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Honors Convocation

Although more than 3 decades have passed, my experience at St. Vincent College continues to impact my life in many ways and my prayer is that each of you will share this same experience.

I was in the first class of women to graduate from SVC. I transferred from William & Mary where I was on a basketball scholarship. I continued to play here at St. Vincent. This was the first major life decision I made on my own, without my parents’ permission. You can imagine that this didn’t go over very well, and it would take years for my wonderful parents to appreciate that it was indeed my destiny to be a Bearcat. I believe the turning point with them was when I joined the college board this year—Italian’s struggle a bit with forgiveness.

I’m amazed at the enhancements to our beautiful campus! Back in the day, things were just a bit more “rustic” shall we say. There were very few women and we had to make our own fun. My roommates and I realized our entrepreneurial skills early on and applied them to the promotion and execution of quite a few successful parties. 

I was one of 8 economics majors in 1987: 7 young men and myself. Nearly all of them went on to pursue PhDs, but per my advisor, a young Dr. Gary Quinlivan, knew this was not to be my fate. I worked very hard to maintain my academic performance but lacking the necessary math skills it was sheer determination that got me through Calc 3 and Linear Algebra. In other words, I needed A’s in all my other classes to finish with a 3.8 GPA. I got married on this campus just a few months after graduation. In fact,  in this very Basilica with the Blue Angles streaking through the sky—Dr. Quinlivan was not thrilled as he wanted me to go to grad school first—but in spite of that he was there.

I completed my MBA at Wayne State University in Detroit just three years later and began my career with Ford Motor Company. A few years into my tenure there, I was asked to deliver a Jaguar to an executive at Mellon Bank who had won a 1-year lease as part of a promotion through Ford Motor Credit. I couldn’t help myself; I drove that gorgeous car up to this campus, parked and walked up to Dr. Q’s office. I knocked on his door and announced that I had my masters, a great job in finance at Ford Motor company and I now made as much money as he did. We’ve remained fast friends ever since. 

I share this story because I want to impress upon you the incredible impact that a professor who cares deeply about your success can have on the trajectory of your life. I had no idea in 1987 that he would play a role in so many big moments to which I am grateful to this day. In fact, he was here right in the back of this church for my son’s baptism nearly 21 years ago. 

I wanted to be successful because he believed I could be (just not as an economics professor). 

Fast forward to 2005, Dr. Quinlivan now a Dean, called and asked me to join the board of the McKenna School. I was honored but had to humbly ask if he would change my name back to the original “Cecconi” —my maiden name. I shared that after 17 traumatic years, I was now divorced. His comment, “I never liked that name anyway”.  It was a rough period in my life, and there was something prophetic about being asked to return to this beautiful campus at such a pivotal time.  I was a single mom with three young children and those moments of peace, traveling back to Latrobe, helped me to rebuild myself mentally and spiritually.

Giving back, even when we feel like we don’t have much to offer, is a wonderful way to move through a difficult season. We are called to share our time, talent and treasure with the causes and organizations we care about. 

What I’ve learned over the years is that our value as human beings will ultimately be derived far more from our suffering than our success. That may sound antithetical but it’s true. At 56 if I could speak to my 21-year-old overly confident self I would tell her that being smart and successful are blessings, but they won’t prevent you from having challenges. 

I spent 7 years in finance with Ford Motor Company. Ford moved us to Nashville in 1994 and for that I will always be grateful. But finance was not my calling. Like economics I could do it, but it was a struggle. The bottom line—I didn’t love it, so I decided to change a few things as I neared my 30th birthday. 

  • One, I wanted to live in an environment where there was real community, a place where I could raise children safely— aka returning to Detroit was not an option.
  • Two, I needed to figure out what would bring me joy from a career perspective—if you are going to spend the majority of your waking hours working it’s important to love what you do. 

My father often shared that if you do what you love you won’t work a day in your life. That was great advice. It’s still great advice. There are so many tools available to help in that process. It’s never too late to change direction as you learn more about yourself. 

From pure finance I slowly began taking steps toward product management and then left Ford entirely to join a very entrepreneurial company that developed marketing programs for community banks. I knew nothing about marketing or banking other than what I cobbled together as a teaching assistant in grad school, but I was hungry to learn. From there I took a bigger chance and joined a Telcom start-up as the head of marketing. I knew nothing about Telecom and had not run a marketing organization but it all felt very natural and so I dove in headfirst. It was 1999 and Telecom was the wild west. We raised and spent nearly $40M and spent nearly all of it in less than a year. As we launched the road show to take the company public, the telecom market imploded. And so, with 40 cents in the bank, and 700 employees on the rolls, we sold to Covad, a Silicon Valley start-up that had become national DSL company. 

What I learned from that experience was: 

  • I loved start-ups
  • Telecom made absolutely no sense 
  • I was never going to move to California and 
  • I wanted to build companies the right way—I wanted to be part of something that created true value for the investors and founders and had the capacity to make a difference in people’s lives 

Take chances. Learn from every position you take. Also determine how and where you want to live. Find a place where you’ll feel good, even relieved when you fly back from a business trip or even an amazing vacation.  

12 years ago, I launched a company called Punching Nun Group. It’s a healthcare marketing firm that has served over 100 growth stage, venture backed companies. Although our name always raises eyebrows, I quickly explain that it is based on servant leadership as a core operating principle, a concept deeply tied to the Benedictine philosophy. That may seem contradictory in a world that is driven by power and not humility, but it is a way that we honor God in our work efforts. Starting my own company was absolutely terrifying but with the support of those closest to me I am pleased to say that I’ve never looked back and have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams

Recently I bought a car that I’d been wanting since I was a kid, a Maserati—and of course I had to tell Dr. Quinlivan. All of that is wonderful and enjoying the fruits of your labor is absolutely right. However, I am very intentional about ensuring that my company and my personal success are leveraged to ease the suffering of others. We tithe as an organization and each quarter collectively invest in a cause or situation; we all agree is worthy. In the first quarter of 2022 we selected a woman who lost her a son to a drug overdose. She raised three kids on her own, is a public-school teacher who takes care of her 87-year-old mother who has dementia. I don’t share this to confer how awesome we are, only to speak to the importance of getting to know people so that when a need arises you can be there to help. 

Accepting that our success is a gift from God keeps us both humble and generous. We who are given much are called to be a blessing to others. The world doesn’t honor spiritual matters as it does the material. But our spiritual lives will endure forever so balance these things. Ponder what you learned here, all of it, not just the intellectual. 

After being single for a few years I met and married a wonderful man. He was a widower and a pastor at that time. We are an unlikely pair, at least on paper. But he is a man of great character, and we share a deep faith. 

Marriage is difficult even under the best of circumstances. But shared values are critical especially when you face significant challenges. 

A few years after our marriage the children and I were finally at peace and life settled into a comfortable pattern. This was something I had not experienced in 17 years of struggle with their father’s addictions. We were happy and healthy. And then one day in what I thought was a routine medical appointment we were handed devastating news. My then 18-year-old daughter was diagnosed with an incurable neurologic disorder called Friedrich’s Ataxia, a form of muscular dystrophy. I was devastated—but then the doctor asked me if any of the other children were having issues. My oldest was in college and was struggling with balance and some other concerns which we ascribed to an accident she had recently recovered from. I knew in my heart that she too had FA. It was as if time stopped. This is genetic disease with no treatment and no cure. The girls and I have a saying, half said in jest,  and it’s  this: “Cry in the shower like a real woman.” I can assure you that I cried and even screamed in the shower, more than once. 

Life is not fair. 

I didn’t know that as I walked across the stage and received my diploma in 1987. I believed if you worked hard, you got As. If you love enough your marriage is certain to succeed and if you’re good and actively follow your faith you and your family will be protected. Unfortunately, that is bad theology. 

But there is hope. It’s been 7 years since that medical appointment and although both the girls are now using electric wheelchairs.  In spite of that, Marinda is in a PhD program for organizational psychology and is happily married. Fiona graduated from college, started her own graphic design firm and is becoming a well-known comedienne in Nashville. She calls it ‘sit-down’ comedy. And they are both in clinical trials that have shown great promise. I’ve been blessed through my work efforts to meet amazing physicians and scientists who continue to assure me we are very close to a cure. 

Hope is a very powerful thing. Even it is only the size of a mustard seed. 

A few years ago, we had our 30th reunion here at St. Vincent. It was a wonderful time of reconnecting with dear friends. After the event we were all hanging out when one of my former teammates suggested that my life seemed to be very “easy”. It was an odd thing to say, so I opened up to her about the struggles that my children and I have faced. She shared that her son had Huntington’s Disease and was in very dire straits. We talked, we cried, and we connected. There is something rich and meaningful when our own story and transparency can make someone else feel less alone. 

You are entering the adult part of your lives at a very interesting time in our country and our world. If I had one thing to share with you today it is this—be not afraid. 

This world needs someone just like you—to find a cure for a rare disease, to help create new sources of energy, to teach the next generation, to improve the lives of those in the third world. There is much work to be done, and each of you have the intelligence, drive, and God-given talent to change the world for the good. Be assured, you will fail, you will struggle, and you too might cry in the shower at some juncture. The goal is not to avoid falling down, just remember to fall forward, keep moving, get back up and know that God is in control. 

At a recent meeting of the Academic Affairs committee, part of my board responsibilities, we voted on providing a sabbatical for a priest who intends to create a stunning stained-glass window depicting the annunciation. It represents the sanctity of life, a foundational element of the college strategic plan and our faith. It may seem like a small thing, but it reminded me that beauty is a blessing and worth the investment. That type of investment happens in a community like St. Vincent. 

Remember the peace you feel on this campus. Take that peace out into this crazy world, make it part of your work lives, your families, and share it with others. 

That is your calling as a Bearcat.

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