UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Former LinkedIn CEO urges optimism and career management to new MBA graduates


When Dan Nye asked for a show of hands of who had a LinkedIn profile, the new grads and their supporters in the Dean Dome looked to be doing The Wave.

With that, Nye, who recently left the CEO slot at LinkedIn Corp., established his credentials as keynote speaker for the MBA commencement on May 10. As it appeared every newly minted MBA had a hand in the air, Nye turned to Dean James W. Dean Jr. and said, “Dean, your graduates are well-prepared to enter the business world.”

Under Nye’s leadership, LinkedIn grew from eight million members to 34 million, annual revenue rose to nearly $100 million, and he strengthened the company’s balance sheet by raising almost $80 million from investors at a valuation of more than $1 billion.

With these accomplishments and his excitement about all that is happening in Silicon Valley, Nye could stand before the 288 graduates and exclaim, eight months after the bottom fell out of Wall Street, “Now is a great time to embark on a career in business.”

Nye’s message to the graduates touched on three ideas: optimism about opportunities, career management in a time of rapid change, and the importance of character and leadership.

The transition in today’s economy creates opportunities for entrepreneurs, Nye said. He urged graduates to take calculated risks, and follow career paths that fuel their passion, rather than those that are the most lucrative, prestigious or secure. Times of rapid change open more opportunities, he said, and he used his own career path as an example.

Nye graduated Hamilton College in 1988 into a paper-based, analog, non-networked world. But shortly before he received his MBA from Harvard in 1994, he heard a presentation by Apple Computer’s CEO John Scully about a device called the Newton. Imagine, Scully said, sending faxes from the palm of your hand.

“I felt I was seeing the future,” Nye said. He began cold-calling computer companies for employment, and finally got a bite. While his classmates left for Wall Street to apprentice, Nye headed to Texas to a temporary job paying $5 an hour with Dell Computer that set him on the road to Silicon Valley. The networked era had arrived.

In the 15 years since, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in the high-tech industry. High-speed Internet access, smart phones, GPS devices, Open Source software, nanotechnologies, HD-TV and flat-panel screens have emerged in that time span. The investments are continuing, and the landscape is continuing to shift as companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Kayak, Twitter and many others develop and create challenges for established incumbents. The information age is still in its infancy, Nye said. All industries are experiencing massive change, and technology is enabling this. Companies – and business leaders – must transform themselves to adapt and thrive.

“Change happens,” Nye said, “and you can play defense or offense. I leave it to you to decide which is more rewarding.”

Businesses will always expand and contract. Nye challenged the grads to manage uncertainty by taking calculated risks. There is no stigma in changing jobs; most people make five moves on average during their careers.

Finally, core values drive decision-making, Nye said, and he urged the grads to define their values and live by them. In a free-agent economy, you are your brand, he said. Set high standards, and the results will follow.

“The world needs you to solve serious challenges,” he said. “No class has had greater opportunities to make the world a better place.”