Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo (BSBA ’97), founder and CEO of Zaia Ventures, gave this keynote address when UNC Kenan-Flagler celebrated the graduation of the Undergraduate Business Program Class of 2023. Read a profile of Ojo here.
Wow! Wow! Wow!
You have to give me a sec everyone.
This is a major full circle moment for me because while I graduated from Kenan-Flagler, I did not attend graduation. That was because I was an immigrant, so it was a significant financial burden on my family for me to attend here. I loaded up on credits and graduated a semester early in December, and I didn’t want to walk in May because it would put pressure on my family to spend even more money to travel here and watch me receive my degree. So I stayed away from one of the biggest moments of my life that I worked so hard to achieve.
So when I received the invitation to speak, they didn’t know they were giving me the opportunity for a do-over. Thank you, Deans Shimul and Jordan! I wrote this speech imagining what I would go back and say to my 20-year-old self. Given you’re all at the same life stage, I hope the lessons prove meaningful to you, too.
First, congratulations!!! You did it! The early mornings, late nights, interviews, group meetings, projects and presentations, exams. You made it! You graduated! And you will never, ever, ever be this broke again.
Now, for the good stuff. Let’s get to the life hacks.
Lesson 1: Girl, you know how you worked really hard for two years studying accounting? Well, it turns out you hate it. But that is okay because the fundamentals you learned at Kenan-Flagler carried you through and you switched to a career in brand management.
That decision ends up being the single best decision of your career and you end up being the global president of COVERGIRL and the global chief marketing officer of Coty Consumer Beauty, MAC Cosmetics and Amazon Prime Video.
The truth is that you’ll never be the best in the world at something you hate. So be fearless in pivoting if/when the occasion arises. Find something you love enough to put in the work it requires, and you’ll be surprised at how easily your gift is recognized.
Lesson 2: Live below your means. You’re going to start making some money now and you’ll be tempted to do all the things. Big house, big car, nice clothes, nice trips – all the things – and you deserve it. Just remember that if you make it all and spend it all, it will significantly reduce your willingness to take risks.
To be successful on your terms, you will need to take quite a few risks. One such example was coming out of business school when I could have started a career in consulting or investment banking making at the time about 50% more than brand management. I took the risk in the short-term making less because I knew I would probably not be the best in the world at a career I didn’t love. But if I went into a career I loved, even if I started out making less, I wouldn’t do so for long.
Think about it, no matter what you choose, if you become one of the best in the world at it, you’ll be well compensated. So take the bet! The more financially prepared you are for those risky life bets, knowing they will undoubtedly come, the more likely you will be to take them when they do.
Lesson 3: Your difference is what makes you special. Your career is a like a pyramid. The bottom of the pyramid is wide and broad and everyone is welcome. Assimilation takes you far and because there are so many of you, you undervalue your differences. However, with each step up the pyramid, the numbers get fewer and fewer – and surprise, the game changes and the rules change. What brought you this far may not take you farther. Many careers cap in the murky middle because they don’t realize that the game (and rules have changed). But the top of the pyramid is very, very small. A lot smaller than the bottom. And only the different ascend. Because mathematically, everyone can’t make it to the top.
So why you? The sooner you tap into what makes you different, the clearer you will be able to show to yourself and others why you should go up the ladder (if that is what you desire). Your sameness gets you in, but your difference takes you farther. Your difference is what makes you special. Find it. Value it. Nurture it. And figure out how to demonstrate it.
Lesson 4: Everything in nature has a rhythm – and you’re no exception. Ocean waves crash in, then they retreat. Winter and summer, night and day, high tide and low tide – and the machine at the hospital shows your breath in highs and lows. If you ever see a flat line, life is over. Not to be morbid, but I want you to accept upfront that life will have highs and lows; it is the reason you’re alive and you share that rhythm with every other form of life.
There is no such thing as a storm that lasts forever. Every storm, no matter how big or powerful, passes. Don’t be tempted to extend the highs longer than they’re meant to last or conversely, believe that the lows will last forever. Expect the highs and lows rhythm of life and you’ll live a more contented life.
Lesson 5: Love is worth fighting for. The highs of life are easy. Friendship is easy to find, support is constantly flowing, and you feel like you’re invisible. How do you get through the lows? Love. Unconditional love is how you get through the lows. But you have to be careful because the large network of friends, support and advocates in your highs will make you feel like love is easy to find, easier to replace and indispensable.
But like I spoke about earlier, the lows will inevitably come and it is those who love you the most who will be responsible for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. If you know this ahead of time, you will resist the temptation to take them for granted during your highs. You will make space (and time) for them, love them passionately and sacrificially. Once you’ve found love, fight like hell to keep it. Above the job, above the accolades, above the spotlight. Love them in the spotlight and in the shadows. Love them always.
Lesson 6: Believe in something bigger than you. With all this talk about how special you are, you may start to believe you’re a superhero and it can be easy to forget who made you and why they made you. Who made you? Why did they make you? Why on earth are you here?
For me, I found those answers in my Christian faith and that served as the anchor for my life. This anchor kept my pride in check during the highs and kept me from sinking during the lows. It gave me a picture of who I was and what I was on earth to do and gave me the courage to align my life with that vision. What is that for you? Find it and let it anchor you.
And finally: I want you to know that it all ends well. You get to come back to Kenan-Flagler as the commencement speaker to let them know it will all end well for them too. Yes, it will all end well for you, too. You can confidently go into the rest of your lives and careers knowing you will be incredibly successful at whatever you put your mind to. You showed up winning 200-300 million started toward the egg at the once in a lifetime chance (literally) to be you. Only one made it: you.
Out of the pool of almost 60,000 applicants that applied to get into UNC-Chapel Hill, only 16.8% made it – and that included you. Then out of that, only a small percentage of those who made it into UNC-Chapel Hill made it into Kenan-Flagler – and that included you. You made it through all those gates – yes, you!
And you are now in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School graduating Class of 2023. Don’t you see? You are the top of the top of the top of the top. Surely, you believe you can be the absolute best at anything you put your mind and effort into. I can’t wait to watch it happen. We will be right here, cheering for you. Rooting for you. Go get ‘em, Tar Heels!!!!