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

00:02
[Applause]
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
15:20
[Music]
15:24
and for those who care the Capital
15:28
Grille is is on there the logos not
15:30
there
15:31
[Applause]
15:41
fellow alumni I wish you much success
15:46
enjoy your journey
15:48
take care
15:49
[Applause]
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.

Read more about 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”

Contact

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs
617-573-8428

Ben Hall
Office of Public Affairs
617-573-8092