Hickenlooper ’74 Tells of Beating Expectations on the Way to Success

David PesciMay 23, 201021min
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper '74 '80 M.A., delivers the 178th Commencement Address. (Photo by Bill Burkhart)

Address by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper ’74 ’80 M.A,, on the 178th Commencement at Wesleyan University, May 23, 2010:

Well, first I want to thank Wesleyan for inviting me. I want to thank President Michael Roth. Rarely do you see an individual, in his third year, who is the right person at the right time for the right institution. This is one of the great universities in America, and we have a great, great president. Board Chair Joshua Boger and University Marshall Suzanne O’Connell, and certainly all the family and friends who’ve supported these students through their college careers.

This is the single most important honor I have ever received. It says a lot about this institution and all of you.

Certainly, if anyone had polled my class 35 years ago, I would have been unanimously selected as the last person to ever receive an honorary degree or give a commencement address at Wesleyan. Actually, it’s not my first time in consideration for an honor at Wesleyan – the geology faculty once voted to give me tenure – as a student. I think Peter Patton made the initial motion and Jelle de Boer seconded, because it took me nine years to finish my studies. That’s the English and the geology together.

Frankness impels me to say that my Wesleyan undergraduate career was notable, which is not to say distinguished. I came to Wesleyan as a slightly dyslexic extrovert with attention deficit disorders. And don’t you think that’s a particularly cruel irony – that the slowest readers could also have the short attention spans?

Freshman year, I was so far behind in my reading that in a moment of frustration and lunacy, in front of three brilliant professors – Steven Crites, Louis Mink and Bill Coley – during our final oral exam for what was then called the Freshman Integrated Program. And I tried to convince them that the challenges of the nuclear age were so unique as to render the study of history irrelevant. Some perverse generosity and charity of spirit compelled them to pass me.

Immediately after my freshman year, I dropped out to help convert an ancient sardine factory into an alternative school on the northernmost coast of Maine.

It was 1971, and that community was going through some tough economic times. Unemployment was so high that many families brewed their own beer because it was cheaper.

That year in Maine taught me about poverty. And, I learned how to brew beer, at which I was a better student – a lesson that would later come in handy later in my life.

I returned to Wesleyan in a failed attempt to become a writer. It seems there are limits to even what the best education can do. But that revelation and the disappointment that went with it was softened by an emerging interest in, and love for, geology and the study of the Earth.

Eventually, I graduated, some 36 years ago, and I’ve had a pretty lively career since then.

Still, accepting the invitation to speak to this graduating class – at my alma mater – has really pushed me to the limit.  For the last few weeks I’ve felt a lot like I used to many years ago when I knew the history exam was coming and I hadn’t studied enough. When you read as slowly as I did you could never study enough.

So, I have been reading up. And I’ve been looking at what other commencement speakers have had to say over the years.

Frankly, there’s not that much new. Most commencement addresses are somewhat predictable. Students are told to follow their passion, serve others, reject materialism, and strike out in bold new ways to attack life and your career with gusto. All good advice.

I am reminded of what Wesleyan professor Paul Horgan, once said: “Everything has been said, but not everything has been said superbly. And even if it had, everything must be said freshly again and again.”

So I’m going to try to speak – if not superbly – at least with a little freshness.

Now I know, you are probably thinking to yourselves, “Why are we listening to a guy who took nine years to finish school?” What wisdom could he possibly have to share?

And you’d be right to ask.

It may be in order to prove that if a fellow like me could graduate from Wesleyan and succeed, anyone can. Maybe to drive home the fact, that, as my old thesis advisor Jim Gutmann, told me the best geologist is the one whose seen the most rocks. And lord knows, I’ve seen a lot of rocks, if you know what I mean.

It might be to make all the parents out there feel some sense of relief that your son or daughter only cost you four years of tuition.

I hope that it is because I might have perhaps accumulated a few kernels of experience and insight that can be shared for good effect as we launch you –the graduating class of 2010 – into the future.

Now, as I look back over 36 years – and in spite of the fact that my degrees are in English and geology – what I learned at Wesleyan was how to be an entrepreneur.

“Entrepreneur” is a French word – of course – meaning “one who undertakes innovations” – yes, in finance and business – but there’s more to it than that.

The essence of entrepreneurship is not just the economic bottom-line so much as it is an exploration of innovation and creativity.

It’s the creative spark that has always interested me most, because there is such joy and satisfaction in the process of creating something that works, that fills a need, building something where nothing existed before, adding value to people’s lives so that their creative energies can also flourish.

A start-up is also the single best learning process in American enterprise. When you build something from scratch, you acquire a depth of understanding that no “professional,” no management expert can match. There are few better ways to learn about yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses, than in beginning and building something, an enterprise. It is a wonderful mirror.

The entrepreneur usually starts in rebellion against some status quo. They prevail by creating a new circumstance which others then have understand and adapt to. Now this is part of the Wesleyan ethos: rebellion. But let’s also not forget that critical thinking.

Entrepreneurship is all about innovation, re-invention, adaptation and perseverance.

Now, no one would have called my mother an entrepreneur, because she was not a businesswoman in the traditional sense.  Nevertheless, she had all the attributes of a great entrepreneur.

She was widowed twice before she turned 40, and raised four children by herself. Her second husband, my father, died after a long battle with intestinal cancer. During his last months, he would wake up a couple of times each night wracked in pain, drenched in a cold sweat. She would roll him back and forth across the bed in order to change the sheets under him. She once told me that the greatest material gift any friend ever gave her was a linen service, with several sets of fresh sheets every day.

She rejected all pity. There was a deep sadness, but she would not give into it. A couple of years ago, when your classmate, Chase Parr, died with her parents in a crash, another one of your classmates, Kendall McKinnon, gave a beautiful and honest eulogy, one of the best I ever heard. In the sadness was a determination to keep on, to seek joy and happiness. I was and am a good friend of all the Parrs, and it took me right back to my mother.

I felt the same emotions last year when I was here and listened to the anguish over the death of Johanna Justin-Jinich. For all your joys, this class has suffered far more than its share of sorrows. Queen Elizabeth said: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” True humility, real humility, requires two things: one is the recognition that your life can change in an instant, and the other is to know that.

My mother knew that. When she was faced with devastating loss – she was not a quitter.  She never dwelt on the awful things in her life – losing two husbands and raising four unruly kids, facing financial hardship and uncertainty.  Instead, she kept a relentless focus on a positive attitude.

We all have dreams and nightmares – my mother knew that whichever you feed will grow. Dwelling on the dream, and not the nightmare, is the spirit behind entrepreneurship.

For me, that meant turning my severance check as an out-of-work geologist into a down payment toward the renovation of an old building and establishing Denver’s first brew pub, a restaurant that brews its own beer.

It was 1986 – America was in a deep recession – and I’d seen one of the first brewpubs, in Berkeley, California. I came home to Colorado and kept looking for a job, but I kept mentioning this tavern that brewed its own beers, and friends kept encouraging me. “You should do that!”

There’s one thing other commencement speakers forget when they advise everyone to follow their bliss. Bliss often doesn’t start out as bliss; passion often doesn’t start out as passion. It’s more likely to begin as a quirk or nagging awareness, nagging idea coming in from left field.

It took two years to raise the money for the Wynkoop Brewing Company. My own mother wouldn’t invest. “Who wants to have dinner in a brewery?” she asked. I said, “Mom, it’s like a bakery. It’s fresh!” People thought we were crazy. When we finally opened in a beautiful 19th century brick warehouse, we were the first restaurant to open in downtown Denver in almost five years. Rent was a dollar a square foot per year.

If there was a single moment that could be described as our darkest hour, it surely would have been two years in, when dust kept blanketing our lunch customers because upstairs we were under construction trying to convert the upper floors into some of LoDo’s first lofts, and restaurant sales started to spiral downward.

But by then I’d borrowed money from my brother and one of my mother’s sisters, and my business partners had borrowed money from family money of their own from their relatives. Now, this is really a cautionary tale for the friends and family in the audience – but we just couldn’t quit. We were too far invested. So we just worked harder. We tried new ideas. We were willing to make mistakes. We tried to find different ways to find different groups of people we could connect with.

Fast forward five years.  Coors Field opened two blocks from our front door, and suddenly we owned the largest brewpub in the world. It still is. My grandfather said you have to work hard your whole life, but in the end it’s better to be lucky than good. That’s probably not the right advice that parents want to hear.

We opened a dozen brewpubs with local partners all across the country, always in historic buildings, always in downtowns, always with different names. Now, I’ve sold out the company now. This is not a pitch. And while the restaurants are all still in business, a couple didn’t go so well. Everyone makes mistakes – and that’s okay. In fact, that’s how you’re going to learn your most important lessons. Don’t be afraid of your mistakes – just be sure, despite the pain and embarrassment, to you pay attention to them. They are gold.

When I ran for Mayor in 2003, it really was because of the cynicism of my customers. Every elected official was a bum. It’s open season on elected officials today. My brother told me, “politics is Hollywood for ugly people.” I would argue that despite all our flaws, our American democracy is still the best, the strongest system of government in the world, or even in the history, despite my history credentials. Give it a hand, our government. But this democratic system that we have will only work if people such as myself who have worked hard and been lucky are willing to give back. As an old classmate told me this morning, t’s all about audience participation.

As Mayor, we recruited the best and the brightest, many from business and taking large pay cuts. You better believe I took advantage of my Wesleyan connections.  I recruited Michael Bennet, ’86, from the corporate world as my Chief of Staff and then Superintendent of Schools. And it turned out that he liked the life –  now he’s the Senator from Colorado, running for re-election.

We challenged the status quo that government can’t work. We were transparent and accountable. We sought talent, without regard to politics, whether someone was Republican or Democrat. We weren’t bi-partisan, we were non-partisan. Every good restaurateur learns early that there’s no margin, there’s no profit in having enemies. You need everyone. We were always about solving problems, and you can’t solve problems with only half the people.

I like to refer to myself, because the word “politician” is still somewhat tainted despite our efforts, as an entrepreneur on loan to Public Service. As an entrepreneur I can take success in business and using it as a platform for deeper civic engagement, and then to an unlikely career as the mayor of a major American city. And today, to perhaps an even more unlikely scenario as your commencement speaker for the Class of 2010 at my alma mater.

Now, I am not here today to encourage you to use my life as a template for your own. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons not to do that.

What I am here to say is that the entrepreneur is in each and every one of you.

Feed your dreams; not your nightmares.

Persevere against the naysayers.

Be ready for luck, but don’t wait for it.

Collaborate with others whenever you have a chance and don’t be afraid to work with people who are smarter than you are.

That’s why entrepreneurship is about more than just creating wealth; it is also about success in creating life. It is about success in living life.

When I first ran for Mayor and was at 3% in the polls, we were committed to running a positive campaign and no one gave us a chance. I used to tell my staff about a professor of Public Speaking at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

She told her class that by using opposites you could expand emotion. If you talk about the worst of times, you should talk about the best of times. If you talk about the agony, talk about the ecstasy. She asked, “What’s the opposite of despair?” and one of her students raised his hand and said “joy.” She said, “Exactly. If you want people to feel despair, use ‘joy’ in the same sentence, both words gain emotional impact by their proximity.” Then she asked her class, “What’s the opposite of woe?” There was a pause, and then one hand, way in the back went up and said “Giddy-up!”

The opposite of woe is to giddy-up. As the talented Wesleyan graduate Brad Whitford once said, “At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not your stumble.”

Giddy-up and good luck!