Jon Oringer, SEAS '98 and founder of Shutterstock, told graduates at School of Engineering and Applied Science Class Day on Monday that they should expect to fail in order to succeed.
“I'm not talking about the possibility of failure or even the probability of failure, I'm talking about the absolute 100 percent certainty that you will fail,” he said.
Oringer, the ceremony's keynote speaker, mentioned how he once founded four companies at the same time: a dating website, a will-creation website, an advertising company, and Shutterstock. Shutterstock was the only survivor.
He also talked about his entrepreneurial experiences at Columbia, where he earned a master's degree in computer science.
“I'm a little surprised I'm here. I wasn't exactly the model student,” Oringer said. “During the late '90s when I was a student here, I was coding websites by night, sleeping by day, and my grades were so bad I almost flunked out.”
“I used the Columbia servers to run an online advertising business,” he said. “A message flashed on my screen. It said, Your account has been blocked. Please see the dean.'”
Oringer's message about acknowledging stumbling blocks on the road to success resonated with some graduates, who said that they appreciated the realism he provided.
“His speech made me feel a lot better about things,” Sonia Bansal, SEAS '14, said. “You don't have to be the top fish at a school like Columbia. You will still succeed.”
Other speakers—such as Class of 2014 Council President Daniel O'Leary, SEAS '14, valedictorian Alden Quimby, SEAS '14, graduate student speaker Andrew Kang, SEAS '14, and SEAS Dean Mary Boyce—gave varied perspectives on the meaning of a Columbia engineering degree.
Quimby spoke about his decision to take a year off in order to work for a health care startup, which he said taught him the importance of accepting deviations in his preplanned trajectory.
Kang's speech elicited laughter from the audience when he compared graduating to waking up with a hangover.
“For years, we've gotten really drunk on the incredible opportunity of Columbia Engineering,” Kang said. “Now that the party is over, we have to deal with the consequences.”
Boyce said that the graduates are entering the world at a time when the value of engineering has never been higher.
“You are each graduating from Columbia University with a degree in engineering and applied science at a time when the power of engineering has never been more evident,” she said. “This really is the age of engineering. Every day we see how innovations of engineering are meeting basic human needs.”
During the ceremony, the co-chairs of the Senior Fund also announced that the class of 2014's senior gift had totaled $33,168—almost six times the previous record, set by the class of 2013.
As at both Barnard's commencement and School of General Studies Class Day, a group of graduates wore red tape on their caps to show support for student activists who have been pushing for changes to Columbia's sexual assault policies.
“A friend of mine said it would be really good to show solidarity from a bird's-eye-view as a visible symbol,” Claire Kao, SEAS '14, who was one of those who wore red tape, said.
“Columbia needs to speak out on these issues,” Hussayn Meghji, SEAS '14, who also wore red tape, said. “I wish that I saw more red out of the graduates.”
A high point during the ceremony came when the father of Ruby Robinson, SEAS '14, made a surprise appearance onstage as she was handed her diploma. Robinson had not expected her father to be present, as he was expecting to be deployed in Afghanistan.
Appearing onstage in his fatigues as his daughter's name was called, the father embraced his daughter, and families watching on the screens to each side of the stage cheered for the reunion.