Commencement Speaker Jim Thompson Urges Graduates to "See More of This World"

Commencement Speaker James E. Thompson Urges Graduates to “See More of This World”

Commencement Speaker Jim Thompson Urges Graduates to "See More of This World"

Commencement speaker James E. Thompson urged students to pursue their dreams abroad (photo by Robert Bain).

By Pat Lopes Harris, Media Relations Director

In the summer between his junior and senior years at SJSU, Jim Thompson circled the globe, visiting Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia and the Far East, and he did it on a shoe string, using money he saved as a cannery worker.

As the SJSU commencement speaker May 28, the successful businessman shared with thousands of students, family and friends gathered at Spartan Stadium his story and his advice for young people just starting out in life.

Thompson’s father, a high school drop-out, was “my idol and my role model,” he said. “What he lacked in formal education he made up for in sheer determination.” Thompson would go on to emulate his father, settling in Japan after graduation and founding his own moving company using $500 he received after cashing in his return ticket.

Fast forward nearly a half century, and Thompson is now chairman of The Crown Worldwide Group, the world’s largest privately-held group of international moving companies with 5,000 employees and nearly one billion dollars in revenue. Recalling how “I was a young American finding the American dream in Yokohama, Japan,” he encouraged graduates “to make it your business to get out and see more of this world we live in.”

Thompson recently worked with College of Business Dean David Steele to found the Thompson Global Internship Program, which provides SJSU students with the opportunity to live abroad while completing a project for Crown Worldwide Group. He encouraged graduates to make a difference in the world, and shared that “having created the environment through my company that has allowed [my employees] to show what they are capable of is what I’m most proud of.”

Thompson’s prepared remarks follow.


When I asked the administrators how long to speak this morning and I was told that if I see the graduates starting the Mexican Wave, I’ll know I’ve lost them.  So please be kind and hold off the wave until I’m finished.

It’s a great honor for me to address you this morning and graduates you’ve done something special for your parents today.  By finally getting out of school you’ve made them believe in miracles!!  Great job.

Congratulations graduates!! This is your day and I know it will be a day you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.  You’re all anxious to celebrate and I don’t want to keep you from it so let me see if I can pass on a few lessons that I’ve learned as I made my way through life.  Hopefully they might help you as you get started in your careers.

Many years ago, I was sitting on this field as a San Jose State graduate.  I have to admit that I can’t recall who the Commencement speaker was at my graduation and you probably won’t remember me when you leave here either, but I do know graduation day was one of the most exciting days in my life.  I recall thinking as I sat out there that I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be sent out into the real world.  My life had been one of classrooms and textbooks.  I had some real anxieties about leaving the comfort of school for the new world I was about to enter.

My father was sitting in the stands feeling proud to see me graduating.  The terrible financial circumstances in his own family meant he had to go to work at a very young age and he never had a chance to get a college – or even a high school – education.  As a matter of fact, no one on either my mother or father’s side of our family as far back as we could trace had ever enrolled in college.  I was the first one and it was a big deal that I was graduating.  I know that some of you graduating today are also be the first in your family to graduate from university as well – so you will know the feeling I’m describing.

But despite my father’s lack of formal education, he became one of the smartest and wisest men I ever met and he made a success of his life as a senior U.S. naval officer and later as a businessman.  He educated himself and he also learned how to become a leader.  He was my idol and my role model.  What he lacked in formal education he made up for in sheer determination.  As a matter of fact, he learned so much in his life that when he retired – this man with about an eighth grade education actually taught a night class in international relations at USC.  His inability to get a college education only made him want to pursue learning more.

So the first point I want to pass on to you is that the diploma you’ve now earned will open some doors for you but – the truth is – its going to be your drive, desire and determination that will be the greatest factors in your future success.  You’ll be competing with people like my father as well as a lot of determined people that didn’t have a chance to go to university or became a college drop out.  I think you might recognize the names of some well known college drop outs like Gates, Dell, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Ted Turner and Ellison who really wanted to succeed – and they did.

In my case, one thing was very certain as I sat out there during the graduation ceremony of 1962 – I had no idea what I was capable of doing with my life.

And as you sit there with a San Jose State University degree, I’m sure that you, just like me, cannot possibly know what you’re capable of achieving in your lifetime.   But I think I’m in a good position to assure you of one thing – you’re capable of far more than you think you are and that effort all starts now.

In the next few minutes I want to give you the short version of my own round trip journey from the floor of this Spartan Stadium field as a graduate to this exalted platform where I’ve been given the honor of addressing you on this momentous day of your graduation.

To put things in perspective, I graduated with a 2.7 grade point average – not too bad but I was certainly far from the brightest spark in the graduating class.  My degree was from the Engineering Division in a field that was called Aeronautical Operations.  I never felt I was cut out to be an engineer despite my aptitude tests pointing me in that direction.  And, as my life turned out, I never held a job related to engineering or aeronautics.

So my second point is — Don’t be surprised if you end up in a field completely different than what you majored in at this university. Career paths have a way of being diverted into something quite different than what you planned while in school.  Don’t think of that as a bad thing because you’ll probably end up in a field that you’ll enjoy and that enjoyment is what makes the pursuit of your life’s objective so much more meaningful.  The reality is that the education you’ve received makes you capable of doing many things well so just keep that in mind as you begin the next chapter of your life.

What I did find out quickly after graduating was that this university – San Jose State – had given me a terrific well-rounded education – not only through text books, class rooms and great professors but also through the extra-curricular activities I became involved in while I was here.  That especially applied to the many campus groups and school functions I took part in.  For me that was especially true as a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity that meant so much to me and which I still support.

Once I was out in the real world I soon found that I was well equipped to deal with whatever opportunities or challenges life presented to me and my confidence level grew pretty rapidly.

Whether you realize it or not – San Jose State University really does equip you for the challenges of getting along in the world so I think you’re leaving here pretty well rounded.  I think you’ll find that, in addition to your academic studies, the social skills you learned here will play a big role in your future success.

Throughout your lives you will have defining moments that take you in a certain direction.  For me, one of the major defining moments occurred between my junior and senior year.  A close friend and I decided we wanted to see the world and we made the big decision to leave San Jose State for a year of travel.  We had little money and our families had their own expenses to deal with so we had to do this on our own.  We worked about 700 yards from this stadium at the American Can Company and throughout the summer we earned enough to make this trip.

We did run out of money several times along the way and my sister, who is sitting in the stands today, sent me a few checks to allow me to keep going.  She was living hand to mouth herself at the time but she still squeezed out a bit to help her brother on his adventure around the world.  There’s nothing like family support!!

That trip – fifty years ago –took us to Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan and India, Southeast Asia and the Far East and it really opened my eyes to the world.  When I came back to San Jose State to finish my last year I knew I had to see more of the world.  I was determined to graduate but I wanted to go back overseas to soak up more of the international scene and learn about the other people and places in the world.

So here’s a third message I want to pass on to you. Try to make it your business to get out and see more of this world we live in and learn everything you can about it. The United States is a great country but there’s a lot more out there for you to see and understand. The news and the Internet connect you with the global scene but it’s not the same as going overseas and meeting and working with people from different countries.  I feel very strongly about this and I really encourage you to make the effort and do it!

One year after graduating I left for the Far East and took a job in a small company based in Yokohama, Japan.   The business of this company was packing and moving people’s furniture and personal belongings around the world.  I had no major plans at that point in my life other than wanting to learn everything I could about Japan and the Japanese culture.

A year and a half later, I lost that job.  It was then that another one of those defining moments kicked in and I started my own little moving company on a shoestring.  I only had $500 in cash and a ticket back to the U.S. which I redeemed for another $500.   I was still 25 years old and I was in a foreign country and didn’t speak the language well  – so why I decided to start a company is hard to explain rationally but, once I started, the ‘determination’ factor kicked in and I was going to do whatever it took to keep it alive. This is when I learned how important determination is and sometimes the fear of failure is a great motivator in one’s success.

I and my little company struggled through the first year but as we started year two we were still afloat. The next year was better and the one after that even better.  I was a young American finding the American dream in Yokohama, Japan!!

So the fourth message I would like to pass on to you is that the American Dream of success can be found globally today.  There are wonderful opportunities all over the world so I encourage you to broaden your horizons and look beyond the borders of the United States.  It’s really exciting out there.  Today, most people who reach the top of their organizations have had some overseas experience so it is important. Having started my own business I continued to build it – first in Japan, then in Hong Kong and then throughout the Far East.  It became more exciting with each passing week.

China was a closed country when I started but now, having lived my entire adult life in Japan and Hong Kong, I firmly believe that the rise of China and India has made the opportunities in Asia far greater today than they were when I was starting back in the 60’s.  I encourage you to look at how you can take part in these opportunities.  China and India are on the move.  These two countries have 35% of the world’s population and their economies are growing dramatically.  Many other countries of the world also present good opportunities for people willing to work overseas.  They need the talents that many of you in this graduating class have.  The competition can be tough but truly determined people will always have a chance of success.

Think about it!!

I’m a strong believer in globalization. A little over a year ago, at the suggestion of Dean David Steele of the College of Business, we established a Global Internship Program for San Jose State students so more of you can work overseas and understand the global environment.  I know some of the past interns from the program who came to Asia are graduating with you today and another group will be starting their internship in several countries of Europe next week.  My interest in funding this program was to encourage San Jose State students to realize the fact that globalization is now part of all our lives and you should embrace it.  We’ve come very far in making the world a global society and in my opinion there’s no turning back.

Since the Vietnam War ended in the early 70’s the Far East has seen a relatively peaceful era and many economies have flourished.  So I expanded my business to Singapore, Indonesia the Philippines and Malaysia and the company was doing well.  I wasn’t seeing any money in my pocket because everything the company made was re-invested to fund the expansion.  I think most small business owners can relate to this.  I was loving every minute of it but always felt a degree of fear about my ability to hold it all together.

But I found that as my company grew so did my ability as a manager. I’m quite sure you’ll find that your talents and skills will get better and better as you gain experience in whatever field you enter.  We never stop learning in life.

So I’m an entrepreneur.  I didn’t set out to be one but my life took me in that direction.  Many of you are capable of being entrepreneurs and I have no doubt you will be.  I can tell you it’s a wonderfully exciting direction to go.

In reality, most major economies are driven by small privately owned businesses.

So my fifth and final thought for you today is to consider starting your own business.  I think it’s a dream for many young people like you and I can assure you that life is full of opportunities.  In the United States 600,000 new business are incorporated every year.  If you’re the type of person that wants to be our own boss and you’re willing to endure the hard work and sacrifice that comes with starting your own business, I think you should give it a try. The feeling the fulfillment of what you can achieve gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment.

So it all comes down to this.  You’ve been going to school for about sixteen years – some a bit longer.  You now have the credential that is yours for life saying you’re pretty smart.  With that education and with that certificate you venture out into the real world to see what you can make of your life.  I have no doubt you’ll land a job and that will be your new starting point.  But you shouldn’t be happy just surviving – you should strive to do something extraordinary – no matter what field you go into.

I recall my freshman English professor at San Jose State – a lady by the name of Mrs. Mendenhall – telling our class that if we didn’t try to do something special in our lives, we would just be passing through and not really making ourselves better people or the world a better place.  Her actual words were that ‘we would just be taking up space’.  Her comment stuck with me.  Life is not about surviving but about adding something.  Whether it’s about improving the lot of your family – as my father did for us – or helping others and improving society, we should all try to leave our part of the world better than we found it.  Every one of you can do that.  It doesn’t matter how much money you have or what field you go into – you can make improvements in the local, national or global society that you’re a part of.  You are all capable of more than your realize.

The story of the development of my company continues.  Today we have about 5000 members of the Crown team and a heck of a lot more that work for us as contractors.  From that $1000 investment in 1965 we’ve now reached a sales level of $700 million dollars with a billion dollars of revenue in sight.  Over the years I continued to travel the globe and re-invest the earnings of my company for expansion into different parts of the world.  We’re now a global business with our own operations in 250 locations in 55 countries around the world.  There is no place we would fear to go. We have offices in countries like Mongolia, Nigeria and we are even planning an office in Northern Iraq quite soon to serve our customers in the oil industry

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions when I speak to groups what I consider the highlight of my life.  I can tell you that, while I’m proud of the growth of the company, its not the size of the business or the sales volume that has been the highlight but rather the fact that I’ve created and environment in which people from all over the world – people like you – will join my company and see just how good they are and how much they can achieve.  I’ve marveled at their accomplishments.  Some have university degrees and some – like my father – have very little formal education but many want success so badly that they really try harder to achieve – and they do amazing things.  Having created the environment through my company that has allowed them to show what they are capable of is what I’m most proud of.

At Crown, one of our core values is that “we want to positively impact the communities we serve”.  In other words, we want to give something back.  I learned the joy of giving from my parents so this started out as a personal objective of mine but now it’s been embraced by our staff all over the world.  When you do get a chance to see this world of ours you’ll come back here realizing how lucky you are.  There is so much need in many parts of the world and, while I realize none of us can solve all the world’s problems, we know we can do something.

One thing my wife and I are doing is building schools in Cambodia and it’s my hope that some of those little Cambodian kids – some HIV positive – can now get a good education. Who knows, some might one day come to San Jose State and be sitting right out on this field on graduation day.  To have reached the point in my life where I am able to do some good things is about as fulfilling as it gets.  You can do something as well and I hope you make the desire to contribute to people less fortunate than you a part of your life.  Then I think Mrs. Mendenhall would agree that you left the world better than you found it.

You’re graduating from a wonderful university and I hope your attachment to San Jose State University never wanes. It needs you. I’ve always treasured the fact that I went to a school with such a diverse student body because I didn’t just learn academics but I learned how to get along with people and that’s a huge part of the challenge that lies ahead.

Well that’s my message folks.  I really hope you achieve great things in your lives.  I’m sure some of you will turn out to be star performers.  The important thing to remember is that, like my father, the extent to which you can succeed is in your hands.  Just remember – you’re all capable of much more than you think you are so keep reaching.

Thanks for listening to me — and can I now have a Mexican Wave.