Sheltered under a rainbow of umbrellas and clear plastic ponchos, the UNC-Chapel Hill Class of 2015 heard a series of commencement speakers tell them that life would, no doubt, brew storms on their paths ahead.
But Sunday was more about bright Carolina blue than gray skies overhead. And the thousands ofgraduates were encouraged to face any dark days with “courage, kindness and optimism.”
Speaker after speaker told the millennials, led into Kenan Stadium by members of the Class of 1965, to take risks, to push beyond their comfort levels.
“Be useful as well as successful,” UNC President Tom Ross said.
Jason Kilar, 44, a UNC-CH alum from the Class of 1993 and a media and entertainment innovator, stepped up to the podium as the rain got heavier, livening up a generation steeped in all things digital.
The founder and CEO of Vessel, a mobile video service, and founding CEO of Hulu, an online company that offers a selection of TV shows, movies and more, took a round of selfies with the sea of blue caps and gowns in the background and posted it online with the hashtag #UNCgrad.
Kilar joked about UNC’s inviting him to speak – “the guy best known for making it easier to watch recent episodes of ‘South Park’ and ‘Family Guy.’” Then he offered a touching, sobering and inspiring outline of his 22 years since sitting on the Kenan Stadium bleachers for his own commencement ceremony.
With a degree in business and journalism and a childhood dream of following in the footsteps of Walt Disney, Kilar set out for California after his graduation ceremony, only to encounter life-altering adversity three days later.
“A day after arriving in Los Angeles – and on the heels of my informational interview at Universal Studios – my mom tearfully but bravely shared the news over the phone that my dad had taken his life,” Pilar told a rapt audience. “He was 47. Kind, loving husband of 27 years. Proud and wonderful father of six children. Accomplished professional, having put himself through school, earning three degrees. The man I admired most – who taught me so much – was gone from this world, three days after I last saw him, in this very stadium.”
The weeks and months that followed were tough for Kilar. The movie production job did not work out as he had hoped, and he moved home to the East Coast for a temp job after the California police told him he could no longer live out of his Subaru on a Cal State-Northridge parking deck.
But on a day devoted to honoring mothers, too, Kilar spoke of the courage, kindness and optimism his mom had used to overcome the adversity caused by his father’s suicide. That summer of 1993, Kilar dug deep for strength, observing that a “well of strength” can be drawn from in such times of despair.
“We find that we can persevere,” he said. “You can persevere.”
In 1997, he left Harvard with a master’s degree from the Ivy League business school and a “debt level that approximated Slovenia’s gross domestic product.”
He jumped into Amazon in its early days, “intoxicated” by the company’s offering of a chance to innovate. A decade later he took a risk on Hulu, despite the naysayers who publicly ridiculed his idea.
“The typical human response in the face of the new is to ignore, mock or dismiss it,” Kilar said. “New is scary. New is the unknown. Most everyone does not believe that the new will work … until it does.”
And it did. Now Kilar is trying new again with Vessel, a company touted as one that has the potential “to change the way consumers discover and consume video.”
“If you think the world is broken in a certain way and you have a great new idea to fix it, do yourself a favor and pursue your convictions, relentlessly,” Kilar told the Class of 2015. “The path I describe will be an uncertain one. But don’t let the fear of uncertainty, of not having all the answers, be the thing that holds you back from pursuing your dreams.”
Some graduates were still trying to plan what steps they will take next, some more troubled by the current job market than others.
Gina DeGraphenreid, a graduate from Asheville with an economics degree, said she feels good about her prospects: “I’m not desperately worried.”
Landon Sherwood, a graduate in business from Southern Pines, has a job lined up with the FBI. As luck would have it, he said, he was less than optimistic about his next steps until seeing information about the FBI and saying, “Why not?”