U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker may be a billionaire but the lessons learned during her rise to prominence in the business world provided Harper College graduates Saturday with a universal template for success.
"Take risks. Be open. Show up. You're lives will be richer and our nation will be stronger as a result," she told an estimated 600 graduates assembled under a big tent on the Palatine campus for the 46th commencement ceremony.
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Pritzker began her remarks with kudos for Harper, which she said is "defining what an American community college should be and do in the 21st Century." Being open to unplanned opportunities and consistently showing up to functions and other gatherings will pay dividends, she added.
Altogether, the community college awarded about 3,500 associate degrees and certificates for the Class of 2014, from students ranging in age from 16 to 68, President Kenneth Ender said during his opening remarks. He said Harper is answering a challenge from President Barack Obama for community colleges to produce millions more degree holders.
Pritzker, a longtime friend of Obama, was sworn in last June as Commerce Secretary. In her 25-plus years in the real estate, financial services, senior living and hospitality industries, she has developed and led several companies and served on the board of Hyatt Hotels Corp., the chain co-founded by her father.
Pritzker said she met with Ender in 2011 as she was pursuing a program to allow employees to gain the skills and training employers needed. She named Ender to a White House committee working to solve the shortage of skilled workers in the manufacturing industry and the group held its first meeting last December.
Cecilia Marchant, a 27-year-old Des Plaines resident, who came from Bolivia two years ago, was noted by Pritzker as a successful risk taker. Marchant had a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering but enrolled at Harper in part to improve her language skills. She graduated with an applied science degree in advanced manufacturing technology and multiple certificates in supply chain management/logistics and has been offered a full-time position at Dascher, an Elk Grove Village firm where she did an internship.
"This is the first step," Marchant said as the ceremony continued.
Pritzker told three short stories to illustrate her advice. She acknowledged making "a lot of mistakes" in 1987 after beginning a venture in senior living. Bad hires, too quick of an expansion and a recession led her to ask tell her boss to fire her if she couldn't turn it around in six months. That business now employees thousands, she said.
"Trust your crazy ideas. Take that risk and believe in yourself," she told the graduates.
That advice could apply to Michelle Hansen, 48, of Schaumburg. The single mom with five children, on Saturday received an associate of applied science degree in diagnostic medical imaging.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," she said. "I'm so thrilled I could cry."
Another lesson Pritzker said she learned was that "relationships matter." Despite a tight schedule Pritzker last November accepted Ender's invitation to speak at the commencement. She was whisked away before the diplomas were handed out to lead 20 U.S. companies on an Energy Business Development trade mission to West Africa that begins Sunday.
"She's got a tough 18 hours in front of her," Ender said.