VCU Commencement

May 14, 2016
Richmond Coliseum

Thank you, Provost Hackett. Good morning!

It is an honor and pleasure to be with you this morning, and to celebrate the achievement of your commencement. This begins a new chapter in your lives. And it is also a new chapter in the progress of humanity.

That’s because — among our graduates — there is remarkable talent and a stunning capacity to achieve what has long thought to be impossible. This is proven every day by thousands of your fellow alums who graduated before you and who have made a tremendous impact on society; they touch millions of lives.

As I was driving in this morning, I was thinking about a man who had many talents, a man named Louis Soutter. He studied engineering in Lausanne, architecture in Geneva, the violin in Brussels, and painting and drawing in Paris. He worked in higher education for a time, in the theater, he played in an orchestra, and he was such a prolific artist, it’s estimated that he produced 2,000 paintings and drawings in the final years of his life. Many of them were done on wrapping paper, used envelopes, in the margins of books — wherever and whenever the inspiration to create struck him.

Late in his life, Louis Soutter suffered from arthritis and near blindness, but he still was compelled to create. So he would paint using just his fingers.

His work was often evocative, moving and so revolutionary that it has inspired generations of contemporary artists who followed him. For Louis Soutter, there was nothing off limits, and nothing that was impossible for those who pursued it with passion and creativity.

He once said, quote: “If the impossible exists, I’m on its track.” That quote is written across one wall near the entrance to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

“If the impossible exists, I’m on its track.”

So what does that mean for you? What can you learn from a Swiss artist who lived more than a century ago?

For one, that you can do absolutely, unequivocally anything. Nothing is too hard or too far beyond what you can achieve. As graduates of one of America’s premier urban, public research universities, you have the chance and the charge to make the world a better place for people everywhere — because you can.

That is the nature of our research university: that anyone from any background can achieve in remarkable ways, that what we do here matters far beyond our campus boundaries, that the ways we innovate and our drive to create, cure, and solve problems are the best measures of our progress.

In your time at VCU, you’ve worked with faculty mentors and each other, connecting across disciplines and campuses as visionary and determined scholars for whom success means lives changed, not courses completed. And I am convinced that your talents and your resolve will forever change the human experience.

In the last few weeks, I’ve met with many of you as you’ve completed your final projects. What has impressed me most is the talent, creativity and professionalism you exude. You are confident and ready for the world. You will do more than compete in your field; you will forever change your field.

For you — as for Louis Soutter — the idea that something is impossible is absurd. You will pioneer breakthroughs in your fields. You will advance the human experience in remarkable ways. You will achieve what has been thought to be out of reach — until you came along. Humanity may not have figured it out yet…but you will.

If the impossible exists, you’re on its track. And I’m so excited about the future — because of you.


Now, I am privileged to introduce someone who is another great example of a VCU alumna for whom the word “impossible” meant nothing. Her name is Pam El, and she’s your keynote speaker this morning.

Pam graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from VCU in 1983. Now, she is the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the National Basketball Association — guiding the global marketing operation, brand development and advertising for the NBA, WNBA and NBA Development League.

That means she has gotten to work with the contingent of VCU players in the NBA, including most recently Briante Weber and Troy Daniels. That’s a pretty cool job that only one person in the world holds. And it’s Pam.

Before she went to the NBA, she held positions at internationally renowned corporations like Nationwide and State Farm, and at two of Richmond’s global marketing firms, at The Martin Agency and Siddall.

Pam has won numerous awards, including being named one of the “100 most influential women in advertising” by Advertising Age magazine.

We are so proud of Pam, and we are pleased she’s here today. Please join me in welcoming home Pam El.