E. Stanley O'Neal
Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer
Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc.
Thank you, President Swygert.
Chairperson McKenzie; Howard trustees; faculty and staff; alumni; students; honored guests…
I am truly honored to have the opportunity to be here with you today. To be invited to speak at this convocation… at this university.
I have enormous respect and admiration for this institution, and even a little envy for those of you fortunate enough to be a part of this community.
A good friend of mine, and a distinguished alum of this school, Vernon Jordan, once said that this place “saved my soul.”
And more recently, he said to me that “if Howard didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it!”
You have before you the unlimited promise of the future, nurtured by the education, experience and enrichment of this great school…
Following in the path of so many distinguished alumni, including Thurgood Marshall, Vernon Jordan, Toni Morrison and Edward Brooke.
In the year 2000, I was named president of ML’s retail business — its private client business… the heart and soul of the firm in many ways.
It was a controversial choice, and it got a lot of press attention — Fortune magazine wrote its first article about me, and I got a call from a fact checker, who wanted to verify that my grandfather was indeed a slave.
Since I was 49 at the time and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, he was having a little trouble believing it.
So, I explained how my father was one of seven children, born to my grandfather who, at the time of my father’s birth, was 65 years old and my grandmother was in her 30s.
My grandfather died at the age of 95, when I was about five. And if you do the math, he was born before 1863.
I described all this to the fact checker and he asked me if I had my grandfather’s birth certificate.
I could only imagine what this guy on the other end of the phone was like. But I had to tell him that I had no proof beyond what I knew to be the case.
When the story appeared, it read, quote, “Mr. O’Neal, who claims to be the grandson of a slave…”
Interestingly, as a little insight into how these things work, all subsequent stories, based on that Fortune article, have taken it as a fact without checking, and without qualification.
So sometimes the press finally gets it right, by actually getting it wrong.
And so, it seems really fitting to me that, in this year of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the grandson of a slave from the rural South, who is now the CEO of Merrill Lynch, should be speaking here — at Howard University…
A school born in the shadows of the Civil War —whose history is so deeply intertwined with the history of Black Americans… and educational opportunity… and freedom.
The urgent needs of the present and the future usually don’t allow me much reflection on the past and how I came to be here today.
But this occasion has given me that opportunity… to reflect a bit on my journey, which in many ways reflects the larger changes in American society and is very much the story of the progress of Blacks in this country.
So, I thought I might share some of my story with you… some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
And share some thoughts about the larger context of opportunity in this society and the continual importance of education to opportunity.
Maybe… even help engage you in what I believe is our collective obligation to lead in eliminating the disparity between the educational “haves” and “have nots” — to finally realize equal economic opportunity in this nation and fulfill the promise laid down 50 years ago in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
I was born in a rural farming community in Wedowee, Alabama (population 818, according to the 2000 census) in the early 1950’s.
I lived there with my father, mother, sister and two brothers until I was 13.
We had little — no car, no running water or indoor toilets.
A one room school which my grandfather had founded for grades one through six, with one teacher for all of the students.
It was a “separate but equal” school under Jim Crow laws… and it wasn’t much.
But I was lucky.
Lucky because I had parents who knew it was important for me to go to school everyday, however inadequate it might have been.
Lucky because I had a family that supported me, nurtured my self image and gave me love and a place to belong.
I was also lucky because at 13, my father decided he could no longer support his family as a farmer, and we moved to Atlanta.
And I was lucky because just as we moved to Atlanta, the public school system was being integrated — finally, 10 years after the court order desegregating public schools with “all deliberate” speed.
So for the first time, I got a shot at real equal educational opportunity… and it made a difference.
Later, because my father worked as a laborer for General Motors on the assembly line, I got a chance to attend college and pay my own way by attending General Motors Institute, now Kettering University.
The school offered a bachelors of Science degree in engineering and business through a cooperative program.
And while the curriculum did not offer the breadth of a Howard University and was narrowly focused, it was high quality.
By applying myself, which I did after a brief flirt with academic disaster, I was able to do well there and go on to Harvard Business School — paid for, by the way, by General Motors under a scholarship program I was fortunate to gain entry to.
From business school, I came to New York and began a career in Finance… first with GM and later with Merrill Lynch.
Sometimes I’ve been asked what made me switch from General Motors to Merrill Lynch.
It was an unusual move… maybe unique.
I haven’t met anyone else in this business so far from the auto industry — not too many people from an Alabama farm either.
Well, the story is, after a few years handling mergers and acquisitions for GM, I was confident that I understood corporate finance as well as anyone, and yet, investment bankers were making five-times more than me.
I figured they couldn’t possibly be working five-times as hard, or be five-times smarter. Maybe twice as smart, but not five-times.
And they definitely couldn’t have been working any harder.
So, I left GM to become an investment banker at Merrill Lynch.
About 20 years later, here I am, CEO.
So what have I learned along the way?
First, I learned that for me, there’s no substitute for preparation and hard work.
Being prepared means anticipating what will be required in a given situation.
Actively thinking about what will be necessary and then doing the work to get ready.
Sounds simple… and it is, once you discipline yourself to do it, consistently.
Took me a while to figure this out, but being prepared allows me the freedom to perform at my best, to go beyond what’s required, to innovate, to expand my perspective, even to be creative on occasion.
To me, it’s key.
Second, no matter how well educated you are or how smart you are, or even how hard you are willing to work, you have to find a way to connect with people.
You don’t have to be a great orator (although it certainly is an asset if you have it).
You don’t have to be charismatic (thank God).
But you do have to find a way of connecting, of persuading, engaging, motivating.
You have to be able to sell yourself and your ideas — make a compelling case.
This is certainly true in business but it’s true in virtually every profession.
The third thing I’ve learned, is that you have to take charge of your own career and be responsible for your own success.
This doesn’t mean that help or mentoring is not important — obviously they are terribly important.
But in the end, it makes all the difference if you take responsibility for you.
Get all of the help you can, but don’t leave it to chance or anyone else.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, find your center.
What do I mean by this?
You have to define, at your core, what’s important to you…what are your values.
You will get enormous opportunity in this world to compromise and to rationalize.
Without a set of values and ethics you’ll end up competing on the lowest common denominator.
It’s important to be clear where the lines are and have the courage to live within those lines.
Courage, because often you risk not getting what you want.
Courage because you may have to turn down opportunities… or stand up to people.
But, don’t be swayed by people with a different set of principles, a different center than yours.
Remember, you’re the one who has to get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror.
I have been extraordinarily fortunate in so many ways.
My story is the story of a lot of firsts, some major breakthroughs — some by me, and all within the larger story of the evolution of race in this country.
When I was named CEO of Merrill Lynch in 2002, to me the extraordinary thing is not that I got the job — although it is pretty amazing — but around the same time, Dick Parsons was named CEO of Time Warner.
This was very powerful for me and not because of Dick specifically — though I know Dick, I like and respect him a great deal.
What was so powerful was having Dick at Time Warner, Ken Chenault at American Express, Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae and me at Merrill Lynch — all at the same time.
Four iconic American companies — recognized around the world — with four African Americans as CEOs.
Most of all, I think this says a lot about the end of limitations for individuals of African American descent in business.
Even five years ago, not to mention 10 or 50 years ago, this was unthinkable.
I spoke about educational opportunity being the key to success and about the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Ed.
The progress we’ve made since then has been unimaginable, except maybe to a few visionaries.
At the same time — even as I stand in awe of the progress — I am equally struck by how far we still have to go.
In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics gave some dimension to the problem.
Eighth graders in predominantly black schools were more than twice as likely to read below basic levels than eighth graders in schools where blacks comprise less than 5% of the student body.
In math, those same eighth graders are nearly three times as likely to be performing below basic levels.
I’m involved with a school in the South Bronx, and driving up through that neighborhood you can see the inequities.
It is one of the most economically, educationally and socially challenged environments you can imagine.
I despair at the thought of a child who’s smarter than I am… has more potential than I did… who’s willing to work hard — but who simply doesn’t understand how to produce positive results in life.
It’s such a waste.
Not every kid can be as fortunate as I was — to stumble into opportunity.
This is one of the most important issues for American society.
Educational opportunity is no longer constrained by Jim Crow laws or segregation.
And without those overt barriers, I keep thinking it must be an issue of allocating enough resources… of attention and commitment, innovation.
We have to find ways to take on the issue — whether it’s charter schools, vouchers, school choice, different ways to manage the educational system, volunteerism, internships or mentoring.
This is a world of “haves” and “have nots” and if you want to make a difference… it helps to be a “have.”
A Howard education can be a ticket into that club. I took a different path, but I got my opportunities and now I want to try to make a difference for some others.
At Merrill Lynch I found a culture where, for me, diversity is valued…where the measure of your worth is based on what you contribute — not where you’re from or what you look like.
And we’re working hard to ensure that this is a reality throughout the firm, for everyone.
It’s an organization that manages the wealth of the world for the biggest corporations… the most important people… governments… and leaders.
An organization of tremendous influence.
Did I want to make the money that the investment bankers were making? You bet I did. But even more, I wanted in.
And I can tell you, there are not enough African Americans in the industry.
It’s a shame, and I hope, a challenge that some of you will take on — because if you want to change the world, it can really help to be on the inside.
Let me give you an example of what can be accomplished.
Earlier, I mentioned a school I’m involved with in the South Bronx. It’s a charter school called Bronx Prep.
My wife Nancy and I were introduced to Bronx Prep about three years ago — as the school was just beginning its mission.
Since then we have been personally involved, as has Merrill Lynch corporately.
Today, Bronx Prep is thriving.
Over the last two years — on a nationally standardized math test — the students’ average score improved from 43rd percentile to 71st.
And on the reading test from 35th percentile to 50th.
A little over a year-and-a-half ago, I attended a groundbreaking ceremony for their new school building.
This past summer I paid a visit — the building is beautiful. And a few weeks ago, the students moved in for the new school year.
What the building means to the community…to the neighborhood… to the students… is more than anyone could have imagined.
It lets them know people care… lets them know their education and success are important.
That’s just one example of the difference that Merrill Lynch is making through our major philanthropic focus — education.
So here I stand, the grandson of a slave, in front of the next generation of leadership.
As you begin this new academic year, I would ask you to remember how fortunate you are, what extraordinary possibilities lay ahead… and to seize them.
I would ask that you think too about the other side of the educational divide in our communities and do something with your success to help, at last, make a reality of the promise of equal educational opportunity and by extension, equal economic opportunity.
The solutions will not be made by government on its own.
But with your leadership and commitment, we have it in our power to make the dream a reality.