Address by 2013 Class Day Speaker Robert M. Bakish, Viacom International Media Networks CEO

Jun 03 2013

Good afternoon, and thank you, Mary, for that warm introduction. As you know by now, I'm Bob Bakish, and I was standing where you are 28 years ago—way back in 1985! I didn't know it at the time, but I was going to embark on quite a journey.

It's truly an honor and a privilege to have been selected by you to speak this afternoon on this most important moment in your life.

But before we get going, it feels like we need to unlock a bit of the energy on the lawn. So here's what we are going to do. Left side: "Columbia." Right side: "Engineer." ... Not good enough—try again. ... Third time—let's make it so loud that the people on the west coast hear you! ... Well, all right!

Robert M. Bakish

A Tribute to You

You are no longer students. You are now, in fact, Columbia Engineers. Congratulations! As a Columbia Engineer myself, I know it was not easy getting here. A grueling curriculum, including engineering courses as well as the Columbia core—I still remember the PAIN of ODE (Ordinary Differential Equations, for you non-engineers out there in the back); many long days and sleepless nights; a fair amount of stress; and probably some debt.

But you've done it, and thereby joined an elite group. You are not the 1 percenters; you are the .02 percenters (based on 3.2 million graduates in the US)! The cream of the 2013 US university graduating class. And part of a family that shares the Columbia name.

And you've done it at a great time. We do a lot of research at Viacom, and among other things, today that research says it's cool to be smart. So unlike when I graduated, these days, it's actually cool to be an engineer! Nice!

The Alumni

You follow a long tradition of Columbia Engineering graduates—some 29,000 dating back to 1863. And these alums have a rich career history. Some work as engineers, others go on to become doctors, lawyers, business people, CEOs. And Columbia Engineers work all around the world, from Manhattan to Mumbai.

Just take a look at where some Columbia Engineers have gone. We have amazing alums in "traditional" engineering roles: president and CEO of Boeing's Commercial Aircraft; the MD of a hydro turbine manufacturer in India; the director of engineering research and development at Dupont. And of course we have rocket scientists and structural engineers.

We have many folks in "tech"—the founder and CEO of a financial software company; the CEO of a women’s online fashion retailer; an author and cyber-security expert.

And countless alums working in "business at large"—the chairman of a leading Korean retailer; a USAID program manager; numerous architects; a smart home developer in Spain; a physician and medical device inventor. And numerous financial executives worldwide.

We also have some alums with very non-traditional careers, including a dancer, a novelist, and a professional triathelete … I could go on and on. The depth and breadth of the career of the Columbia Engineer is amazing.

Now, in actuality, I don’t know many of those people. But I have experienced this diversity of Columbia careers personally. Today, friends I graduated with are everything from a construction executive living in Israel; a CEO and author running a sales performance improvement company out of NY and LA; and yes, executives working as engineers in Fortune 500 companies living in Westchester county. Their experiences and life journeys are very different, but they are all Columbia Engineers.

Columbia Engineers: As Dr. Seuss once wrote, "Oh, the places you will go."

My Career and Lessons Learned

When I made the decision to come to Columbia in 1981, I had no idea what I would do for a living. But I came to Columbia because I knew it was a fantastic school, and because I believed it would inevitably open some doors.

But the real reason I came to Columbia was because my father told me it was the right choice. He told me that as a Columbia Engineer, I would have options. I could go on and work as an engineer, i.e. I could get a job! Or, I could use the outstanding preparation to go on to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a business executive. And he knew this from personal experience, because he too is a Columbia Engineer. He has not only worked in engineering, but also gone on to be a professor, and to start and run his own company for many years.

Now, truth be told, I didn’t always listen to my father. But in this case, I am very glad that I did. And I’m also very glad to have him here with me today. He’s sitting with the rest of my immediate family in the dean’s box. Because just as a today is a tribute to all of you graduates, for me, it is also a tribute to him. Thanks, Dad.

The foundation I built in my four years here in the early eighties has served me well—very well. The engineering curriculum taught me how to think, how to solve problems. You know the line: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Well, Columbia didn’t give me a fish. It taught me how to fish. Which is important, because I’ve run into a lot of situations that weren’t specifically covered in the Columbia curriculum.

But that way of thinking, that divide and conquer engineering mentality, is very useful, and that broader core curriculum also turned out to be useful. Made me a better writer. Broadened my exposure to the arts. So be patient: If you don’t already think so, it will pay off.

When I left Columbia Engineering, I went to work for AT&T across the river in NJ. Working with product managers and sales people, bridging processes and systems, applying analytical skills, while learning what it is like to work in the real world. I spent two great years there.

But I had higher aspirations—I wanted to grow. I thought a Columbia MBA was a good path, and thank God they let me in!

And once again, Columbia was a great place. I really fleshed out my "business tool kit" and got exposed to more great people and interesting careers and companies.

But two years later, it was time to get back to work. I decided to enter the consulting business—fit with my interest in problem solving; had parallels to my experience at AT&T, but with much broader application. And consulting firms love the combination of an engineering degree and an MBA, so I was an attractive candidate—which was a good thing in the "post Black Friday" employment market of 1989.

So I got a job in consulting, first at a smallish firm, and then, around a year later, at a leading "strategy" firm: Booz Allen. I worked on many great assignments: for consumer products and media companies; across strategy, technology, and operations; around the US, with a bit of international. And I did well: associate to partner in six years.

And then, the stereotype happened. My client, Viacom, approached me to join the company. The hook was asking whether I wanted to "play on the field" instead of "calling it from the sidelines." That got me.

And since 1997, that led to a series of different and growing responsibilities: strategy and development jobs, both for Viacom and the MTV Networks Division; chief operating officer of MTV Networks advertising sales; a Viacom corporate operating role; then as head of MTV Networks International; and now Viacom’s International Network businesses, responsible for all networks business outside the domestic US.

Today, I’m privileged to continue to be involved with the school. I sit on the Engineering School Board of Visitors, the Business School Board of Overseers, the Business School Media Forum.

And through it all, I’m happy to say I’ve been married to my wonderful wife, Dee, for over 22 years. Amazing that she still puts up with me. Been fortunate to have two daughters: Rachel, 18, and Brooke, 13. And I’m happy to say they could join me here as well. So that’s my story.

As You Leave These Grounds

And so, before I leave this incredible stage, a short bit of advice. Every life, every career is different, shaped by the opportunities presented. And the decisions made—there will inevitably be wins, and there will probably be setbacks—through it all, live, learn, and press on. And don’t forget to have a little fun.

Today, I’m sure many of you already know what the next step in your working life looks like, having accepted a working position or a next leg in education. That is an exciting time, looking forward to the "real world" or greater specialization. Congratulations.

Others may still be on the hunt. If you are, have no fear. There is opportunity out there. Be persistent. And keep your head up high.

Personally, I’ve been in both positions. When I graduated from the Engineering School, I had a job lined up. That was nice. When I graduated from the Business School, I did not. That was more stressful. But in both cases, it worked out fine. It will for you too.

And as you enter the work force, regardless of what you do, look to make a difference over the coming years. Maybe you will help make our planet a greener place, or advance the medical sciences, improving quality of life. Maybe you will create value in financial markets, or be part of a resurgence in US manufacturing. Maybe you will write some killer code, or maybe you will join the Peace Corps, or maybe make a departmental process in just a little bit better. That’s OK, too.

Who knows? Columbia Engineers: Oh, the places they will go.

Whatever you do, build your brand. What does that mean?. Always do your best. Put in the extra time. Become the person the team depends on. Why? Because it will, somewhere down the road, create opportunity.

Let me tell you one last quick story. In my consulting days, I worked a lot—long hours, weekends, etc.—and because of that, I could be counted on to deliver. One summer Saturday morning, I got a call to come into the office to work on a proposal. The partner considered me a "go-to guy." I was tired; I didn’t want to come in. But I came in.

"So what?" you say? The proposal was for Madison Square Garden, owned by Paramount Communications. We got the work. As we were finishing the project, Paramount got put into play, and Viacom bought it. And we got a recommendation from the CEO of Paramount to do work for Viacom. Which we did—for three years or so. Which led to my joining Viacom. Which ultimately led me to this stage today.

I am glad I got up that morning to write that proposal. I am glad I put in the time to build my brand. You should too. It will create opportunity; you just don’t know when or where.

But as you do all of this, know that with opportunity comes responsibility—responsibility because you now stand for the Columbia brand. Do it proud.

Responsibility—because over time, those who come after you might benefit from your support. Talk to them, advise them, maybe even employ them!

Responsibility—because this school that has helped you may in turn ask for your help. Give back, either through your time or through your financial support. We all want this institution to remain great. And believe it or not, at some point, you can contribute to that.

And with that, I wish you "Bonnes Voyages." May the future be so bright that you need to wear shades.

And one last time, before I go, you know the drill. On my left: "Columbia." On my right. "Engineers."

Godspeed Graduates. Godspeed Columbia Engineering. Give yourself a great big round of applause.

Thank you.