Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte was greeted with applause from an attentive audience when he spoke Saturday at Rocky Mountain College’s commencement.
None of the controversy that surrounded his choice as graduation speaker was evident at the afternoon ceremony.
The Fortin Education Center gym was packed with a standing-room-only crowd that came to celebrate the 240 graduates, dressed in black gowns with gold tassels hanging from their mortarboards.
They sat in lines of folding chairs on the gym floor. Faculty, wearing their more elaborate, colorful gowns, sat in rows behind the students.
Gianforte stepped to the podium after he was introduced by Rocky President Bob Wilmouth as someone who has been successful in assembling “both product and people in new and problem-solving ways to help advance human productivity.”
Wilmouth said the “annual dis-invitation season rolls across our country,” referring to other commencement speakers whose invitations have been withdrawn. That isn’t the case at Rocky, he said.
“We welcome our commencement speaker today because he earned merit in advancing the values of entrepreneurship,” Wilmouth said.
He encouraged the graduates to learn from Gianforte’s experience as one who “created opportunities and success for others.”
Gianforte founded the software engineering company RightNow Technologies. He sold it to Oracle in 2012 for $1.5 billion. The electrical engineer and computer scientist is now managing director of the Bozeman Technology Incubator.
But it was his life outside of work that sparked heated debate at Montana Tech, when Gianforte and his wife, Susan, were announced as the May 17 commencement speakers at the Butte college.
Some people took issue with the Gianforte Family Foundation’s 2009 donation to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which holds a biblical perspective on the creation of the world. Professors at Tech said those beliefs are at odds with science taught on the campus.
Susan Gianforte also spoke in opposition to a proposed ordinance in Bozeman that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
At Rocky, President Bob Wilmouth met with members of the Faculty Executive Committee in April to discuss the issue. That meeting resulted in the decision to retain Gianforte as speaker.
On Saturday, the successful entrepreneur applauded the graduates on reaching a significant milestone.
“Today you take a huge step from learning to doing, and every lesson and all the training you had, now it’s time to put it into practice,” Gianforte said. “That’s exciting.”
He told the graduates he wanted to share a few things he’s learned about work and life he hoped they’d find helpful. Gianforte boiled them down into four lessons.
“My wish and prayer is that each one of you will be able to live a life that will be deeply satisfying both professionally and personally,” Gianforte said. “But you’ll find that pursuit of happiness can sometimes get complicated.”
After his first day of work after college, he came home only to have his mother ask him if he could do the same job for 40 years. That question stuck with Gianforte and sent him on a quest to find a career that would bring fulfillment and purpose to his life, that would spark passion.
The first lesson he learned was to embrace challenge and discipline himself to work hard.
“Extremely hard work in pursuit of a worthy goal is inherently good and virtuous and worthwhile,” Gianforte said.
When he and his wife came to Montana almost 20 years ago, everyone told them they were crazy to start a global business. They said there wasn’t the capital, the bandwidth or the airlines the business needed.
“But the naysayers underestimated two things,” Gianforte said. “They underestimated the power of the Internet and they underestimated Montanans and their ability to get things done.”
Each of the graduates embodies that same potential, Gianforte said, and he encouraged them to treasure it and nurture it.
The second lesson, he said, is that satisfaction comes from making the most of one’s gifts. Some gifts come naturally and others require years of effort.
“If you pick a career that fully leverages your unique skills, you’ll be more proficient and ultimately more satisfied,” he said. “Just like a muscle, if you let your skills fall into disuse, they will weaken.”
Gianforte called himself a serial entrepreneur who hated the administrative side of his business. So he found someone else to handle that while he visited 250 customers in a year around the world.
“Being on the road most of the time was hard, but I loved it, and I loved it because I was good at it,” he said.
The third lesson, he said, is that satisfaction comes from serving others, and, ultimately, that’s the purpose of work. While a job brings needed money, it will never be the sole source of satisfaction, he said.
“You must find a noble purpose in the work you’re doing,” Gianforte said. “And I believe every job worth doing has a noble purpose of serving people.”
The fourth lesson, Gianforte told the graduates, is to seek a career that has the highest potential to serve others in great ways.
“Your entire life and career is stretching out in front of you,” he said. “I encourage you to do your best every day, at every step of the way. Each of you has been created to serve some noble purpose. And I encourage you to find out what that is and pursue it with passion.”