We were pleased to welcome Gregory Coleman ’91 back to campus to deliver the commencement address at Morgan Park Academy’s 148th graduation exercises on June 12, 2021.
Coleman is the CEO of Sworkit, a fitness technology company that provides personalized, convenient, and efficient workouts to any screen anywhere and is the leading platform for delivering dynamic exercise content.
He has more than 25 years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors and co-founded and led Sworkit from concept to a market leader in the digital fitness industry. Sworkit was identified as one of Fast Company’s “2017’s 10 Most Innovative Fitness Companies” and was also featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
Coleman also is a Senior Advisor and Principal in the Defense Innovation Unit’s National Security Innovation Capital, the venture-capital equivalent arm of the Department of Defense. In this role, he leads DoD’s investments in power and advanced energy companies.
He is a retired Air Force Colonel who served on both active duty and in the D.C. National Guard. He is a former squadron commander and command pilot with more than 3,500 flight hours and more than 60 combat and combat support missions in the Middle East and the Balkans.
Coleman serves on several boards, including the Montgomery County (Md.)Chamber of Commerce, The Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, and Leadership Montgomery. He earned an MBA in finance from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and also holds a B.S. in electrical engineering from the United States Air Force Academy.
He is a past recipient of Morgan Park Academy’s Young Alumni Award, which recognizes leadership and service to others.
“Do things that connect your gifts and your skills with the things that fill your soul. If you do that, you’ll be living on purpose and you’ll do meaningful things.”
Congratulations, Class of 2021!
It’s crazy to think that 30 years ago, I was sitting in these same seats, on this same campus, graduating from this same, amazing school. Just for context, your Upper School principal, Coach Drahozal, was a fairly new teacher here, in his first five or so years at the school. I remember this full head of long, blond, curly hair. Coach Pariso was a steady, supportive, and reliable presence in the athletic department. Your Director of Finance, Julie Cuadros-Perry, was a student, along with her sisters, while Vinson Williams, the Director of Athletics for Lower and Middle School, was a classmate and teammate of mine, sitting here with me.
I’ll tell you what I remember about that day. I remember that it was a blur because it went by so fast and there was so much to process. I remember feeling mixed emotions. I was excited to be finished but nervous about what awaited me at the Air Force Academy, because I actually had to leave for basic training three weeks after graduation.
I remember looking forward to having fun and celebrating with my friends. But there is one thing I do NOT remember. And that is who the commencement speaker was or what he said. Sorry, I’ve got nothing. All I remember is that THAT dude was between me and tossing my hat in the air and that I just wanted him to finish as quickly as possible.
So, my goal today is to do my best to share some honest, and hopefully relevant, thoughts with you so that maybe 30 years from now, you can look back on this day and reflect positively on the message, even if you don’t remember the messenger.
The first thing I want to talk to you about are your dreams.
I know you all have them, even if you don’t talk about them. You may broadcast them every day. You may just tell your friends about them. You may just tell your family about them. Perhaps you’ve even kept them to yourself for fear of how the world or those around you will respond to them. That’s OK.
But I know they’re there because I know the types of young men and women you are. You are not unlike my class from 30 years ago. You are not unlike any of the 29 classes since then. You are just like those other classes in that you are special. You are amazing men and women with bright, bright futures ahead of you…if you choose to pursue your dreams.
So, the first thing I’m going to ask you to do is nurture your dreams. Feed them. Give them detail. Give them actionable steps so you can move toward them.
If your dream is to be a neurosurgeon, give that dream detail. Visualize yourself in the operating room in your scrubs. Imagine looking at your degree hanging in your office. Imagine a day in that life.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, picture that first sale. Visualize closing that first million-dollar deal. What are you wearing? What color is the conference table you’re sitting at? What sort of car do you go get into afterwards? What does your house look like?
Maybe you want to be a social worker and help at-risk families. Visualize the family you’re helping. What color jacket is the kid wearing? Visualize the look in the child’s eyes when she finally feels safe and happy for the first time in months.
I’m taking you through this exercise because the human brain has a remarkable knack for manifesting what it focuses on and I want you to focus on the small details of your dreams. Unfortunately, a lot of people focus on a lot of negative things and as a result, a lot of negative things manifest in their lives.
So, stay focused on your dreams so that you can turn them into reality. And the more detail you give them, the easier it is to focus on them. Try not to end up as one of the masses who convince themselves that their dreams are foolish or unattainable. I’m here to tell you that they’re not.
But let me be clear, your dreams are not just going to show up. It’s not going to be easy. Let me tell you what is going to happen to all of you and has happened to every other adult at this ceremony. There is this four-letter word called LIFE. And at some point, life is going to punch you in the face at the very moment you did not see it coming. But that’s OK. It’s OK because you all are going to have the resilience to take that punch, brush it off, and be all right.
There are two quotes that come to mind on this topic. I’ve got one for your generation and one for your parents. The first one is from Steve Rogers, you know, Captain America, leader of The Avengers. He says the same line in all of his movies, right? When he’s just getting pounded and just getting the snot beat out of him, what does he do every time? He stands up, composes himself and says, “I can do this all day.”
Is he in a lot of pain when he says it? Yup. Does he realize that he might die? Yes. But what does he do? He keeps…going…anyway. And that’s really what makes heroes so compelling right. It’s their persistence and tenacity in the face of adversity. And I KNOW all of you possess that same persistence and tenacity.
Now for the children of the ’70s and ’80s, I’ve got your back. I’m going to pull out a Rocky Balboa quote. But no, I’m not going to do it in character. Rocky’s quote is, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”
But I’ll tell you what, the class of 2021 may end up being one of the most resilient classes since World War II. Look at your last two years of school. Everything got turned on its head and all of the plans that everyone had for you in January of 2020 went out the window.
The world has felt like it has been on fire, and you have had to figure it out along with the rest of us. How do you get yourself college ready in the middle of a pandemic…, while we’re going through a period of unrest and reckoning…, while every politician in the world is screaming at each other? How do you differentiate your college application when SATs are no longer a thing? How do you learn over Zoom? How do you get yourself ready for college sports when your two prime sports years are disrupted?
You all have already taken a huge punch from life and arguably a bigger punch than most of us had taken at 17 or 18 years of age. And how did you respond? You kept…moving…forward and you’re now here on your graduation day and getting ready for college. I applaud you.
So, take that resilience you’ve developed over the last 18 months and tuck it away in your toolkit. You’re going to need it again at some point in your life. I guarantee it.
But what I don’t want you to do is head into the world timid or passive. We need you. This world needs you. It needs you more than ever. We need your ideas. We need your idealism. We need your optimism. We need your passion. We need your compassion. We need your empathy. We need your hearts. We need your minds.
I have two beautiful little girls at home. One is headed into fifth grade and the other is headed into high school. When I look at their generation, the younger part of your generation, I see so much potential and capacity for amazing things.
When I look at your generation, but more importantly, when I hear your generation talk, I can actually envision a world where racism is unacceptable. Where sexism is unacceptable. Where classism is unacceptable. I envision a world where these things are just flat out not tolerated in any way.
If I want to feel optimistic about the future of this world all I have to do is look at you. But what I’m asking you to do is bring meaning to what you’re doing so that we can create the society we all dream about.
I work in tech and there is a frustration among a lot of us about where and how the best young minds in the world are spending their time and energy. You have some of the smartest people in the world trying to figure out how to keep a person on a website longer or make them scroll to the next post. You have brilliant people trying to figure out how to wring a few more dollars of advertising value out a naïve consumer. I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with that.
But let me be clear, I am a capitalist and believe in capitalism. Not in the version that manipulates laws and squeezes the little guy or keeps the “outsider” out, but in an aspirational version of capitalism with a level playing field where your access to opportunity isn’t determined by the zip code you were born in. We have a ways to go to get there but I believe in working to create that playing field. Now if someone becomes a billionaire because they’re driving society forward and knows how to marshal resources and productivity toward efforts that change the experience and trajectory of humanity, I’m a huge fan of that. The potential for outsized reward serves as motivation to take on all the risk required and to persevere through all the setbacks. It’s much easier to sit on the sidelines in safety than it is to put it all on the line. But if someone chooses to put it all on the line, I’m cool with them doing well while doing good.
If one of you wants to one day be a billionaire, I hope you get there because that is a big, specific dream. I just hope you do it in a way that leaves your fellow human beings better off. Do it by elevating others, not by suppressing or taking advantage of them. You CAN have both and I don’t want you to apologize for wanting to do good AND do well.
Alternatively, if the thought of quietly helping people on an individual basis is inspiring and fulfilling and is what compels you to action, I applaud that as well. The truth is that society needs all of you and I look forward to celebrating all of your endeavors.
I’m going to bring this to close by asking you to deliberately live a life of purpose. “But Greg,” you ask, “What does that mean?” It means whatever you decide it means.
You all are transitioning into adulthood. It’s not my responsibility to tell you what your purpose is. It’s not my responsibility to find it for you. I WOULD tell you that it’s not your parent’s responsibility… but I won’t actually tell you that because you may still need them to pay some bills or for a place to stay during the summer.
But I will tell you that it is likely you have more than one purpose. Think about that. We can be more than one thing. When it comes to my family, I have a purpose. When it came to my military service, I had a purpose. When it comes to leading my company, I have a purpose. Purpose can be context-specific and can change moment to moment and even evolve over time.
Now I don’t want you to freak out because you don’t know your purpose today. You may get to be 20, 30, or 40 years old before you figure it out. And your purpose will grow and evolve just like you will. But there are themes that follow you through all of the evolutions of your purpose.
Some people refer to those themes as guiding principles. Others talk about having a North Star. Many bring their religious teachings and beliefs with them. Others bring their family’s values. But what I can tell you is that the people who truly make a difference in this world seldom do it by accident. Be deliberate in what you do and do things that connect your gifts and your skills with the things that fill your soul. If you do that, you’ll be on purpose and you’ll do meaningful things.
So, 30 years from now, I don’t expect you to remember me, my name, my commencement address or anything about me. But I do hope that you will have lived your life in a way that reflects the spirit of Morgan Park Academy and the spirit of what I’ve shared with you and in a way that will make you look back and smile with pride.
Congratulations, Class of 2021.