Avon CEO Sheri McCoy's Commencement Speech

May 19, 2013

Thank you so much and congratulations to the class of 2013. I’m truly honored to be here today with the Stonehill family to take part in this graduation ceremony.

I remember being in your parents’ shoes last year watching my son receive his diploma, as I reflected on how time had flown by. I have to admit I was also a little hesitant about what my son’s future entailed. A year later, I am so grateful for what the Stonehill experience has given him—he is a confident, thoughtful young man…. successfully navigating the business world.

As a member of the Board of Trustees, I also feel a sense of stewardship and responsibility for the success of each and every student on this campus – in a way you’re all one of my kids. … But thankfully, I didn’t have to pay room, board and tuition for each of you.

Speaking at a commencement caused me to pause and reflect on my own college experience and how much the world around me has changed since then.

When I consider my journey from an 18-year-old student, to my current role as CEO of Avon, it’s clear that my college experience played a major role in shaping my life and my career.

But my education didn’t stop at graduation – I’ve continued to learn and grow and transform. And today I want to talk to you about your journey, and share some lessons I’ve learned that I hope are helpful to you.

I graduated from college in 1980. It goes without saying that you are graduating into a much different world. 

The economy remains less than certain. Entry level jobs can be hard to find. The traditional fallbacks of business school or law school no longer provide a guarantee of a good job. Many of you have significant student loans that you have taken on to pay for your education. And you live in a world of continuing geo-political tensions.

Indeed, you are graduating into an uncertain world. There are very real challenges that will impact you once you leave this campus. … But you also have opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago.

Technology—and particularly social media—allow you to communicate and connect with others in an immediate and impactful way. We no longer just talk – we tweet, we facetime and we skype. We no longer have to go to a library …. Now, you can google to find anything you need, 24 hours a day – and you don’t even need a computer. You have access to instant information, right at your fingertips on your smartphone.  

The global nature of our economy makes it so important to have an appreciation of the differences. Navigating different cultures, time zones, languages and business practices is now a very real part of the work day.

The good news is that Stonehill has also evolved in this area. Its focus on;…and commitment to… community service all over the globe— particularly its work in India—is helping prepare students for the increasingly global community….in which we now live.

The H.O.P.E. alternative spring break trips are a great example. From volunteering for neighbors here in the U.S.,…. in places like West Virginia and Arizona, ….to traveling to Peru or Nicaragua,…. those of you who have given selflessly of your time…. have started what I hope ….will become a lifetime of service and giving back.

There are other changes in the workplace that will impact you a little closer to home. Today there is more flexibility in gender roles where men are accepted as a primary parent and women as CEOs. You have the opportunity to set your sights high. As a working mom, I’m not sure that there is ever a perfect balance between work and life, but if that is a path you choose, you certainly have a good chance to be successful, and have your choice more readily embraced.

And importantly, there is an expectation that your generation—the so-called millennials—can and will make progress on many of the great societal issues of the day. … That’s especially true for Stonehill graduates.

You are privileged to have been part of a community whose core mission is to prepare individuals to help create a “more just and compassionate world.” Your education here at Stonehill hasn’t just prepared you to be leaders in business and industry—though many of you will excel at that. You have also been inspired to live a purpose-driven life….. one that is lived with integrity and in service to your community…. and to the world around you.

I’m confident that your generation will face our world’s greatest challenges, and that you will succeed.

 So, as you collect your diplomas today and prepare to step into this ‘real world’, I wanted to share with you three simple pieces of advice that might help you as you make your way:

  • First, continue to seek out mentors;
  • Second, be willing to take risks and step outside of your comfort zone;
  • And third, never stop learning.

Look around today and you’ll see the people who have supported, encouraged, and pushed you to this point in your life—your parents, your extended family, friends, classmates, professors and coaches. Each has played a role in your life. And some of them have mentored you.

Many of you have found your mentors here on campus. In fact, I actually have a mentor here on the Stonehill campus—Father Mark Cregan—he has offered me great support and encouragement over the past few years. And I am sure he has been a mentor to many of you!! So Father Cregan, we all thank you.

So whether you’re continuing in post-graduate work or entering the work force, I encourage you to continue to seek out mentors. Find people who see something in you that you might not see in yourself. And throughout your life, they can help you discover and explore your strengths and skills … and also identify areas for improvement.

In college, I was a textile chemistry major and I was mentored by the head of the textile chemistry department, Dr. Ronald Perry. He encouraged me to do something that I never would have done on my own—I wouldn’t have even imagined it was possible.

He urged me to apply to Princeton University to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering. There were many obstacles. I didn’t think I could afford it. My father had been laid off from his job as a pilot for Pan Am. So I was putting myself through school with a combination of scholarships and work as a resident assistant. And changing to chemical engineering was a major shift in focus that required me to do additional undergraduate work as well as graduate classes.

I was skeptical, and frankly, I was not sure I could do it. But Professor Perry saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time. I applied and was accepted, with a full scholarship. I worked hard—and it changed the course of my career, and my entire life. 

To this day, I am grateful for Professor Perry’s mentorship and for opening doors to me that I would never have found on my own. Throughout my professional career, I’ve developed mentoring relationships with people who have been able to give me an outside perspective. I’ve also had the opportunity to mentor others throughout my career ….and consistent with Stonehill’s mission of giving back …..I encourage you to do the same.

Mentors come in a variety of forms and they can offer support in many different ways. Sometimes they encourage…sometimes they offer a contrary point of view…sometimes they point out your shortcomings … and sometimes they just give you a push when you need it. And believe it or not some of my best advice on life and work has come from my sons, including my Stonehill graduate!

My second piece of advice is: Be willing to take risks. This often requires stepping outside of your comfort zone.  Don’t limit yourself by setting your sights too low or too narrowly.

This is especially important in today’s job market, where entry level jobs in the area you THINK you want to focus on may be hard to come by. I encourage you to take a broad view, be creative in thinking about how to transfer your skills, and be persistent. Sometimes, opportunities that seem crazy at first turn out to be the ones to jump on. 

This happened to me during my career at Johnson & Johnson. My boss asked me to take a job that was literally thousands of miles outside of my comfort zone. He asked me to go across the world to build the Asia Pacific Research and Development organization. At the time, I had three children under the age of six so a transatlantic commute didn’t seem realistic or practical.

And while it was very challenging, it turned out to be a fascinating and important time on a professional level.  And it worked out well from a family perspective.

Working in a completely different culture taught me that it’s okay not to know everything—you have to rely on other people to share their expertise, knowledge and insights with you. I learned to truly listen to the diverse perspective of others. And I gained terrific experience operating in the global world.

After that job, another executive encouraged me to make an even bigger leap into the unknown: to move from my familiar home in science and research into the world of marketing.

The problem was that I didn’t know ANYTHING about marketing. But, I did know how to lead and motivate a team of people—and I learned that the people in the marketing department knew all that I needed to know about the details of marketing.

If I had stayed in my comfort zone, I would have never learned to rely on and engage other people in the way that I did in that job. At the same time, I learned I was able to add value by providing a different perspective and bringing diverse ideas and approaches to the table as we looked at our marketing efforts. By trying and succeeding in new areas, I gained the confidence to continue looking for diverse experiences so I would continue to grow.

Soon, many of you will go to work at your first post-college job. You’ll START there, but you don’t have to STAY there—or even stay in the same field. I want to encourage you to experiment and to try different things. With my background in science, I started my career in research, which I fully enjoyed. But because I took risks and tried new areas, I had a much richer, diverse and fulfilling experience. If I had not pushed myself and taken some risks along the way, I would not be a CEO today.

I also volunteered and engaged in areas outside work – whether it was volunteering with non-profit organizations or joining women’s networks or helping out in my sons’ school system. Diverse experiences provided me with more insight about life.

This is a great time in your life to explore. Get involved in causes you care about, take a job in a field that interests you, even though it may be different from your major. And even if you take a job that is not your first choice, you can learn from it and go on to a new and different job over time. The richness of a variety of diverse experiences will make you a better person and a better leader.    (PAUSE)

And my final piece of advice is – never stop learning. Most of you will never again need to sweat through a finals week. … But it’s never too late to learn and improve. And sometimes your failures can be your best teacher.

When I first went to work out of college, I was an associate scientist doing research on breathable fabrics. We were testing new methods for measuring moisture vapor transmission—think athletic performance fabrics for Nike or Under Armour. I was totally focused on doing the very best job I could.

But I learned that it wasn’t just about delivering the results; it was also about HOW I contributed and added value to my team. After about a year, two of us were competing for a promotion. I had the best performance, but the other person got the job. I had been so absorbed in my work that I was not spending enough time being an engaged part of the bigger team. 

I had missed the opportunity to reach out to others to solicit their ideas and get their buy in.  I was clearly seen as a contributor but realized that to be considered a leader …… I needed to spend the time to develop and motivate those around me. I needed to have confidence in myself and the others needed to have it in me. From this experience, I learned to take a much broader view of how I could contribute and make a difference. 

Sometimes, we have a tendency to be so focused on getting the job done that we lose sight of the bigger picture. I’ve come to believe that anything you do to an extreme ….is a fault. You need balance—in what you do at work, and in what you do away from work—otherwise, you will narrow your view of the world.  

We often hear that really successful people also have high emotional intelligence—they understand that leadership is about HOW you do things as much as it is about WHAT you do. 

Today, the world is changing very quickly …….it’s impossible for people to absorb all of information available in a given area. What I look for in a new hire is an individual’s capacity to learn, connect the dots, and act as a true team player. That is why a commitment to constant learning is so critical and important to your future success.

And today, in my current role as CEO of Avon, I still rely on all three of these things.

I rely on mentors to help keep me balanced and provide an outside perspective that is both candid and unvarnished.

I take risk. Certainly I took risk in moving to my current job—leaving a company where I’d worked for 30 years to lead a turnaround effort in an industry that was new to me. Being a CEO requires me to do things that are outside of my comfort zone—like high visibility events—because I know it’s important and good for the company.

And I never stop learning—from my colleagues, my customers, and, sometimes, from my mistakes. 

So, whether you’re headed to graduate school, to a job in the private or public sector, or a job search while living at home with Mom and Dad, I hope you’ll find this useful advice.

In closing, consider this wonderful moment of graduation as not just the end of your college years, but the beginning of a life of learning and growing. Stonehill College has given you a wonderful foundation. Now it’s up to you to go out and build a great life.

 All my best to you, graduates of 2013—I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.