Remarks of Chairman Gary Gensler, Pikesville High School Distinguished Alumnus Assembly
April 30, 2010
Good morning. Hello Pikesville Panthers. I thank Brandon for that very kind introduction and the kind article he wrote on me in the Pipeline. I’d also like to thank my mom, who is in attendance today. My parents sent all five of us kids to Pikesville, including my older sister who I believe was in Pikesville’s first graduating class – the class of ’66.
This is actually my first time back at Pikesville since I graduated almost 35 years ago. Our class motto was “75, best alive.”
I have been fortunate to live a very full live – with some success and a lot of dumb luck – in both the private sector and in public service. For 18 years, I worked in the investment banking business in New York and Tokyo before joining President Clinton’s administration at the Treasury Department. Now, as Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, I’m honored to head an agency that regulates some of America’s financial markets and to work with Congress to bring much needed reforms to the nation’s financial regulatory system.
I must admit that when I got an envelope from Pikesville, I never anticipated what was inside of it. Maybe I still had a book out from the library. I was really touched to hear that you wanted to honor me as a distinguished alumnus from Pikesville. I was even further touched that you asked me to come and speak with you. I’ve been thinking about what I could say that might have some relevance to you. I have decided to share with you some lessons that I’ve taken in my life since graduating from Pikesville. I’ll try to tell some stories along the way to keep you from falling asleep, so please bear with me.
First, pursue your passions.
I have seen people in careers not passionate about their work. Don’t do that. Instead, find what you love the most and try and make a go at it.
I feel very fortunate. Neither of my parents went to college. After World War II, my dad used his mustering out pay to buy some used beat up vending machines. He later placed cigarette machines and pinball machines in local Baltimore bars. I used to travel with him when he would take the nickels out of the machines and help him count them. I guess you could say this was my first foray into business and the world of finance.
I knew from that early age that I wanted to pursue a career in business. At the same time, I felt a deep passion for politics and government, so I sought to merge those two dreams. In a way, I started to do that at Pikesville when I ran for class treasurer. In those days, being class treasurer meant making sure that we sold enough pizza at the basketball games and wrestling matches so that we could pay for our class prom. I lost my campaign for senior class president the next year, but I kept alive my passion.
After Pikesville, I went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for college and business school. I know that many of you have just made or are about to make the decision of what college to attend. And I know that it was a lot easier to get into college back in 1975. The Pikesville class of ‘75 had about 500 graduates, and nearly 25 of us went to the University of Pennsylvania, including another Pikesville Distinguished Alumni, Broadway and Hollywood producer Marc Platt. Marc also pursued his passion. He was the lead in all the school plays, and he went on to produce Wicked, Legally Blonde and other great shows.
At college, I once again got involved in student politics. Amongst other things, we actually participated in a four day sit-in at the administration building in 1978 protesting the University’s cut of the hockey program. We were unsuccessful saving the varsity hockey program … but it did subsequently return as a club sport.
I graduated from Penn with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s when I was 21 and followed my passion into business in New York. In 18 years on Wall Street, I became a partner at my firm, worked in Tokyo for three years and met countless talented people. From there I moved to the Treasury Department where I could merge my experience in finance with my desire to be in public service. After President Obama was elected, I was honored to be asked to serve again in a new role.
I understand that your passion or dreams may not be the same as mine. Some of you may want to be doctors or lawyers or artists, and some of you may have no idea what you want to do. It may take time to reveal itself, but whatever your passion is or whenever it develops, follow it.
I married an artist who was able to reconnect with her passion in her 40s. My wife, Francesca, went to business school, but her true passion was creating images. When she returned to it, she produced wonderful art that was featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Second, make your opportunities, and seize them.
Sometimes life presents us with great new opportunities. You should take them. Often, however, you have to make your own opportunities. That requires willingness to take risk, fostering strong enduring relationships with mentors, working hard and being motivated.
It’s rare that somebody gets a senior role in government without creating opportunity. It may be that they worked hard for a candidate on a campaign. It may be that they become an expert in a particular field. But they also have to pursue the job. A Presidential transition has hundreds of thousands of resumes come in, but the person who ends up in a senior role must actually hit the phones, schedule meetings, take risks and make their case as to why they want to serve and in what role. You can’t just wait for the phone calls to come asking you to serve.
Sometimes taking advantage of an opportunity can mean big changes. It might require you to move to a new place or leave a job you like. But those changes can bring you success and happiness. Follow them.
Third, find mentors.
Pikesville High School would not have named me a distinguished alumnus if I didn’t have the help of mentors along the way. My first mentors were my mom and dad who encouraged me through every step of school, taught me great values, and showed me what a loving lifelong relationship can be.
When I was at Penn, I sought the counsel of my professors, but particularly three with whom I became very close. To this day, I remember some of the most important advice they gave me. Another mentor in college was the Wharton dean and, maybe even more so, his assistant Elli. Each semester I wanted to take one more class than allowed. So at the start of every semester, I went to the dean’s office and begged Elli to let me talk to him. I ended up graduating with my bachelor’s and master’s is four years because Elli kept getting me signoff to take those extra classes. To this day, I don’t know if it was the dean’s signature or Elli’s forgery.
Another mentor in business school was a woman a year ahead of me in school and about six years my senior. She had spent a summer working on Wall Street and helped get me interviews in New York. She was furious when she found out that I went to my first job interview in jeans – I didn’t own a suit and hoped it was alright if I didn’t wear one!
Straight away, she called my dad and asked permission to take me shopping. We went to Brooks Brothers and she helped me buy my first suit. Somehow I ended up getting a job at Goldman Sachs.
Goldman took a risk on a young 21-year-old kid. I made many mistakes – mistakes of youth, mistakes of inexperience and sometimes mistakes of arrogance. But I also had mentors at the firm who looked after me and gave me much-needed guidance.
One of the mentors who knew me pretty well at Goldman Sachs later became Treasury Secretary for President Clinton. Let me tell you, though, it wasn’t just a phone call that came along one day. He joined the Administration four years before I did. I stayed in touch over those years, and made sure he knew about my willingness to serve if an opportunity presented itself. He asked me to join the team as an assistant secretary and gave me the opportunity to fulfill my passion for public service.
You too will undoubtedly meet many talented people in the future who share your passions. Learn from them. Seek advice from those who have done what you want to do. Many of you may already have mentors in your Pikesville teachers or your boss from last summer or your parents. Take advantage of those relationships.
Fourth, find a good partner.
High School at Pikesville was really a wonderful time in my life. Though I lost the race for senior class president, I did find a great girlfriend junior year. Now she did go to our cross-town rival, Milford Mill, but we dated for three and a half years.
I later married Francesca, a beautiful woman I met in New York. We lost her to cancer four years ago, but every minute of our 20 years of marriage was a blessing. We moved from New York to Tokyo to New York to Washington to Baltimore and had three beautiful daughters. So find a good partner in life. It does take work and a lot of communication, but life really is better with a good partner.
I feel completely honored to serve this nation and to have served two presidents. I could share stories about trips on Air Force One or meetings in the Oval Office, but if I might, let me share a story on the personal side.
After Francesca passed away, I became a stay-at-home dad. I did the laundry, bought the groceries and made sure the dogs were fed. When then-Senator Hillary Clinton was preparing to run for president, I told Hillary that I wanted to help her in any way I could, even joining her team fulltime.
Hillary wasn’t so sure. She had been to my home and met Francesca and the girls. Hillary hesitated to let me join her campaign unless I could assure her the girls would be OK. But the girls were ready to get me out of the house. It finally took four conversations with Hillary and several months for me to persuade her that I was ready to join the campaign. I had to convince Hillary that I could fulfill my responsibilities as a dad in Baltimore and commute to Arlington for her campaign every day.
This brings me to my last piece of advice: if you ever have the opportunity to work on a Presidential campaign, do it! And this is coming from someone who worked for one candidate who didn’t win … though I did later work for one who did win.
Of all the professional honors I’ve received, corporate boardrooms I’ve visited and government jobs I’ve held, working on a national campaign was one of the most unbelievable experiences. You meet some of the most talented and intelligent policy thinkers in the country. You develop unparalleled camaraderie. You get to participate in how our great nation shapes our shared agenda and selects our President. If you have the interest and the opportunity, take advantage of it.
Before I close, I want to acknowledge that Pikesville equipped me with many of the necessary tools I needed both in the private sector and in public service. I graduated from Pikesville with a first-class education, lifelong friends and a D in French.
Thank you again for honoring me today. I’d be glad to take any questions that you may have.
Last Updated: January 24, 2011