Food for Thought

Commencement 2019: Pomp, Circumstance...and Dinner's on Him

President and CEO of Darden Restaurants, Inc., urges Sawyer Business School graduates to be curious, love what they are good at, and embrace challenges
Gene Lee at Commencement 2019

Gene Lee


00:06 good morning let me just rearrange here

00:12 real quickly dean o'neill acting provost

00:19 royal chairman lam members of the board

00:23 of the trustees distinguished faculty

00:25 parents and families fellow alumni and

00:29 most importantly to the members of the

00:32 class of 2019 congratulations from it

00:39 Timmy thank you for that kind and

00:42 generous introduction

00:43 growing up 20 miles west of here this

00:47 knucklehead from Framingham never

00:49 imagined he'd be standing before you

00:50 this morning I would also like to say

00:54 thank you to my wife for her love and

00:56 support through the last 28 years

00:58 I would not be here today without you

01:00 and my two daughters Samantha and jemmye

01:04 for their love and support and

01:06 understanding the demands of my job it's

01:09 been great to watch both of you grow and

01:11 become the wonderful young ladies you

01:12 are today I'm very proud of you

01:15 Anita thanks for being here this morning

01:18 and if I'm being honest this isn't the

01:21 first time I've been in a situation that

01:23 my younger self would find difficult to

01:26 comprehend my journey to becoming the

01:29 president and CEO of Darden Restaurants

01:31 was anything but traditional like many

01:35 of you I grew up in a blue-collar lower

01:38 middle-class family with loving parents

01:40 who never prioritized their old formal

01:42 education but had very high expectations

01:46 for my education see I was an average

01:49 student okay maybe a little below

01:52 average but I never applied myself and

01:55 the heart of my parents pushed me the

01:58 more I ignored them see for as long as I

02:01 can remember my priority was sports all

02:05 I wanted was a ball in my hand a

02:07 basketball a football or baseball like

02:12 so many kids I believed my future was

02:14 field or a court reality hit me hard

02:18 when I was 16 I was cut from a high

02:21 school basketball team I was crushed

02:24 the final harsh realization that I was

02:29 not going to be a professional athlete

02:30 so word is a 16 year old boy turn when

02:34 his dreams are shattered my parents

02:37 hoped this would be the jolt that I

02:38 needed to focus on my study and improve

02:41 my grades I had a different idea I was

02:45 gonna get a job

02:46 but wasn't gonna play organized ball I

02:49 was going to make some money and buy a

02:50 car truth be told I really wanted to

02:53 make money to buy beer and this was the

02:57 beginning of my restaurant career I

02:58 started as a busboy at the orc

03:01 steakhouse and the Natick Massachusetts

03:03 that winter and while I got off to a

03:07 slow start I almost quit or got fired

03:11 multiple times in the first couple

03:12 months I quickly climbed the ranks that

03:15 my managers gave me more more

03:17 responsibilities I worked a lot in my

03:20 senior year in high school I even

03:23 skipped school to work which right now

03:25 makes no sense to me but I finally found

03:28 something I was really good at I found

03:31 it like it's still be part of a great

03:32 team working toward a common goal I went

03:36 off to college that fall but it wasn't

03:38 for me so at the end of my freshman year

03:41 I decided to take a break from school

03:43 and join the management training program

03:45 at York steakhouse I vividly remember

03:48 telling my dad I was leaving school it

03:52 was the first time I knew that I had

03:55 truly disappointed him but he never gave

03:58 up for the next ten years or so he would

04:01 find every opportunity to remind me that

04:04 it was never too late to go back to

04:05 school and get then get a real job

04:08 but I'd found my home in the restaurant

04:10 industry I began to have success I

04:13 quickly moved up the corporate ranks in

04:15 the industry eventually becoming the

04:17 vice president of operations for Pizza

04:19 Rio no but I came to realize that I

04:22 wanted if I wanted to continue and grow

04:24 professionally I needed a formal

04:26 education

04:28 that's why I discovered sulphate in the

04:31 fall of 1994 I entered in the Executive

04:34 MBA program I owe this University of

04:37 data gratitude they took a chance on an

04:40 unproven student it was a wonderful

04:43 experience a great professor's a smart

04:46 and engaged thoughtful cohort I have

04:50 achieved what I've achieved would not

04:51 have been able to impossible without the

04:54 foundation here at this great an

04:56 institution I will be forever grateful

04:59 to Suffolk I am proud to see that

05:02 students are still afforded the

05:04 opportunity to receive a world-class

05:05 education based on their potential

05:07 success I've had a wonderful career and

05:12 I'm an example of what you can

05:14 accomplish with hard work perseverance

05:16 and a little luck along the way I'm an

05:20 optimist and I still believe the

05:22 American Dream is alive and well

05:24 I'm excited for you as you enter the

05:27 next chapter of your life don't listen

05:29 to those who tell you the opportunities

05:32 don't exist anymore we have been here

05:34 before this country I survived the

05:37 Agricultural Revolution the Industrial

05:39 Revolution and now the information

05:42 revolution as the world continues to

05:45 evolve there will be plenty opportunity

05:47 for those who are able to find their

05:49 place and work hard I have learned a lot

05:53 over my 30 year plus career and as I

05:57 reflect on what has made a difference

05:58 for me three things come to mind

06:01 one a passion for lifelong learning - an

06:06 ability to prioritize and three the

06:09 critical importance of trust in building

06:12 relationships I hope that's sharing my

06:15 thoughts on these important topics will

06:18 help guide you as you begin the next

06:19 phase of your lives let's start with the

06:22 topic of lifelong learning

06:24 you leave Suffolk today with the

06:27 foundational knowledge you'll need to

06:29 begin your journey and there'll be

06:31 countless opportunities to continue and

06:33 learn and grow but I want to focus on

06:35 experiential learning without exception

06:39 you've grown and matured during your

06:41 time at Suffolk but it's important to

06:44 acknowledge that you're relatively

06:45 inexperienced in all facets of life

06:47 especially business when I reflect on my

06:51 own career I realized just how

06:53 unprepared I was for the

06:55 responsibilities I had but back then I

06:59 thought I knew everything as I continue

07:02 to learn and have different experiences

07:04 I realize how little I really did know

07:07 today the more I learned through my

07:10 experiences the more uncertain I am of

07:13 the answers to the questions I was sure

07:16 I had the interest to when I was younger

07:20 this is my belief the key to continuous

07:23 learning is curiosity the one

07:26 characteristic I see in all successful

07:28 business people is that they're

07:30 extremely curious they are interested in

07:33 the why not just the what they enjoy the

07:37 process of completing the task and want

07:40 to understand the details being curious

07:43 will continue to build on what you've

07:45 learned here at Suffolk who you work

07:49 with and who you choose to be your

07:51 mentors will have an impact on your

07:54 learning journey you want to work with

07:56 people who involve you as much as

07:59 possible Ben Franklin said tell me and I

08:03 forget teach me and I remember involve

08:06 me and I learned it's imperative for you

08:09 to find ways to be involved and more

08:12 importantly be the person everyone wants

08:16 to involve because you add value as

08:20 people go through their careers in life

08:21 I see them make what I believe is a big

08:24 mistake through feedback mechanisms

08:28 annual reviews 360 degree assessments

08:32 and other tools people hear quite a bit

08:35 about their weaknesses and not enough

08:37 acknowledgement of their strengths don't

08:41 misunderstand it is important to

08:43 acknowledge that we are not perfect but

08:45 we should learn how to minimize our

08:47 weaknesses and focus time and attention

08:49 on enhancing our strengths

08:52 and my 30-plus years of leading people

08:54 I've never seen anyone turn a true

08:57 weakness into a strength

09:01 learning to deal with setbacks is an

09:03 important part of life I've dealt with

09:05 multiple setbacks in my career

09:07 especially early on there were many

09:09 times I thought I should have been

09:11 promoted and someone else got the

09:13 opportunity dealing with disappointment

09:16 and striving to improve my performance I

09:19 was better prepared the next time an

09:21 opportunity presented itself now looking

09:25 back I can clearly see why those

09:28 decisions were made everyone will face

09:31 setbacks in their career and for that

09:33 matter of life how you learn to handle

09:35 those situations will be defining

09:37 moments for you

09:38 I encourage you to continue to build on

09:42 the strong strong foundation you have

09:44 poured here at Suffolk be curious learn

09:47 to love what you're good at and embrace

09:50 the inevitable challenges you'll face

09:52 along the way in my role today the

09:58 question I'm asked most is how can I

10:00 maintain balance and have the quality of

10:02 life I want why having a successful

10:05 career my answer is simple

10:10 challenging and disappointing all at the

10:14 same time the only way to achieve your

10:18 personal professional goals is

10:20 defectively prioritize all aspects of

10:22 your life let's unpack what it means to

10:25 prioritize first let's look at the

10:28 definition of priority a thing that is

10:32 regarded as more important than another

10:34 so by definition every aspect of your

10:38 life can be ranked by level importance

10:41 to you my suggestion is to break your

10:45 life into three components self-care

10:49 care of others and career and then rank

10:53 what's most important to you

10:56 throughout your life your priorities

10:58 will change and they should change

11:00 but right now you have to rank these

11:04 areas and understand the consequences of

11:06 those rankings see there is no personal

11:09 or professional success without

11:11 sacrifice

11:13 however I do believe you can find

11:16 balance the key is effective

11:18 prioritization within each component

11:21 clearly defining for yourself what's

11:23 most important - inside these areas and

11:27 managing your time effectively will lead

11:31 to a feeling of balance but it's very

11:34 important that you realize that

11:36 everything can't be a priority and you

11:39 have to make the difficult decisions in

11:41 a prioritization process I learned how

11:45 important this is when I began my MBA

11:47 program at Suffolk I was learning a new

11:50 job

11:51 I was recently married and I was about

11:54 to become a dad for the first time it

11:57 was the worst possible time for me to

11:59 take on another priority but I knew the

12:02 opportunity at Suffolk was critical in

12:04 my future and my family's future so I

12:07 had to figure it out I sacrificed self

12:11 care and care of others to focus on

12:14 furthering my education and ultimately

12:16 in my career it was never easy but it

12:20 was the right prioritization for me at

12:22 the moment in my life and it also

12:24 enforced me to excel at time management

12:29 distinguishing between the important and

12:32 the urgent is critical for long-term

12:34 personal and professional success and

12:38 lastly I want to share my thoughts on

12:41 trust building relationships is

12:44 extremely important to achieving

12:46 professional success and relationships

12:48 need to be built on trust

12:50 brought you up your career you will

12:54 decide who to trust

12:55 leaders peers and employees and more

13:01 importantly through your behaviors you

13:04 have to earn the trust from that same

13:06 group of people I want to quickly share

13:10 how I think about this very important

13:12 word

13:13 trust it's simple to me

13:17 trust equals judgment plus ethics trust

13:23 equals judgment plus ethics for me to

13:27 trust someone in my organization I need

13:30 to observe sound decision-making over

13:32 time and see them consistently and up

13:35 equivocally live our company values part

13:39 of assessing whether or not someone has

13:41 good judgement is observing whom they

13:44 choose to surround themselves

13:46 I advise young leaders in my

13:48 organization to assemble a personal

13:50 board of directors made up of family

13:53 friends colleagues and mentors to act as

13:57 informal advisors and I urge all of you

14:00 to do the same who will you choose who

14:04 will influence you do these individuals

14:07 reflect your individual personal values

14:10 do they understand and align with your

14:12 goals and dreams will they be truth

14:16 tellers will they be cheerleaders will

14:19 they make you better as you navigate

14:23 your journey through life just as your

14:25 priorities will change so will your

14:28 personal board of directors choose

14:30 wisely and don't be afraid to make

14:33 changes when necessary I may still be

14:37 that knucklehead from Framingham but

14:39 even I know that brevity ISM and this

14:41 moment is appreciated so let me leave

14:44 you with one last thought there are

14:47 three types of people in the world those

14:51 who are wondering what's going on those

14:54 who are watching what's going on and

14:57 those who are making things happen and I

15:01 hope you the class of 2019 will be one

15:05 of those now you may not remember a word

15:09 I said today but hopefully you remember

15:12 me as the guy who bought you dinner for

15:15 all the graduates under your chair you

15:17 will find $100 giftcard Danny Darden

15:19 restaurant

15:24 and for those who care the Capital

15:28 Grille is is on there the logos not

15:30 there

15:41 fellow alumni I wish you much success

15:46 enjoy your journey

15:48 take care

15:57 you

Gene Lee, the president and CEO of Darden Restaurants, Inc., urged graduating Sawyer Business School students to “build on the strong foundation you have poured at Suffolk.” He was the keynote speaker at Suffolk’s 2019 Sawyer Business School Commencement.

Lee, a Business School alumnus, drew on his years of experience in the restaurant industry, telling the bachelor’s and advanced degree candidates that they should surround themselves with people they trust.

“Assemble a personal board of directors made up of family, friends, colleagues, and mentors to act as informal advisers. Who will you choose? Who will influence you? Will they make you better?” he asked. “Choose wisely and don’t be afraid to make changes when necessary.”

Opportunities still exist

Recounting his 30-plus-year career, Lee pointed to himself as an example of what someone can accomplish with hard work, perseverance, and a little luck. Lee started his career at age 16 as a busboy at a York Steakhouse in Natick. Now, he’s president and CEO of a company that has more than 185,000 employees and more than 1,700 restaurants. He reminded students that the American dream is alive and well.

“This country has survived the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolutions, and now the information revolution,” he said. “As the world continues to evolve, there will be plenty of opportunity for those who are able to find their place and work hard.”

Curiosity is key

Lee drew on other examples of his business experience as he shared advice with graduates. “The one characteristic I see in all successful businesspeople is that they are extremely curious,” he said. “They are interested in the why, not just the what. They enjoy the process of completing the task and want to understand the details. Being curious will continue to build on what you have learned at Suffolk.”

He also advised graduates to choose mentors wisely. “You want to work with people who involve you as much as possible,” he said. “It’s imperative for you to find ways to be involved, and, more importantly, be the person everyone wants to involve because you add value.”

A final present

Lee didn’t just give the students advice: He also surprised them with a graduation gift. Hidden under each of their seats was a $100 gift card to any of the Darden family of restaurants, which include Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Yard House, and The Capital Grille, among others. The students roared their approval as Lee told them about his present. “You may not remember a word I said today,” he said at the conclusion of his address. “But hopefully you will remember me as the guy who bought you dinner.”

It isn’t the first time that Lee has helped Suffolk students when it comes to food. Under Lee’s leadership, his company has given $125,000 toward the construction and operation of the Suffolk Cares Pantry to ensure that all students have access to the nutrition that fuels a healthy lifestyle and academic success.

Lee received the honorary degree Doctor of Commercial Science at the ceremony.

An unflappable class

Speaking on behalf of President Marisa Kelly, who could not attend the ceremony due to a death in the family, Acting Provost Sebastián Royo praised the “unflappable nature” of the class of 2019.

“You have never been reluctant to take on new and unfamiliar roles or move beyond the comfortable,” Royo said. “And I have no doubt you will hit the ground running as you move into the next phase of your careers. I know this because, from my vantage point, you have not stopped running since you arrived here at Suffolk University.”

About Gene Lee

Gene Lee is president and CEO of Darden Restaurants, Inc., which includes Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s. Darden employs 185,000 team members in more than 1,700 restaurants serving nearly 380 million guests each year.

Lee began his restaurant career in high school as a busboy at York Steakhouse in Natick, Massachusetts. He has been recognized across the restaurant and food service industry for his leadership and his commitment to culture and people. In 2018, he received the International Foodservice Manufacturers Gold Plate Award for industry excellence, which is widely regarded as the food service industry’s top honor. In 2013 he was given the People Report Workplace Legacy Award, presented annually to the leader who has clearly demonstrated a commitment to balancing people and performance throughout his or her career in the foodservice industry.

Lee is a native of Framingham, Massachusetts, who received his EMBA from Suffolk in 1994.

Commencement 2019

The Sawyer Business School Class of 2019 comprises 1,027 new alumni, with 648 undergraduate and 379 graduate degrees awarded. The Sawyer Business School ceremony was one of three Suffolk commencements held on Sunday, May 19, at the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront.

The University conveyed a total of 2,137 undergraduate and advanced degrees during weekend ceremonies for the Sawyer Business School, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the Suffolk Law School.

Lee's involvement with the Suffolk Cares food pantry.

More from Sawyer Business School Commencement 2019

Text of Speeches

Gene Lee {PDF], President and CEO of Darden Restaurants, Inc., Keynote Speaker 

Malik Richard [PDF], Undergraduate Student Speaker

Brian Teague [PDF], Graduate Student Speaker

About the student speakers

As Commencement Approaches, Two Students Reflect

Commencement Ceremony

See photo galleries and replay Sawyer Business School commencement video

In the Media

Boston Herald: “And You Get a Meal”


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Office of Public Affairs