IBM CEO Virginia Rometty encourages graduates to embrace changing world


Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Virginia Rometty, IBM chairwoman and CEO, enters Ryan Field for Friday’s commencement ceremony alongside University President Morton Schapiro. Rometty gave this year’s commencement address to an audience of 15,000 graduates, faculty and guests.

Julia Jacobs, Summer Editor

Virginia Rometty, IBM chairwoman and CEO, spoke to graduates from the class of 2015 Friday morning about the “dawn of a new era” of technology and urged students to embark on work with a purpose.

Sharing stories from her youth to her later career, Rometty imparted lessons of discovery and risk-taking during her remarks to the graduates at Northwestern’s 157th annual commencement at Ryan Field.

“Do not confuse a goal with purpose,” Rometty told graduates. “You may find that purpose in business or public service, academia — you choose. But I hope … that you leave today with a purpose to change the world in some way.”

Speaking to an audience of about 15,000 people, Rometty recalled witnessing IBM’s Watson, the first machine of the new cognitive computing era, playing Jeopardy on TV in 2011 against the top human players of the time. Computer systems like Watson that can both understand natural language and utilize reason will make the world one of “man plus machine,” digesting the vast amounts of data that the human mind can’t handle, Rometty said.

Rometty said she sees data as a new natural resource that — with the help of computers — will power progress in areas such as healthcare.

“What steam was to the 18th century, electricity to the 19th, hydrocarbons to the 20th, we are going to say that data was to the 21st century,” Rometty said.

Rometty also reflected on her ascendance at IBM — where she became the first female CEO in 2012 — and recalled when she was offered a job as a senior executive, nearly turning it down in self-doubt before a discussion with her husband caused a realization.

“He looked at me and he said one thing, he said, ‘Do you think a man would have answered the question in that way?’” Rometty said. “He was right. And I went in the next day and I took that job.”

Three individuals received honorary degrees in addition to Rometty, including Dan Shechtman, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, and Margaret Beale Spencer, a developmental science researcher.

Following Rometty’s remarks, University President Morton Schapiro conferred degrees on the graduates and led the audience in singing the alma mater.

Graduating senior A.J. Roy represented his class in expressing gratitude for the people who supported them during his time at NU, from family and friends to administrators and even Norbucks baristas.

Roy thanked the parents of graduates for investing in their children’s aspirations and recognized his own late father for supporting his endeavors in theater.

“You have shaped us, you have pushed us and you have known when to let us take the reins,” Roy said. “You have not simply enabled us to succeed, you have inspired us to succeed.”

Rometty credited her own mother with setting an example for self-determination as she raised four children alone after Rometty’s father abandoned the family. Rometty’s mother went to school during the day and worked nights, launching herself into a 25-year career at a hospital near Chicago, she said.

“My mother was so determined to never let anyone define her as a failure, a single mother or, anything worse, a victim,” Rometty said. “Through her actions she taught us all, never let anyone define you. …  Only you define who you are.”

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