[Dear Class of 2020] Finding True North During These Trying Times


Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 17, 2020 by Earl Martin Valencia (Batch 8 – 2019)

This time of the corona virus has created a lot of confusion for a lot of people, including me. The uncertainty of the situation to our personal and professional life, especially its now been more than a month for most, has now taken a toll emotionally and physically for most. Sometimes, this is a time that self-doubt creeps in where you think of the choices you made in your life and see if this is exactly where you wanted to be.

While I was looking for inspiration on finding my “True North” during this time of reflection, my friend Paul Pajo reminded me of a commencement speech I gave more than 7 years ago to thousands of graduates of the University of Southeastern Philippines when they invited me as a commencement speaker during their graduation. USEP is one of the top 5 public universities in the Philippines in the city of Davao, the place where my grandparents lived, my dad and sister were born and I spent the first 5 years of my life.

I summarized my life advice to students in 3 major lessons:

  • First lesson – YOU are the only one that will determine your story.
  • Second Lesson: Be the best in the world at what you do – and maximize options
  • Last Lesson: Never Forget Where You Came From.

I realize more than ever, that sometimes instead of looking to others for answers, your friends will remind you that you already know the answers inside of you. I hope that this speech will also help some of you to reflect during these trying times.

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Here is the transcript of the speech that I gave to the students:

President Dr. Perfecto A. Alibin,

USEP Officials, Deans, Faculty, Staff,

Parents, Relatives, Friends,

Most Especially the Graduates –

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in front of the graduates of this institution. Actually, I always wished I had a degree from the Philippines, but after two years in UP, I found it too hard and moved to the US. So for all of you who are graduating today, I definitely envy all of you – because you are in the Philippines at the right time and most especially in Mindanao, which can potentially be one of the biggest growth engines of not just the Philippines but of the entire Southeast Asia. As what my dad always said to me when I was growing up, Mindanao is “the land of promise.”

Just a little about myself, my family is from Davao, my grandfather built his business here, my dad was born and grew up in Davao and I also spent the first five years of my life here in Davao. Thank you for inviting me USEP, it feels good to be back home.

Someone said, that no one ever remembers their graduation speaker. I hope today, you might not remember me or what I will be saying in the next 15 minutes, but I hope you will remember how you felt in your graduation day.

Regardless, what I want to say, before anything else, is to cherish this day, as this will be in your memories until the day you die. This is a culmination of all your academic work, the all-nighters that you had to do before an exam, and most of all a proud moment for all the people that supported you until today. Graduates, please standup, look back, and give your applause to the people that helped you get here today, your parents, teachers, family and friends.

Congratulations to all the graduating students today. I realize that it might be a difficult task to get here, as I heard from the YANO Facebook Group and video “Taga-USEP Ka Kung” on YouTube, that being a USEP student means that it takes hard work just to pass a subject, let alone have PE under the Acacia tree or having to brave both the flood and the long lines. These are all part of the USEP experience. Regardless, you will graduate today from one of the finest institutions in the Philippines, and the best university in Mindanao. But despite the fact that you are in a top school, never forget your values, na mga YANO lahat kayo – simple, matalino, maabilidad, iskolar ng bayan. (You are ‘YANO’ – simple, smart, a scholar of the nation)

My speech today consists of a number of stories; all linked to some of the life lessons I wish I knew when I graduated. I know most of you are excited, anxious, hopeful, scared or even sad, or a combination of all of these emotions. But in general, I hope I can impart lessons to you that you can take with you throughout your lifetime.

First lesson – YOU are the only one that will determine your story.

Most of the time, your professors, your grades, and your diploma are the ones that you think will limit your story. I have something different; no one in the world, besides yourself can limit your dreams.

When I was 16, I wrote down a list of achievements I wanted to make before 30, a list that I never thought I would achieve.

1. Get a girlfriend

2. Graduate with honors

3. Get a graduate degree

4. Go to Prague, Ibiza, and Cancun

5. Be an astronaut

6. Buy a BMW

If I followed what my professors and classmates told me when I was 16, I would never have achieved any of these. But what did I do? I did limit myself to what people told me what I was. Here’s an interesting fact, I didn’t even graduate in the top 10% of my high school class, as well as failed 1 class in college. This was my story, but I didn’t limit myself to how I was perceived when I was growing up. What I knew is that if I put my mind into it, worked hard and most especially never stop focusing on achieving this list, then things would magically happen.

In the end

1. I married my high school crush

2. I graduated top of my college class

3. I had 2 graduate degrees instead of 1

4. Travelled most of the world

5. Didn’t become an astronaut but worked on satellites

6. And bought a BMW with my own hard work

Never in my wildest dreams, especially marrying my high school prom date and high school crush, I thought I would come close to these things, but if I listened to everyone who said that these can’t be done, then I wouldn’t have tried.

Most of you today, are thinking, what if I have an English degree, and there are no teaching jobs, or an engineering degree and there’s no way but to go abroad, or the worst, is if you always wanted to start a business, but everyone says you should work first, think again. Your story cannot be architected by anyone else but you. You can be whoever you want to be. You have the luxury of being young. You have the privilege of being in a generation at which the world is looking to invest in the Philippines and believe that we could be one of the major growth drivers in the world. You can indeed make your story.

Second Lesson: Be the best in the world at what you do – and maximize options

Michael Jordan, one of my idols, and one of the top basketball players said one thing I would never forget: “I was aware of my success but I never stopped trying to get better.”

With being in this growth and a new world built on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the Internet and Mobile Phones, the world is indeed becoming flatter every day. This is the opportunity but also the curse of your generation. It is simply not enough to be the best in Davao, the best in Mindanao, or even the best in the Philippines, but try as much as possible to be the best in the world.

It is a cliché in graduation speeches that everybody says this line: “Do what you love, follow your passion.” As much as this seems repetitive, I am repeating this again to you. The only way to be the best in the world in something is if every day, you do something and you say I wish I would never stop doing this. This would just fuel the fire, and you will spend more time than any other person in the world doing this.

With myself, I was lucky, that I rejected what was at the time, a crazy proposition, a free PhD admission to MIT, the top engineering school in the world. Another one was a scholarship to have a free master program at the University of Illinois, the top 4 engineering school in the US. What I realized that it wasn’t right for me yet to do this. I instead, worked in R&D for a classified US project, went to masters in space systems, moved to 4 cities exposed to robots, planes, leading edge algorithm thinking, and got mentored at an early age by top senior executives in a Fortune 500 company.

This led me to realize what my passion was, the intersection of technology and the emerging markets, thus applied to the toughest business school to get into in the world, the Stanford business school.

As what I mentioned in the beginning, the goal is to be the best in the world. With my R&D and business background, I got into the Business incubation team of Cisco Systems at their global headquarters in Silicon Valley. For you who don’t know what Cisco does, it is what we call the “pipe of the internet,” it is how your data gets from your computer, to Facebook servers and back to your internet explorer. I lived in a world of unlimited bandwidth, thus unlimited imagination.

After more than 3 great years in Cisco, I got a text – that the Chairman of PLDT, Manny Pangilinan wanted to talk to me about technology innovation for the Philippines. If someone like that asks you to meet him, you go and just do it.

This bring me to the last point: Never Forget Where You Came From.

Gandhi, the national hero of India said something that I think about everyday: “Be the change you want to see in this world.” What was missing from my story, is the desire to come back home. Since I left the Philippines, I knew, someday, somehow, I would come back; I just didn’t know that it would be this soon.

When I was 21, during my first week at work, someone asked me where I was from. I said the Philippines. Again, they asked me “when did you move to the US because surely it was 10 years ago or so,” and I said less than 2 years ago. They all were surprised, not understanding how an immigrant from the Philippines can go head to head with PhDs and top engineers from all over the US. From that point, I realize one unfortunately reality – we, in the Philippines are not known to be good world-class scientists and engineers. I said, one day, I will create the change I want to see in my world, that in my lifetime, we will create the next big technology idea that would revolutionize the world. I hope this will also open opportunities for Filipinos to leave the country, even without leaving a Filipino company.

My discussion with MVP was such an inspiring one, that after a few months, I was on the way back home to the Philippines. After a few months of brainstorming with my co-founder Marthyn Cuan, CIO of Meralco, IdeaSpace was born. IdeaSpace is a non-profit foundation aimed to find and fund the best science and technology ideas, funded by the entire First Pacific Group of Companies, which includes PLDT, SMART, Meralco, Metro Pacific, IndoFood in Indonesia and First Pacific in HK with a commitment of half a billion pesos. The story actually was that we asked MVP for a billion pesos and in the end, we got half.

It’s amazing that if only you follow your heart and you are sincere, good things tend to happen. We got an amazing response, of close to 700 submissions for the 10 winners for our competition. Actually 4 projects from USEP made it to the top 40 and 1 team from Davao won the competition.

Again, what was inspiring in meeting all these technopreneurs from all over the Philippines, they too said yes to the challenge, they wanted to do something with their world and created inventions and innovations that hopefully will address the most pressing problems in their communities and most of the world. Most said, they simply wanted to make the lives of people better.

Maybe there is another, bigger, more impactful lesson here. Never forget that you are from USEP, Never forget that you are from a school in Davao, Mindanao and the Philippines. Some of you might leave this community, some of you might even leave the country, but I am hoping that you do intend to come back and ultimately give back. No matter what, this school and region made you who you are and will be a part of you forever. As what Jose Rizal famously said “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan” or

“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” Come back to Mindanao, come back to USEP. These 2 will be part of your life forever.

Graduates, you are embarking in probably the most exciting time in the Philippines today. You can be an employee, an entrepreneur, a technologist, a government official, a professor, all in your lifetime. I just hope that in the end, you remember my 3 major lessons: 1) YOU are the only one that will create your story 2) Be the best in the world 3) Never forget where you came from. These are the lessons, and even if you forget everything I said today, I hope you won’t forget the feeling of accomplishment you having made it and graduating from one of the best schools in the Philippines.

Congratulations. Thank you for the opportunity.