Commencement address: Alumnus Vincent J. Intrieri urges graduates to 'dream big'

ERIE, Pa. — Penn State alumnus Vincent J. Intrieri gave the commencement address at Penn State Behrend's spring commencement ceremony, held Friday, May 4, at Erie Insurance Arena.

Intrieri is the founder and CEO of VDA Capital Management LLC. He earned a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Penn State Behrend in 1984 and is a certified public accountant.

Intrieri sits on the boards of directors of Conduent Inc., Hertz Global Holdings, Navistar International, and Transocean Ltd. Prior to founding his private investment firm in 2017, Intrieri was senior managing director of Icahn Capital LP and served as director or partner for a number of Icahn subsidiaries and holding companies

In 2012, Intrieri and his wife, Joanne, gifted the initial $100,000 to create the Intrieri Family Student Managed Fund, a real-world portfolio overseen by Black School of Business students. With additional gifts from the Intrieris and others and reinvested profits, the fund balance now is $708,000.

Intrieri was named a Penn State Alumni Fellow in 2011 and is a member of the Penn State Behrend Campaign Committee and the Board of Visitors of the Black School of Business. The title of his address was “Dream Big.”

The full text of Intrieri's address can be found below.

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Good afternoon Chancellor Ford, esteemed faculty, family, friends and especially you, the graduating class of 2018. I am honored and humbled to have been asked to speak at your commencement today.

I grew up in Erie and am a 1984 graduate of Penn State Behrend. When I was a kid it was not a sure thing that I would even be able to attend college, much less be a partner at one of the Big Four accounting firms and then be successful on Wall Street and work for almost 20 years for one of the most feared, admired and important investors of our time, Carl Icahn. It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting in your seat armed with a Penn State Behrend accounting degree, big dreams, and a lot of uncertainty as to what the future would bring.

At my graduation, the commencement speaker was the esteemed poet and writer Maya Angelou. I don’t remember much of what she said that day as a result of the parties I attended the prior evening, however I do remember her speech being spiritually uplifting; she had that effect on people. When Chancellor Ford asked me to speak to you, I asked him how will I ever live up to such a profound speaker? Chancellor Ford told me, just be yourself and you will do great. So here goes and hopefully I’ll keep it short enough so that you’ll remember one or two bits of information from today’s remarks! Unless, that is, you attended as many parties last night as I did in 1984!

Today is a special day as you embark upon a journey toward success and accomplishment. What is success? Well, let me give you a definition: Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

That definition, I can’t take credit for. It’s Maya Angelou’s beautiful definition. I want to talk today — in my words, which are nowhere near as spiritually uplifting as Maya’s — about how I achieved success. My message for you today is a simple one: Dream big, work hard, don’t be afraid to fail, and surround yourself with people you love and respect and who believe in you and your dreams.

I have some good news and some maybe not-so-good news for you. First the good news: After you graduate today, you will become a member of an elite group of people in the U.S. Only about 30 percent of the population in the U.S. actually obtains a four-year college degree. As a result of your sacrifice and hard work, along with the support of your family, today you will join this elite group.

Now, the maybe not-so-good news: Today you will embark upon a new journey of hard work. The knowledge you have obtained during your years at Behrend has taught you many things, but most of all, it has taught you how to learn, how to think, how to be disciplined, and how to get ready to meet the many hurdles you will encounter on your journey through life, both in business and in your personal life. So learn to acknowledge that you don’t know everything (yet), accept that you should be willing to listen, continue to learn, and always dream big!

Has anyone ever seen the movie “Rudy”? It’s a great movie. It’s about a kid with an undiagnosed learning disability who didn’t do very well in high school. He had a dream to accomplish something that just about everyone told him was an impossible dream. But with hard work and perseverance he reached his “unachievable” dream. My beautiful wife, Joanne, always asks me why I am so moved by that movie. When my sons were younger, they tell me I used to make them watch “that stupid movie” just about every weekend for what they said seemed like years. I’m sure it wasn’t years, but it may have been every weekend for a while.

I never really thought about why I was so enthralled by the movie until I started putting my thoughts together for this commencement address. Yes, in some ways it’s a corny movie. But it has a message that I think has driven me throughout my life. Dream big, set your goals high, and go after them.

Like Rudy, throughout my life I have encountered the naysayers. When I was just starting out and told people I wanted to be a successful investor on Wall Street, I can’t tell you how many people told me that I would never get there. That those positions were only for people who had fancy prep school and Ivy League educations. People told me I should stick to accounting, where I was successful. That it was far too difficult to make the transition to investing on Wall Street.

But I didn’t listen to them; I had a dream and a plan and I followed it. Don’t be discouraged by the naysayers; you will encounter many of those characters throughout your life. Believe that you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to and have a passion for. Stay focused and work hard to achieve your goals.  

Don’t let negative thoughts influence your thinking, because they can have such an adverse effect on you. Put your plan together, set a strategy for accomplishing that plan, and get after it. Believe and act as if it were impossible to fail and be prepared to pick yourself up when you do fail, because it’s inevitable. Remember though, you haven’t actually failed until you quit! So don’t quit, that’s the key. Be like Rudy and keep pursuing your dream until you achieve it. Even if you don’t accomplish it exactly as you originally envisioned, you’ll be surprised at the level of achievement that you will attain and always, dream big.

Some of you may be saying to yourself “this guy is talking fantasy land, we’re talking about real life not some corny movie,” but I assure you that I’m not. It’s not that you won’t have detours along the way to your dreams and goals but you must keep reevaluating and reassessing the path to those dreams and goals so you can achieve them. I grew up on West 16th Street in Erie, in what used to be a part of town known as Little Italy, with my five brothers. Imagine what a saint my mother was, dealing with six Type A-personality, intense Italian boys. Wow.

Unfortunately, many of the kids I grew up with are dead, in jail or just striving to keep their heads above water. The ones who made it out and went on to achieve success had one thing in common: A wonderful family, great core values, integrity, and a strong support system. Take a moment to look around you and find your parents, siblings, extended family and friends and give them a figurative salute. They are why you are here today and they will be there for you throughout your life. Let’s give them another big round of applause.

My mother, fathers, siblings, Joanne, my sons and the many mentors I have had throughout my career have always been there to encourage me when I hit the rough spots in life. Sometimes they will console and encourage you and sometimes they might have to give you a kick in the butt, but always they will do it with love. Learn to cherish those times because you’ll remember them always. Dream big!

During my career I had to make decisions to leave comfortable positions where I was doing extremely well for what I believed were better long-term opportunities. In retrospect it was always interesting to me how the interactions with the firm leaders went. The dialogue would be pretty much the same: I was told how I was making a grave mistake leaving. That I was doing great where I was but that I would be chewed up and spit out at the new firm because the culture was so much different. The first time it happened, I was shaken. Doubt began to creep into my mind and I began to wonder if I was making a mistake, but I told myself that I was doing the right thing, I needed to follow my dreams. These interactions provided the incentive that I needed to succeed and provided a mindset that I have used my entire life: I cannot and will not fail. I don’t blame the folks who said these things, because I’d like to think they wanted me to remain with their firm and this was one of the tactics they used to persuade me to stay. But it taught me how brutal life and business could be. Follow your heart, trust yourself, and dream big!

When I was preparing for today’s remarks, I came across some presentations by Evan Carmichaels. He had prepared videos of some very notable actors, athletes, business and political figures of our time and then summarized, based on interviews and speeches each had given throughout their careers, their Ten Rules for Success. I printed out the Ten Rules for Success from people like Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, President Trump, President Obama, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama, among others.

As you can imagine from such a diverse group of people it was a long list of rules and the rules were as diverse as they are. But four rules were present in virtually all of them. Number one: Have dreams and set goals to achieve those dreams. A quote from Denzel Washington: “Dreams without goals and plans are just dreams and ultimately fuel disappointment." Number two: Work hard. Another quote from Denzel Washington: “Hard work works, working really hard at what you are passionate about is what successful people do." Number three: Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is inevitable and is the fuel for future success. Number four: Give back and help others; it’s one of the responsibilities of joining the 30 percent group that you joined today. This responsibility doesn’t always mean giving money. It means making yourself available to help mentor and guide others to achieving their goals and dreams, it means pitching in when you can to assist those in need. Dream big!

There were definitely big dreamers at Behrend College! Almost 70 years ago, in the fall of 1948, the first Behrend class was enrolled after Mary Behrend bequeathed the beautiful campus we now call Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. That class had 146 enrollees. Now Penn State Behrend has in excess of 5,000 students and is still growing. That’s phenomenal! That’s dreaming big! They had help in achieving this dream from many people in the community, including students who were sitting in seats similar to yours today.

I’m going to leave you with one final thought before I end today. It’s a poem titled “If” by Rudyard Kipling. I’m not going to read you the entire poem, but I would suggest you Google it later and read it. I think it captures many of ideas I tried to impart to you today. I’m going to read some excerpts that I think contain the poem’s essence: 

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too.”

“If you can dream — and not make dreams your Master;

If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same.”

If you can do these things that Kipling articulates in his poem then you will be able to achieve phenomenal success in your lifetime.

Now, go to some parties, watch “Rudy,” make your kids watch “Rudy,” and above all dream big, work hard, and don’t be afraid to fail!

Thank you and enjoy your day, you’ve earned it.

Last Updated May 15, 2018