.
I am a first generation American who started my life in a fourth-floor, walk-up tenement in Newark, N.J. My mother and father were Russian immigrants.
My mother believed that America was the golden land, and whatever you put your mind to, you could achieve. She told me there were four things you had to do to be successful: work hard; believe in yourself; get an education; and don’t let disappointments discourage you.
Just like many of you, I decided at a very early age what I was going to be when I grew up. We were poor, and no one else in the family had a college education. But at the age of 12, I knew I was going to be a doctor. That was my dream.
After high school I started my pre-med studies and was a pretty good student. In fact, I was so good that I qualified and was accepted to Harvard Medical School but because of quotas — and in those days the quota for Jewish students was 10 percent for the medical school — I could not get in unless I donated $10,000 to the school. If you took my entire family and hung them upside down, you couldn’t raise $10,000!
So, medical school was out. My dreams were shattered.
Frankly, for a time I gave up. But with the urging of my mother and my family I realized it was time to get back on “the train to success” and take advantage of the great things this country offered. I enrolled in pharmacy school and earned my pharmacy degree. It was as close to being a doctor as I was ever going to get.
So how did I go from pharmacy school — from selling drugs — to selling hammers? Just when you think you know where your career will take you, it can turn out totally different.
Many of you are going to excel, I’m sure of it, and many of you will succeed in a field far from where your studies have taken you.
While you may be convinced there is only one way to fulfill a dream, you are going to find out that there are many roads that lead you to your dreams, and those dreams may find you when and where you least expect it.
My advice to you is keep your eyes, ears and minds open. Opportunity pops up at the most unexpected times and places. Will you recognize it?
On the road I took from pharmacy to hammers I learned a number of things that I want to share with you: The first is the importance of being happy. The second is recognizing opportunities. The next is the benefit of the free enterprise system. And finally, personal desires and dedication and the role they play in success.
Working as a pharmacist soon led me to people who gave me an opportunity in retailing. It was then that I realized that marketing and selling and dealing with customers was what I truly loved. From that day forward, I woke up and went to work every day doing something I loved. And because I loved what I did, I was good at it. And because I was good at it, I was successful.
Not long after I found my niche in retailing, I became CEO of a major chain of home improvement stores in California and it grew to become one of the largest and most successful chains in the U.S. at that time.
Then, at the age of 49, pow!, I was fired.
That had never happened to me before — I had a family and obligations and all of a sudden my world came to a shocking end. I was caught up in one of those corporate intrigues and it ended up with me being the “out” guy.
So here I was, for the second time in my life, with what was a career ending experience. I had two choices: sit around and feel sorry for myself and complain that once again I got a raw deal. Or I could move forward.
Every single one of you will, in your life, be disappointed in something or someone. How you handle difficulties, setbacks and disappointments will form the basis of your own personal inner strength and character.
Many of the people I’ve met in my life, who’ve been successful, have had at least one major setback that could have been career ending and career changing. The ones who’ve succeeded are those who are able to overcome.
So here I was, ready to get on with my life. I had to come to some conclusions: Do I have the talent, strength, courage, foresight, and business acumen to keep going?
Deep in my heart, I realized I was an entrepreneur. And it was time to build a company of my own. I was confident that with the right people working alongside me, I could once again be successful.
I already had the idea for The Home Depot. It would be a brand new concept in home improvement stores that would carry everything that anybody would ever need in order to build, maintain, or remodel a house at prices and with service never seen before.
Along with my partner, Arthur Blank, we created The Home Depot, which today has more than 2,200 stores, sales of over $80 billion, and employs more than 300,000 people.
Each of you, as you graduate, has the opportunity to have a successful life, in your own field. Your success doesn’t have to be in billions of dollars, but it should be something that gives you your own sense of personal fulfillment.
As Emory students, you have had the opportunity to experience and understand the benefits that giving back can mean to others. You have all benefited from the generous contributions of people like Robert Woodruff, whose business successes helped bring to fruition the university you see.
I hope one of the things you learned while attending Emory was the importance of creating and disseminating wealth into institutions and facilities that benefit others around the world.
Believe me, I know — doing something good in this world is better than the best earnings quarter report you will ever have in business. When your profit line is measured by the lives you have saved, or the children you have helped, or the needs you have met, you can never have red ink.
My advice to all of you about giving back is to do it in any way that you can, whether it is personal involvement or through contributions. Your life will be so much fuller. It will expand your heart.
My family’s involvement in today’s society is far from the hammers I used to sell. We’re involved with autism, medical research, nanotechnology, and many other areas. Our focus right now is on our military, to help them get treatment for catastrophic, combat-related injuries or paralysis or brain trauma.
I cannot impress upon you enough how critically important it is in my own personal life when I know that I’ve touched a life. When I go to The Marcus Institute and see an autistic child who may not have been functioning at all, and they begin to smile, to communicate, even to laugh. The profound effect that has on my own personal psyche is unbelievable, but the profound effect on their families is much greater.
As college graduates, you have so many new days ahead of you. Enjoy them and learn something new from every one of them.
Start giving back today. Whether you share knowledge, or money, or time, our world needs your passion, your risk-taking, your enthusiasm, your courage, your wisdom and your leadership.
Good luck to all of you. May you find success and happiness in your future.
This essay has been adapted from Bernie Marcus’ Commencement address. For the complete version, visit www.emory.edu/ COMMENCEMENT.