Arlington Nonprofit Executive Defines Extraordinary Life

December 21, 2010 - Carolyn Mentesana (‘84), Executive Director of the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the Arlington community, was the speaker for the College of Business December 2010 commencement ceremonies held Sunday, December 19.
Serving as the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation’s first executive director, Ms. Mentesana brings more than 25 years of philanthropy, marketing and communications experience to her role. Her responsibilities include overseeing the strategic priorities and results for the foundation and for facilitating relationships with local charitable and community partners. Before joining the foundation, Ms. Mentesana worked for the Kimberly-Clark Corporation where she was vice president of their corporate foundation and a senior member of the corporate communications team. She led corporate community affairs programs at Northrop Grumman’s Aircraft Division and also served as executive vice-president of the Grand Prairie Chamber of Commerce.


The following is the transcript to Carolyn Mentesana’s commencement address.

“Live an Extraordinary Life”
Commencement Address
UT Arlington College of Business
December 19, 2010

Class of 2010, distinguished guests, faculty, friends, family and proud parents of today’s graduating class, I am deeply honored to be here today and to play a small part in your celebration.

However, when Dr. Gray asked me to be here today my first reaction was—really, me?

Commencement speeches are reserved for important people—presidents, CEOs, senators, actors—even comedians—So, why me?

Frankly, before I accepted, I grappled with what I might have to say that was meaningful, or inspiring, or somewhat insightful.

And besides, clearly they were asking the wrong person—I mean my 8-year-old doesn’t even listen to me.

I thought about other commencement speakers—my goodness, in the last few years alone, UTA graduation classes have sat before former First Lady Laura Bush and esteemed journalist Bob Schieffer—and even my good friend, local news anchor and fellow UTA alum, Karen Borta...

Graduates around the country have been privileged to hear from the great filmmaker Ken Burns, innovator extraordinaire Steve Jobs, the incomparable Meryl Streep—even Harry Potter’s mother, J.K. Rowling.

I saw all those famous names and thought, well I can’t compete with that—maybe, though, there is something of value I can say, some wisdom I can impart.

So I did a quick Google search and, sure enough, soon discovered that while I might not have the name recognition of many commencement speakers, I can surely beat the advice that’s been given from many podiums.

Here are few bits of advice given to graduating classes over the years:

“If someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then you’ll be one of the unemployed as opposed to the’s better to have something on your resume rather than nothing...”—that, from Steven Colbert.

And, more than a decade ago, a Chicago Tribune columnist famously advised graduates to wear sunscreen, floss, get to know your parents and take care of your knees.

And, in a commencement speech to his alma mater, Yale University, President George W. Bush congratulated students who received honors, awards and distinctions, and told those with "C" averages that they, too, could become President of the United States some day.

Frankly, I can really identify with that remark from our former President.

So, if you’ll allow me, I am going to blatantly steal a line or two from him, and officially begin by commending those graduating with honors and say to those of you with “C”, too, could deliver a commencement address to UTA’s College of Business some day!

In truth, I accepted the invitation because, while I may not be famous, I think I have a story to tell and it’s my sincerest hope that you might take away a thing or two from my journey.

Do you remember the very first person who told you that it takes a lot of hard work to accomplish great things—or the person who wisely said that mistakes are lessons to learn from—or maybe the one who dared to suggest that you are what you eat?

Probably not.

We don’t remember these kinds of things the first time we hear them because we haven’t experienced them.

So what I have to share with you today may simply be words in the air—but it is my hope that I am just one of many people you come tell you the same thing.

And here it is: You can live an extraordinary life.

Let me say that again—you can have an extraordinary life.

Not just an ordinary life. An extra-ordinary one.

So what comes to mind when I say that?

That one of you is the next Bill Gates, waiting to become one of the world’s richest people?

Or several of you will be CEO’s of multi-billion dollar companies?


But that’s not what I mean.

No, I mean something far greater than that.

If my challenge to you to live an extraordinary life seems daunting, I understand. I understand more than you know.

I sat where you’re sitting. In this very building. I graduated from UTA’s business school in 1984.

But I have to admit that I haven’t got the vaguest idea who the commencement speaker was...
And, that’s not the only thing...I remember virtually nothing about that day.

That’s because I was too busy praying—that’s right, praying. Praying that I actually passed macro-economics on my fourth try...

Yep, it took me four times to get past that class—took it, dropped it, failed it, took it.

There was no graduating without a passing grade in macro...

And to top it off, it was my last final in the last semester of my senior year...and, after completing the test, I left the room with a sick feeling in my stomach...

Now, back in the dark ages—before email—the school allowed everyone who should be eligible to graduate to actually participate in the graduation ceremony...

However, if for any reason, you had not successfully completed the requirements for your bachelors, the envelope you were handed as you crossed the stage would notify you that you had not received your diploma and would, instead, contain a letter explaining what to do next.

It still gives me chills to think about it...
I waited until Texas Hall was almost empty to open that envelope...and I’ll never forget the feeling when I knew I had it—
I had a BBA from UTA—and no one could take it away from me.

So did I know back in 1984 that I was destined to live an extraordinary life? Not in the least.

What did I know? Well, I knew a lot!

I knew how to register for classes to ensure that I got the right class in the right semester.

I knew how to juggle three jobs...

I knew how to find the last possible parking spot and still make it to my 8 o’clock class...

I knew how to run a winning bed race—how to rush a sorority and how to buy and sell used books...

And, as soon as I opened that envelope, I also knew I had a mountain of financial debt to unload...

And I knew I had to find a job.

If I’d had enough awareness to actually listen to the commencement speaker that day—and he or she had told us to go out and live an extraordinary life, I think my response would have been, “No thanks, right now I have to focus on going out and buying an extraordinary interview suit.”

Maybe you feel the same way right now. I understand!

So what is an extraordinary life? You’re business school graduates now, looking to enter the workforce and to be a success.

Here’s how you might describe an extraordinary life:

Working at the highest level of Corporate America with C-suite executives of Fortune 150 companies;

Flying around the country on private corporate jets;

Meeting and socializing with famous people;

Getting special VIP access to places where the general public isn’t invited;

And, to top it off, making pretty good money.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? That was my life, not too long ago.

I worked with and around corporate executives at a $20 billion global consumer products company.

It was a “pinch me, I’m dreaming” kind of a job.

Corporate jets—global travel—pitching public relations and marketing strategies to the executive committee—access to great places (somewhere out on the Internet is a picture of me, the CEO of Kimberly-Clark and my colleagues ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange)—and meeting famous people—Colin Powell, the late Governor Ann Richards, Paul Newman, Martha Stewart—and I confess that while I don’t typically get star struck, I blushed like a teenage girl when I met John F. Kennedy, Jr. at a charity event.

And yes, I was making good money—not Richie Rich money, but well enough.

That was my life.

Was it extraordinary? By most people’s measure, yes!

I was making all A’s in life. I was bringing home a really good report card!

And I was grateful to have it. I felt blessed.

I bet you can see where this is going, can’t you?...Despite my outward success, with each passing year I felt more empty—more unfulfilled—increasingly unhappy—more stressed.

So, graduates, you might be thinking: Are you telling me NOT to go out and find a great job—NOT to make great money̵NOT to meet famous people and work at the highest levels of corporate America?

Not in the least.

So what am I saying?

I’m saying pull out your report card.

You’ve just completed an education in an institute of higher learning—but, do you remember your report cards in grade school?

This is my daughter’s report card. She’s in fifth grade. Her report card is a standard format that millions of children and parents in America see every six weeks or so.

Across the top of the page are the grades for major subjects. It shows how she did in Math, Reading and so on (pretty good, by the way, on this one—all A’s and a B).

Then there is a box below for life skills. Things like teamwork, organization and problem solving skills, class participation, etc.—these don’t get grades like A, B or C, but rather an evaluation of “Exceeds” or “Acceptable” or “Needs Improvement.”

The thing about these two sections is that they work in tandem. Those tangible results from Math and Science are the result of the intangible skills of attitude, teamwork and organizational talents.

For so long, I had judged my professional life only on the grades—the compensation, the title, who I knew and where I went—and I was making all A’s.

But I have to tell you, the letter grades alone will not satisfy you for the long run.

The key to leading an extraordinary life is balancing the letter grades—your income, your job, your career—with those intangible aspects of your life that enrich your spirit and enrich those around you.

Here’s my question for you today: What else do you want on your report card?

It doesn’t matter how you answer—it’s no one’s report card but your own.

Other than your grades, by what other measure do you want to judge your life? Here are a few ideas...

You might measure the success of your life...

By the health of your relationships with the people you love;

By how much you inspire those around you to be their best;

By the amount of grace you extend to people who are different than you;

By how much you are willing to give of yourself to others;

By focusing not on who you know, but on who needs you;

By how much you sing in the shower;

By how much you are willing to bring people together when others seek to divide;

By the ratio of texting to old-fashioned face-to-face conversations.

As for me, in the two decades since I sat in this hall praying over the contents of that envelope, I’ve readjusted my report card a number of times using differing measures.

Two years ago, I made a drastic decision to change my metrics and placed heavier weighting on the basic needs of my children and less on bank accounts and business jets.

I chose to change the course of my career so I could chart a more meaningful path for my life.

As a result, I took a job closer to home and closer to my heart.

I am in a position where I am mixing my passion for philanthropy with my business experience.

I’m part of an organization I believe will benefit the city and its citizens for generations to come.

And, since Arlington is my hometown and the place I am raising my children, I have a vested interest in this job in a way that helping sell Kleenex in China can’t match.

As executive director of the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, I’ve left the corporate sector for the charitable field, but I continue to be professionally satisfied in a career that meets my personal objectives.

That’s not to say that—from time to time—I’m not tempted to go back to the days of bigger paychecks and fancier offices.

Just four months ago, my commitment to the new scorecard was tested when I was unexpectedly offered a lucrative position with a well-respected, Fortune 150 corporation based here in Dallas.

And, as exciting as it was to be recruited for a job which, six or eight years ago, I would have accepted in a nano-second, ultimately, I knew the balance of my life required that I stay the course for the moment.

As time progresses, I fully expect to configure the card again, to adjust it for the stages of my life, the changes in my family, and in reaction to the new opportunities which may present themselves.

By now you know that my time at UTA was not marked by academic excellence. But I am better for what I received here—UTA gave me the confidence to pursue a professional career beyond my wildest imagination.

However, I’m achieving extra-ordinary scores on my new report card because—for the first time in my career—it reflects the sum total of all the components of my life:
  • my faith
  • motherhood
  • a full partnership with a man I adore
  • richer relationships with family and friends, and
  • service to my community

Today marks a special moment in your life—you’ve accomplished something meaningful. You’ve proven what’s possible with perseverance and fortitude.

After years of following the syllabus, you’ve each proven yourself academically.

Now, as college graduates, you have the opportunity to create a new scorecard—one that uniquely defines you, incorporates your values and serves as a compass which will guide you through the stages of your life.

Developing it will require that you are intentional about what items you place on your cards and what weight you assign them.

Getting the honorary extra-ordinary diploma in life will take more than good grades. It requires developing a set of honest metrics to ensure you’re focusing on the important matters of life for today and beyond.

So, Godspeed, College of Business Class of 2010. Congratulations on your achievements! My prayer for all of you is that—from this day forward—you receive honors in the scores of life and love. Thank you.