Remarks by Punit Renjen MM'86, CEO Deloitte Global, to the Class of 2019

by Marketing MBA,

From humble beginnings in a small town in India, to CEO of a $45 billion organization, Punit Renjen shares his lessons learned during his 32-year career.

Introduction

Thank you, Dean Hand, graduates, faculty, trustees, parents, and guests: I’m honored to be here to celebrate this great achievement with you.

I was in your position 32 years ago. I remember the excitement I felt in that moment. It’s wonderful to feel that same excitement here today. Especially right now. This has been a tough time for me. In early April, my father passed away. Before he died, I had the chance to tell him and my mother that I’d been selected to speak here and would be receiving an honorary doctorate later today.

I was eager to hear his reaction — because as it happens, I once aspired to be a doctor of a different kind. You see, in the small town in India where I'm from, if you wanted to amount to anything, you became a doctor or an engineer. I didn’t enjoy math at the time, so I went down the medical path — only to learn that I didn’t like medicine too much either.

I changed course much to my parent’s chagrin. Everyone worried about me. Truly, if you lined up all my friends back then, when I was 18-years-old, I would have been the one folks pointed to and said: “That boy is going to amount to nothing.”

So, when I told my mom and dad about receiving an honorary doctorate here today — they were quite amused. It took nearly 40 years, but I was finally becoming a doctor! My mother, of course, was quick to remind me that “it’s not the same.” But, I know that today she’s smiling wide. And I know my dad would be smiling, too.

Occasions like these call for reflection and lessons learned. So today, I have three that I want to share with you:

 

The first, for me, puts a vital lesson into focus: that life is a marathon.

As young people, we’re encouraged to set off on this big race to success. I bet some of you started out sprinting. But not all of us do. And I think people sometimes turn their placement into a kind of identity: I’m someone who leads the pack. I’m someone who trails it. I’m someone who hides out in the middle.

But professional life, having lived it for 32 years, is not a 100-meter dash. You have time to change your pace. As I mentioned, no one who knew me when I was young would have thought that I would be the one who’d become the CEO of a $45 billion organization. Not when I was 18, and a medical school dropout. And, not in 1984, when I arrived in the U.S. clueless. 

I’d won a Rotary Foundation scholarship to attend school in America. I knew it was the chance of a lifetime. But I was also overwhelmed. I’d never been overseas. I’d never even been on an airplane.

I arrived at the Portland airport late at night. I didn’t realize how far away Salem was, so I tracked down the Hut to take me there. I remember that I was awed by the fact that there were lights illuminating the highway—I5. What an incredible country, I thought, they can afford to light up the streets. You see my hometown back then had no street lights.

When school began, it was tough for me to make out my professors’ accents. So, the first thing I bought in the U.S. was a tape recorder. I’d listen to those lectures, over and over again, until I could begin to comprehend. One of my classmates saw my tape recorder and chided me: “Brown people never make it in business in the US.” I actually ran into him in Portland a couple of years ago, while my wife and I were walking to the local Starbucks. I flagged him down, I said, “Richard!” And I did tell him that I was the CEO of Deloitte.

If I had let my early experiences shape my identity or persuade me to believe “I’m someone who trails the pack,” I would not be standing here today.

My saving grace was that I never stopped believing in my own future. I had already bought into the idea of the “American dream”: That I could work hard, that I could learn, that I could change my circumstances. That where I’d been did not have to determine how far I could go.

So, my first lesson to you is: run life like a marathon and don’t, don’t let others define you. There is only one of you.

 

My second lesson is that passion doesn’t inspire hard work. Hard work inspires passion.

Of course, believing that you can change your future is only the first step to actually doing it.

I’m guessing you have gotten plenty of advice about how to go about that over the years. And I’m guessing that most of it sounds like this: Follow your passion. That passion will inspire you to work as hard as you have in order to succeed. That’s fine advice, but only for those of you lucky enough to know what your passion actually is.

I had this one friend at Willamette who knew exactly what she wanted to do from the minute she set foot on campus—she wanted to be a doctor. I remember being envious of her certainty, of the fact that she had a calling in life. Her passion was clear, and it drove her to put in the work she needed to achieve it. But that kind of conviction is so much rarer than most of us like to acknowledge.

After I graduated from Willamette, I didn’t feel any profession calling out to me. At the time, I was not passionate about Deloitte. I didn’t know much about it. 

The truth is, I took the Deloitte job because my starting salary was $37,000. When I first read that, I thought it was a typo. I thought they meant $3,700. And I probably would’ve taken that as well.

I was very grateful for the opportunity, so I put in my very best work. And I learned something vitally important: yes, passion can inspire hard work. But hard work can also inspire passion.

I worked harder than anyone I knew. I still do. And when I grew to master what I was doing every day, I taught myself to love my profession. Passion for me came from understanding that I could create an impact—a tangible attributable impact— for the clients I served and the professionals I mentored. And that impact was predicated on doing my work well—becoming a master at my profession through practice.

Eventually, as my hard work began to inspire passion, the passion made the work feel not quite as hard. So, to those of you who have a passion: I’m envious. You are lucky. Go set the world on fire. But to those of you, like me back then, who haven’t yet found a role you’re passionate about, try working at it as if you already are. I think you might surprise yourself.

 

My third lesson is a reminder of what this is all about.

As you’re putting in this work, I hope you remember what it’s all for. Professional success, financial success—they’re the most overt kinds of success. But they will never be the most important.

I learned that in 1994 — when I made the single best decision I ever made, which also happened to be terrible for my career at the time. Back then, I’d been put on track to become a partner at Deloitte. From the outside, I was thriving. But in quieter, far more important ways, I was breaking down. My relationship had ended. I’d put on a bit of weight. And I’d completely lost sight of that passion I’d come to feel for my work.

I decided that I needed a break. Back then, taking a “sabbatical” was not a thing anyone at Deloitte ever did. People told me I was crazy. They said, “You get one chance at becoming a partner, and you’re passing it up. Who knows if you will ever get that chance again.”

But I did it anyway. I took a break — got some distance. I played golf, I travelled, I was a bit of a bum.

One day, I was at a restaurant and a woman working there caught my eye—my wife. I asked her out. She said no. With some persistence, she changed her mind. Soon after, I was going to India to visit my parents. I asked her if she would meet me in England on my way back. Again, she said no. I bought her a ticket anyway and told her I’d come to the airport when the plane arrived. “If you’re there, you’re there,” I said, “If you’re not, I understand.” She was the last person off the British Airways 747 from Seattle.  

This year, we’re celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary. When it comes to professional and financial success, we know what we have to do: Put in the work. Make sacrifices. Take risks. That year, I decided to apply that to my personal life, too. And it’s one of the things I’m proudest of.

I know that most of us focus first on professional and financial success to the exclusion of everything else. But I think that’s the gravest mistake one can make. It is clear to me: when I’m looking back on my life, the most important measure of it will be what my loved ones — my parents, my wife, my son — think of me. What my son thinks of me when he becomes a man will define me.

When you leave here today, the most important thing you leave with will not be that fancy piece of paper. It will be the people who supported you in attaining it. As you go build your lives, I hope you keep them at the center.

 

Conclusion

I know you have lots of celebrating to do with those very people. So, I will finish. But before I go, I want to leave you with one last hope—not only for you, but for the society you’re about to go help shape.

I think immigrants who come to this country with fresh eyes, have a unique ability to see what is so very remarkable about their adopted homeland. They notice things like the streetlights overhead and see them for the small miracles they are. They know how very rare it is in a society for success to be achievable by anyone... and they realize what incredible prosperity that creates for everyone.

We should all be so lucky to see the world through that lens and recognize every day what a gift it is to live in a society like this. The freedoms we have, and the possibilities open to us, are rarer than most of us even realize. And I believe that when those freedoms are challenged—not just for us, but for anyone living in this country, it is up to every one of us to step up and defend them.

Class of 2019, with this degree, you have achieved greater educational success— and set yourselves up for greater professional success—than the vast majority of humanity. My deepest hope for you is that you use your power to create communities where that kind of success is open to everyone. That it won’t be predicated on whether you come from a certain place, or you look or speak a certain way. That, in the greatest tradition of this country, success will be available to anyone who reaches for it. 

You are here today because you were given a gift: the gift of a Willamette education. It’s been invaluable in my life, and I can’t wait to see the lives, careers and communities you build with it. I’ll be keeping tabs. Congratulations again.

renjen250x250.jpgBorn and raised in India, Punit Renjen is a 1987 graduate of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. Renjen is Deloitte Global CEO and, through a career spanning more than 30 years, has held numerous leadership roles within Deloitte. A former member of the Willamette University Board of Trustees, Punit is active on a number of boards and currently serves as Chair of The United Way Worldwide Board of Trustees. He was named among the 100 most influential business leaders who have graduated from schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International. He is married to Heather and they have a son.

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