Walter Robb, Co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets gave the Commencement Speech during the 2013 Commencement ceremonies held May 4, 2013.
Text of Walter Robb's 2013 Commencement Speech
Thank you, President Eibeck for that warm introduction, and for your leadership at Pacific these past four years.
My thanks also to Kathy Janssen for her terrific work as chair of our Board of Regents, and to my fellow Regents for their dedication and enthusiasm in serving the University.
I would also like to acknowledge my family—my sons Ted and Chris, who both graduated from Pacific—’02 & ’06—And my daughter Abby, the family CEO—and their spouses and the grandkids that are here today. They are the ones that have always been willing to go with me into each and every grocery store we found along the way.
Congratulations to all the distinguished guests, friends, family, and especially graduates of the class of 2013 on this very significant and meaningful day.
Pacific is a magical institution, with a 156-year history of providing a superior education on a foundation of the core liberal arts now integrated with outstanding professional programs, and dedicated to educating the whole student. I trust it is as meaningful to you and your family as it is to mine. And I am sure that today in particular you are grateful for Pacific.
Gratitude is a wonderful emotion. At Whole Foods Market we end every meeting—no matter how spirited—with appreciations for one another. Today as you reflect on all that you have shared and experienced here, be grateful for this time and for all the people who have helped you along the way.
It is a pleasure and honor to speak with you today. It is also a big assignment. My kids said don’t be boring. My father said get to the point. I said I better get some help, and so with the assistance of Vice President Griego, I talked with a thoughtful group of students to learn what was on your mind.
So here is what I heard—The world you are graduating into is challenging. The outlook is uncertain. There are school loans to pay and many of you do not have jobs or a clear plan. This is making you nervous, discouraged, afraid, and even despairing at times. This is honest and real.
But I also heard this - You are feeling proud, inspired and hopeful—anticipating your next steps. You are reflecting on the lessons learned and the knowledge gained on how to build relationships and experience life outside of the classroom.
And you said, your professors are really interested in you as individuals. They have spent time with you and genuinely want you to succeed. They have helped you develop as whole people.
And finally - As part of your time here, you have explored your “My Why” and the question of what makes “a good society.” You have learned that you have the responsibility, the opportunity, the possibility, and the ability to impact the world. Let me tell you up front that in my experience, living a life of purpose and on purpose, to impact the world is everything! And I want that to happen for each of you!
When I graduated from college, I thought I was supposed to be a lawyer, but it didn’t work out that way. Nor was I a natural foods guy either. Mom’s featured dinners included piggies in a blanket, Bird’s Eye frozen squash and succotash, which I tried unsuccessfully to share with my dog Lucky under the table.
I grew up with a family on both coasts and had the benefit of an excellent education, both in high school and college. When I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, one of my professors, Jerry Irish, taught a fantastic class in religious ethics, and he asked us to consider profound and open ended questions about life. I remember to this day our final exam - which was a take home—with just a single question—which was:
Drawing on the readings in this class…. Who are you and in what or whom do you find guidance for the conduct of your life?
I had to dig deep and really reflect on was what important to me—on my values. Values are things you hold in the highest esteem, stakes in the ground, things you use to make decisions and guide your life. What surfaced for me were integrity and ethical behavior, humility, compassion and care for others, open-mindedness, and a willingness to learn.
I assure you it is that final exam that I most remember and the one I most value and I have tried to live my life in accordance with those values. And so I ask you today, who are you and in what or whom do you find guidance for the conduct of your life? What do you believe? What are your values? What are the qualities and inner strengths you most want to develop and cultivate in an ever-changing world?
After college I worked for a time as a paralegal and everyday for six months I rode the train back and forth each day to San Francisco. One afternoon on the way home the train screeched to a halt. Someone had run in front of the train and was hit. The world stopped. Everyone was out on the tracks. I can still remember the moment, amidst all the chaos, there was a voice inside that said I was on the wrong track and needed to make a change. I applied to become a high school teacher and moved to Athens, Georgia. It is probably different for everyone, but I believe these moments are a gift, an insight, and a light forward. Will you listen and trust when those moments come—will you honor your true voice—your heart’s call—with action, by making changes in your life?
So I began working as a high school teacher—though just out of school myself—teaching history, geography, and politics. I asserted my entrepreneurial spirit early when I junked some of the assigned textbooks and created a real life curriculum around politics with issues forums, trips to the city council and planning commission meetings, and debates with elected officials. We also started a nice organic garden on campus and sold the produce in the school parking lot twice a week.
After one year, for family reasons we moved back to California and to the Central Valley and took a crack at almond farming on my then wife’s family farm. I was interested and excited to try out some of my new-fangled innovations like planting out the berms and bringing in sheep to mow the weeds and grass. Well one evening the sheep went across the road and went into my neighbor’s vineyard where he had his grapes down on the ground making raisins. He showed up at our door around 3 am with a shotgun in his hand and said either we get the sheep out or he would. That sort of thing, along with the fact I wasn’t very adept mechanically at fixing tractors, and that while burning weeds one day with gas instead of diesel I scorched myself with second degree burns, were the clues that helped me to see that farming was not my calling either.
So we moved to Trinity County way up in Northern California and I became a writer roaming the county interviewing old timers and looking for history and stories. This research resulted in a full-length book. But when this project was complete—what to do next? There was nowhere to run or hide - and I had to recognize I had no more run way. I had to declare who I was and make a decision. These times comes to those who desire a life of purpose. You will not get away from it until you face it head on. What is your way forward in life? What is right for you?
I had been reading Wendell Berry, Francis Moore Lappe, and Robert Rodale, publisher of Organic Gardening magazine, learning how to garden, grind my own flour and make my own bread, participating in community meetings at the local Civil Defense Hall and thinking about whole grains and more nutritious foods for people and communities. So when the question came at the end of the research project, we bumbled stumbled and tumbled to a decision to start a small natural food store in 1977.
Starting a little store seemed like a good direction to go. Seems easy to see it looking back on it now, but it was damn hard to come up with it then. It was just one of those moments where you take a leap of faith and trust something—trust yourself. So Mountain Marketplace was born. And I will say that from the very beginning it felt right.
What was the moment of that decision? What was the inspiration? I am not completely sure but it started as a small seed, a little idea, and truth in part—out of a sense of desperation. But the idea gathered some momentum and things really came together when my stepfather wrote me a check for 10k on the spot after hearing my proposal, saying I believe in you. When you make up your mind, the universe can line up behind you, and resources show up. I had no business or retail experience but I was fueled by passion and a desire to do something impactful. We learned as we went along. We leased an old auto garage up on the north highway and on our knees scrubbed the cement floor with muriatic acid. There was no insulation so we bought a wood stove for heat. We built some wooden fixtures and then put them in place for the inventory. Our opening order cost 3k and the owner of the distribution company drove it to us himself.
The next day we spray painted a rough sawn pine board “open” and propped it up against an old cinder block, and did 200 dollars on our first day. After a year or so we were able to move downtown into a nice historic building. I was now officially a small town grocer, working 7 days a week, and ending each day in the basement counting the money, putting it in the green bank bag, and walking down 2 blocks to put it in the night deposit drop at the Bank of America on Main Street.
So here is my takeaway from my teacher—farmer—writer—and natural grocer chapters….There is value in every chapter of your life. As Thich Nhat Hanh said so beautifully, “I have arrived. I am home. My destination is in each step.”
Finding your calling—your purpose—is a journey. For only a few folks does it come out of the sky like a thunderbolt. Most of us have to work for it. The answer comes in little bits—bits that have to be affirmed, trusted, listened to, and then acted upon if you are to find your way. It is a most precious unfolding for it is with this unfolding that you find yourself. Maybe Aristotle’s words are helpful, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”
Once you are moving in your purpose, your purpose keeps gaining momentum, growing and even expanding in scope, feeding on itself. You are growing your conviction and confidence even as the ups and downs come, which they most assuredly will.
And even in the ups and downs, because you are moving in your purpose, you will persevere. Like a ship at sea with fog all around, such that you can’t see the next shore, steer by the thing you know inside - and use your values as beacons. Remember also you must first let go of the shore from where you sailed so you can be open to what is next. You can’t necessarily know how it will turn out, but that is the beauty and wonder of the open sea.
After 10 years with the store, I was bouncing off the walls. I didn’t have a plan, just a sense that there was something more—that the world was a bigger place and that I wanted something more challenging. Everything was right about the store, about the community and serving the community but the desire for more of a challenge kept growing. We sold the store and moved to the Bay Area where I managed a natural food store and then later transitioned to sales, offering a natural rice mix to supermarkets out of the back of my trunk. This was in the early days of cell phones when they were the size of a large brick, and I remember driving around and making calls feeling like a pretty big cheese. This was to be the only time in my career where I was out of retail. Soon I began looking for a new place to do another store.
After several years, I had a lease in hand, and I was raising money to build and open my store when John Mackey came calling. It was hard to give up my own entrepreneurial effort, but in Whole Foods I saw a chance to be entrepreneurial within the context of a quality company, and I negotiated lots of room to move. It has worked out well.
So we opened the Mill Valley store on the July 4th weekend 1992—Store number 12 for Whole Foods Market. The store was on the site of what had been the original grocery store in town, and I remember in our enthusiasm to bring in customers, we used one of the original ads with prices from the 1930’s, including fresh banana splits for a nickel. That turned out to be a big hit except we ran out of our own chocolate sauce by noon and had to go down the street to Safeway to buy all of their chocolate sauce.
The store went on from that auspicious opening to become very successful and taught me so much about business.
This decision to sell to Whole Foods was a hard one and a close one too. My takeaway is that often the most important decisions, the ones that really shape your life, are often the most difficult because you know what is on the line. There are always choices to make. Often these choices come down do the slimmest of margins, tipped one way or the other by an intuition, a hunch, a feeling in your gut. There isn’t necessarily a right choice or a wrong choice, just your choice. This is where having values and purpose really help.
From this point things have just continued to evolve—Whole Foods has moved from the fringe, to a fad, to the mainstream and to cutting edge over these many years. There have been many risks along the way, and there have been many risky decisions. The success of Whole Foods could not have been predicted, nor was it expected or planned, but it arrived anyway. I think it is Ok to say this now—the truth is we made it up as went along. And I have enjoyed every moment.
You may remember that one of my original values was open-mindedness and willingness to learn. I have learned so much along this journey—grown so much as a leader—in ways that continue to be both humbling and inspiring. One of the biggest lessons is to learn to let go—and empower others. If you don’t let go then there is no room for others to grow. Not letting go keeps the world smaller, and letting go makes it bigger—creates the space where others can flourish—and this in turn helps you to build a team and a company.
And I have learned about both service and love in leadership.
Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”And it is true—in supporting others, in encouraging them, and in helping them to achieve their goals, not only does a company succeed but you will also find more fulfillments.
And then there is love. Love and fear are the two most powerful forces in the universe, and love is the most powerful of all. I am a very competitive person, driven to succeed and win. And that is very useful and healthy up to a point. But it cannot come at the expense of your integrity or your care for others, and in fact the truth is they can exist side-by-side quite well. I can compete with respect for my competitor. I can compete on the high road and still do everything possible for Whole Foods to win.
As I have gotten older, as I have lived more years as a father, and now a grandfather, I have seen and felt the power of love, and worked to cultivate it in my leadership and my life. I keep learning to use my head but lead from and with my heart.
It isn’t always easy to live a life of purpose—in addition to your values you are going to need courage. Courage by the way is not the absence of fear—rather it is the quality of the heart that allows you to overcome fear, which of course we all have. Cultivate and practice letting go, loving and being courageous in your life.
Let me share with you that I feel so incredibly privileged and grateful. I don’t feel like I have worked a day in my life nor do I feel any separation between my work and my life—my work is my life, and my life’s work is our passion and purpose unfolding. From this I would suggest—seek fulfillment more than balance, and continue to seek it each and every day. I know you will be richly rewarded.
You know this is a challenging moment in time—but remember that while there is a deficit of jobs, there is also a surplus of work to do. I know this is your moment in time. This is when you have the most opportunity and the fewest obligations.
And your generation gets it. That sustainability and awareness is a must not a maybe. That interdependence is the natural way of the world and not an afterthought. Stewardship of the environment follows from this. And your generation also knows that communication, cooperation and collaboration are the way forward. To affirm the dignity and worth of each other, we must understand other perspectives.
There is no one-way to live a life of purpose; there is just your way. But—it is your responsibility to find it.
Don’t ask what you ought to do - or want to do. Ask yourself what you love to do and then go make a living and a life doing it.
People will tell you it can’t be done. It’s simply not true. Dream big—it’s free—and it just might work.
Find your calling. Honor your values. Walk in your purpose.
I wish you Godspeed and a purpose filled life. Thank you.