David Bohnett Speeches

Commencement Address

Twenty-two years ago, on a day much like this, in May, 1978, 1 received my Bachelor's degree from the USC School of Business, and I sat right in the same ceremony that we're all a part of today.

When I told my mother that I was coming here today, she got a little misty eyed. Now, in all honesty, my mother can get kind of teary about any number of things … especially when they involve her children. But I think that my Mother was really remembering being out there, and thinking about how important that day and this place was, and still is, to our whole family. I'd like us to give a hand to all the folks here today, the mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers, grandparents, children, husbands and wives, friends and significant others, to those people who love you and have supported you in your efforts to earn your degrees. This day is as much for them as it is for you, and we thank and congratulate them, too. (Applause)

When I left this campus in 1978, 1 was like so many of you here today: optimistic about my future and yet so uncertain of what the world held in store for me. I left sunny California for chilly Ann Arbor, earning my MBA at the University of Michigan … and, despite tempting offers from other parts of the country, I returned to my adopted home of Los Angeles and took a job as a staff consultant with Arthur Andersen & Company.

A Bachelor of Science degree in business from USC says a lot about you. It says that you can read a financial statement, develop a marketing and promotional plan for a new business or product, create spreadsheets, analyze the competition, and design an e-commerce Web site. But I learned very early in my career that having those skills alone doesn't guarantee success in the business world. Furthermore, if you do master the art of business, climb the ladder of responsibility, and reap financial rewards, none of that necessarily leads to happiness, or to personal growth and satisfaction.

I'm very proud of what I accomplished with GeoCities. It was my vision and my dream, and I was completely devoted to it, despite many invitations, and just as many urges, to quit while I still had a dime to my name.

But, just as proud as I am of GeoCities itself, I am equally proud of the fact that I built the GeoCities team and company without hiding who I was or what I believed in. By the time I created GeoCities, I didn't want to just succeed in business. I wanted to do what I think we all want to do. I wanted to stand up and make a difference, follow my passion and pursue my dream.

My message today is that it's time for all of us to dream big – to create greatness within ourselves, and for ourselves. I am thankful for the success of GeoCities and for having the financial wherewithal to make a concrete difference in the world. But we all continue face the same challenge: To maintain faith in ourselves when everything-around us suggests that we should do otherwise. And even more, to tell the truth about who you are, even when everyone around us would prefer that we remain quiet.

My success in business has opened doors I never dreamed possible. Influential political and business leaders ask me my opinion. I get invited to participate in forums debating important subjects. My voice, and, through me, I hope the voice of others, is heard. But what about you? What about your voice, your passion? I challenge each of you to pursue not just financial reward or career accomplishments, but to pursue your dreams, your passions, your true interests, and if you do that, with all your heart, I promise you that the financial success and the career goals will take care of themselves.

When evaluating grant proposals, my charitable foundation looks to see whether the organization seeking funds is committed to making a difference, whether they will improve our society through social activism. Its something we call “the trimtab factor'. Trimtab is a nautical term that was coined by the great engineer Buckminster Fuller. He said, and I quote, “Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one.. man could do. Think of the (cruise ship the) Queen Mary. The whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there's a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder called a trimtab. It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trimtab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the .. individual can be a trimtab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that (trimtab) and the whole big ship of state is going to go along with you.”

So I urge you, no, I implore you, all of you, to take what you have learned here at USC out into the world and make a difference. And not just when you become, as I expect all of you to be, successful. Not just when it is easy, or it is comfortable, or it is convenient.

I was 38 years old when I started GeoCities. I had had a career in the software business prior to that, having held a variety of positions in finance and accounting, as well as in operations and marketing. I'd worked for a number of companies, large and small, and had been exposed to a wide variety of industries and individuals. There are but a few business colleagues who stand out in my mind as having made a real impact on my thinking and on my approach to business. The common theme among these individuals was not necessarily their skills or expertise, although each was an expert in his or her field. The attributes each of these folks had in common was a true passion and commitment in what they were doing, and an incredible vision and drive to pursue what they believed in. What these people taught me was that true success in business is not learning how to read a financial statement or develop an e-commerce Web site, real and tangible success comes to those who follow their hearts as well as their minds. Finding that thing which you are passionate about above all else, and pursuing that activity which you love to do, these are the keys that unlock every door.

I've succeeded in business by my own definition and on my own terms, because I focused on three things. I had a really good idea, and the discipline and strength to pursue my vision. I had faith – in God and in myself. And I had a commitment to tell the truth about who I am and what I feel.

My idea for GeoCities was all about my passion for empowering others, giving everybody a voice, and the chance to contribute and participate in the new medium of the Internet. Through my own personal experience in business and in life, in coming out as a gay man, I saw how powerful it was to stand up and have a voice, to be able to meet other people of similar interest, and share my thoughts and ideas in an open and welcoming environment.

GeoCities developed the tools and utilities that made it easy for anyone to create their own free personal home page on the Web. We gave everyone the opportunity to meet other people and join a community of interest, be it about sports or music or politics or finance. This strategy tapped into the unique strengths of the Web, and generated a tremendous amount of traffic to our Web site. Our business model was based on selling advertising and sponsorships, as well as incorporating e-commerce within each of our communities.

GeoCities is a triumph as a business. But its genius and popularity fie in its model of community – creating, belonging and empowering for its millions of members. Volunteer community leaders and virtual community centers foster social responsibility in all GeoCities neighborhoods. Even the basic notion of giving people the tools to build their own home pages, to express their truest individual selves, promoted coming out in its most universal sense.

In closing, I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon.”

There is a world of challenges waiting for each one of you and you have no time to waste. I am honored to be here today, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. There is no time to lose. Let us all go out and plant a forest of trees this afternoon.

Thank you very much.