Ruth Owades ’66

"Dare to Succeed"

May 18, 2013

Good Afternoon! President Bettison-Varga, trustees, faculty, parents, friends and graduating seniors. It is an extraordinary honor to be on this podium today — and to look out at Elm Tree Lawn, at 200 accomplished, confident, dynamic, Scripps women. Brava to the Class of 2013!

First and foremost, I commend you on the decision you made four years ago to attend this very special place and become The Scripps Class of 2013. And, parents, I applaud you for supporting that decision — emotionally and financially. You have made a wise investment.

As I look back on my own education and business career, I know that coming to Scripps College was the most important decision I made; and it was by no means obvious that this would be possible. My father died when I was a child and my immigrant mother struggled to find work and raise my brother and me. I held after-school jobs from the time I was 12. So I knew there were no funds for college. Luckily, I have a brilliant older brother whom I idolized. He had won a big scholarship to Caltech, inspiring me to at least try for the college education I dreamed about. When I learned that I had been accepted and awarded the largest scholarship Scripps had ever offered, I felt like Cinderella trying on the glass slipper — now, everything was possible. For me, Scripps — with its Humanities Program, small classes, superb faculty, beautiful campus and Denison Library — was a dream come true.

What a joy it is for me to have funded an endowed scholarship to enable young women like me to attend Scripps now. (These days when a friend wants to offer me a gift for a special occasion, I ask instead for a contribution to my scholarship fund. There is no greater gift.)

You may be surprised to learn that when I arrived on this campus as a freshman, I was overcome with fear that I couldn’t make the grade — academically or socially. Everyone else seemed so smart and sophisticated and had attended great prep schools or very good public schools.

I had graduated from a public high school in East LA where only a handful of our graduating class of 120 went on to college. How could I possibly hold my own? And, if that weren’t enough to undermine my confidence, it seemed that everyone had such fabulous clothes! I had never seen so many cashmere sweaters. I realized then, and many times since, that fear could paralyze me or it could propel me forward.

I decided that I should try to meet with the professor who oversaw our Humanities Program. Dr. Robert Palmer was the most imposing awe-inspiring academic any of us had ever encountered — quoting Homer and Aristotle regularly.

I told him that I was having trouble weaving together all the threads of our Humanities lectures and I needed help. I half expected him to order me out of his office and tell me — “You don’t belong at Scripps, Ruth.” But he didn’t say that. He suggested that I get a group of 4 or 5 of my freshman friends together and we could meet once a week in his office to review the week’s lectures and readings. And so we did.

Every Tuesday at 4 o’clock my Browning Hall friends and I would go to Dr. Palmer’s office and sit at the feet of the master, soaking up his brilliance and his insights. Clearly, if I hadn’t been so afraid of failing and if I hadn’t pushed through my fear to ask for help, I never would’ve learned what I did.

My friend Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, describes a large poster there that reads “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I would rephrase that question just a bit, to ask “What would you do/would we all do, if we acknowledged our fear, embraced it, deciphered it, and then cast it away, moving well beyond it?”

My high school didn’t teach French and I was determined to learn it, so at Scripps I studied Comparative Literature and French. I dreamed of winning a graduate grant to study in France. I had become enamored of French theatre and playwrights.

At the beginning of my senior year, I learned about the Fulbright program and went to see Dr. Palmer, now my advisor. I told him that I wanted to apply for a Fulbright grant to study French theatre. He looked at me with empathy and explained the reasons this was an unlikely scenario. Indeed, we had not yet seen a Fulbright winner on campus, so history was not on my side. Dr. Palmer told me that these grants were awarded geographically by state and California had more than its share of accomplished applicants. Second, fewer awards went to girls (thankfully, this has changed!).

And third — and I’ll never forget the look in Dr. Palmer’s eyes as he told me — “Ruth, everyone wants to go to France. Can’t you pick a less desirable country?” Well, of course I couldn’t! How could I study French theatre in another country?

I left his office dejected, wondering what to do. The application was daunting. The next morning I knew — that if I didn’t apply, I would certainly not get the grant. I had to TRY. For me, TENACITY was becoming a key component of success.

My Fulbright year in France was glorious! I was in Paris and Strasbourg, studying with the playwright Ionesco, a master of the theatre of the absurd.

I want to take a moment now to congratulate the 8 Fulbright Scholars in The Scripps Class of 2013! We are so proud of you!

I am a firm believer in the value of a liberal arts education as a basis for whatever path you chose. Certainly, that was one of the reasons I plunged ahead a few years later and applied to the Harvard Business School. I knew I didn’t have all the requirements, but I had faced that situation before. I WAS accepted.

My first day there, the Dean of Admissions called me in. He told me that I was part of an experimental group. “For the first time” the Dean said, “we’re admitting 3% of the class with a purely liberal arts education. We’re calling you ‘the Poets’. You don’t actually meet the entrance criteria, but we think you have promise.” (He encouraged me to ask for help — tutors were available.)

Only 10% of my business school class was women and that made it tough too. It was clear to me that to succeed, I needed to make the most of my strengths and try to overcome my weaknesses. My Scripps grounding was a constant resource.

It was here that I gained the self-confidence to compete, where I learned the skills to analyze and synthesize data, to deal with ambiguity and to take risks. And, perhaps most importantly, it was here that I learned to ask questions and to express myself clearly. So, just maybe, being a “Poet” at Harvard Business School — and everywhere — could be an advantage.

Today at Harvard Business School, more than 40% of the entering class have liberal arts educations and, finally, 40% of the class are women. (Many of us have worked hard to make that happen.)

I had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur when I finished business school, but circumstance intervened. I was hired as marketing director for a large retail conglomerate in Boston. There I had the idea for a catalog of garden tools and accessories, which hadn’t been done before. The chairman was enthusiastic about my concept and gave me the green light.

But, after 6 months of my energetic activity, the 9 male division presidents were letting the chairman know that they weren’t happy that he had hired the first woman manager and she was starting something new and different.

My catalog was cancelled. I was devastated. I held it together that awful day at the office — I didn’t cry — until I got home that evening and told my husband what had happened. He waited until I finished and then he asked an important question: “Why don’t we do it?” He really meant, “Why don’t YOU do it?” — he had a full time job. But he was smart enough to know that changing that pronoun made me feel better about the enormous challenge that lay ahead.

So, once again, I started out on a new, scary adventure. I named the company Gardener’s Eden and started it on a shoestring. But after just 3 years, Williams-Sonoma called to ask if I would be interested in selling the company and relocating to San Francisco, where they were headquartered. They would provide the resources to build the business.

My husband and I moved to the Bay Area and I ran Gardener’s Eden for Williams-Sonoma for 5 years — building the catalog business, expanding into e-commerce and opening retail stores. And, then I decided it was time for a change.

I took a year off, during which I conceived of the idea to start a fresh flower catalog and e-commerce business. I liked gardening, but I LOVED flowers. The floral industry had a cumbersome chain of distribution. I wanted to shortcut it and eliminate the middlemen by shipping the flowers direct from the grower to the consumer by Federal Express, saving time and saving money.

I would call it Calyx & Corolla — 2 botanical parts of the flower. Many so-called experts in the field told me that I was doomed to fail. But, by then I knew that if I didn’t TRY, I would always wonder if the concept was viable. And, if it failed — if I failed — it was OK; at least I would’ve tried.

Calyx & Corolla was hugely challenging. We overcame obstacles I never imagined existed. But we learned to ship these fragile, perishable and beautiful blossoms through a partnership with the best growers and FedEx. And, today, most of the flowers in the US are sold and shipped in the way we pioneered.

My small management team was tight-knit, smart, and enthusiastic — and they were women. We worked very hard, but we had a great time doing it. I sold Calyx &Corolla to a financial group 10 years later.

I currently serve on corporate boards and have for a number of years. When I began, I was the only woman in the boardroom; now I am one of 2 or 3. We still have a long way to go to achieve parity in the boardroom and in the business world as a whole. My generation is counting on all of you The Scripps Class of 2013 to continue breaking down barriers across all the professions.

Our Founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, was passionate about education for women. In the mid 1800’s, she put herself through a few years of college and earned a certificate — women were not entitled to a 4-year education or a college diploma. Ms. Scripps never forgot this.

Her 2 brothers were in the newspaper business, but she was the “power” and the brains of that business. The EW Scripps newspaper chain was an enormous success and eventually made Ms. Scripps a wealthy woman. She believed wholeheartedly that her fortune should be used for the public good. What a role model!

In 1926, Ellen Browning Scripps founded our college. She wanted women to have the same opportunity to learn as men. And, when people ask you why you chose a women’s college, you might tell them that we didn’t choose just any women’s college; we chose THIS one.

Our founder’s English roots inspired her to embrace the concept of an Oxford-like campus, with multiple colleges sharing facilities and students sharing ideas. So the women she cared so much about would have the benefit of a co-ed environment, but thrive in small classes and immersion in the Humanities that would be uniquely ours. Ms. Scripps was smart enough to purchase much of the land on which the Claremont Colleges now stand.

Her extraordinary philanthropy also created the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the Scripps Clinic and Hospital, the Scripps Aquarium, the Bishop’s School, Torrey Pines State Park and so many public institutions of culture in her home town of La Jolla. In 1926, Ellen Browning Scripps was featured on the cover of Time Magazine! Not bad!

I think Ms. Scripps would be very pleased that the future of our beloved college is in the hands of our visionary president, Lori Bettison-Varga. And, I think Ms. Scripps would be thrilled at your accomplishments — you The Scripps Class of 2013!

When we arrive on this campus, we learn the school motto, Incipit Vita Nova — “Here Begins Your New Life.” Those words were appropriate for you 4 years ago and they are appropriate today. Commencement is a beginning.

At Scripps you have laid the foundation for the next chapter of your life — whether it is in the Boardroom or the Operating Room, the Classroom or the Courtroom — and always the Family Room, however we fashion it — know that you are well prepared to achieve your dreams.

And, one more thing, please look around you now — to your left and to your right — at your friends and classmates. Right here is one of the greatest gifts of these 4 years. I am amazed and so happy that I am still close to 12 wonderful Scripps classmates (and there were only 68 in our class). And, some of these precious friends are here today.

To The Scripps Class of 2013, thank you for letting me share this special day with you. Incipit Vita Nova! Here begins your new life.

Congratulations!

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