Trustee Finco to grads, ‘embrace the unexpected’

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The following speech was given by Susan Finco, UW-Green Bay Trustee and owner of Leonard & Finco Public Relations to the 2017 Spring Commencement graduates.

Video Recording (Finco is introduced at 53:34.)

Chancellor Miller, esteemed faculty, Board of Trustees, graduates and your families and friend. It is an honor to be asked to speak with you today.

I am an immigrant’s daughter. I am a factory worker’s daughter. Like many of you, I am a first-generation college graduate. So how in the world did I end up here?  Talking with all of you?

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Susan Finco 2017 Spring Commencement

When Chancellor Miller called and asked me to be the commencement speaker, I was honored And then I hung up the phone and thought “now what did I get myself into?” And so I asked friends and co-workers, what makes for a good commencement speech. The first thing I was told was keep it brief. OK, I’m good with that. The other thing I heard from a number of people was “be nice.” Be nice?

Apparently, some commencement speakers use the opportunity to pontificate about what’s wrong with the younger generation. Well, there’s no way I’m going down that road. So be nice?  OK – I’m good with that too. But what could I possibly share with you, that you don’t already know? And as I thought about it – it comes down to sharing a few things that I have learned from experience; experience that may help you as you’re starting out on the next chapter of your life. And I say chapter……because I always hated it when someone would tell me while I was in college, “wait until you enter the real world.” You are already in the real world..…. working one or more jobs, studying whenever you can and taking care of family obligations along the way. A lot of pressure….and that’s about as real as it gets. At this point, all you’re thinking is that you are done with college – and you have your life pretty much planned out.

One thing that I can confidently share with you is that your life will not turn out the way you have it planned today. I can see the raised eye brows at that statement. But the second part of that statement is……while your life might not turn out the way you have planned; it can turn out much better than you planned. The unexpected can have some pretty amazing results. It took me a while to learn that.

Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, I desperately wanted to be a dancer.  Specifically, a ballet dancer. I took all sorts of dance classes — run by the park and rec department — so that tells you what level I was at. Still, I was sure-as sure as you can be as a kid, that it was what I wanted to do.

But sadly, to sum up my ability….. The only known photo of me in a dance recital showed nine girls going one way and one girl going in the opposite direction. That was me. To this day, that photo occasionally shows up at family gatherings! So it eventually dawned on me that being a professional dancer wasn’t going to work out. In high school, encouraged by a teacher, I discovered a love for writing and being on the student newspaper. I knew I wanted to be a journalist. But there was no money to send me to college. However, I was fortunate, because at that point in time, you really could work your way through college and that’s what I set out to do. I had visions of being a journalist and conducting the next big groundbreaking investigation. And when I was hired by an all-news radio station while I was still in college…..I was sure I was on my way.

My first assignment? Covering a sewerage district board meeting. I didn’t even know what that was! It led to all sorts of jokes from my friends. If you think about what they do at a sewerage district – you’ll get it! So journalism wasn’t exactly what I expected. But…..I found that in addition to getting to write and report, I learned a skill that would last a lifetime and help propel me forward, in whatever I set out to do:  I learned how to talk with everyone and anyone. A farmer in the field. A family impacted by a tragedy. A presidential candidate. Being able to talk with people.  To understand where they’re coming from. To be a good communicator. It was an unexpected bonus to my work… and being able to communicate,  no matter what field you’re in, no matter what you do in life… if you can communicate, you will be more successful.

In addition to being a good communicator, another skill that has made a big difference  for me, is being able to problem solve. You might not realize it now, but your interdisciplinary studies at UWGB puts you in a great position to be problem solvers in life. When the unexpected hits — and it will — being able to problem solve will be of incredible help. I thought I was going to be a journalist for my entire life. But after moving up, and moving around to several media outlets sand several cities, and then choosing to come back to Wisconsin, I decided I really didn’t want to keep moving.

And the media business was changing. I knew it was time to do something else. But what? I left my job without another one lined up. Not the brightest thing to do. It was a risk. Was I afraid?  You bet I was. What was I going to do? Where do I fit in? What if I fail at what comes next? After all, what I thought would be a lifelong career; what I thought my life was going to be like wasn’t turning out that way. I had to figure it out. But that’s when I learned not to let fear stand in my way.

Fear is a funny thing in life.

And I’m not talking about fear when your health, life or safety are in danger. Then it’s a good thing. But there’s this other kind of fear; the fear of failing or fear of making the wrong decision. That kind of fear can paralyze you. Or you can use it to motivate it you. I choose to use that fear I felt of the unknown, motivate me.

We all have things that don’t turn out the way he had planned, so then the question is, what are you going to do about it? I took those communications and problem solving skills I developed over the years  and began talking to everyone and anyone about what I should do next. When talking with a former boss of mine, he said “you know the media, you know how to write and communicate; why not help companies and organizations deal with the media?  Go into public relations. Maybe we should start a business.” I actually wasn’t sure about it. I never dreamed of owning my own business; in fact, I didn’t know anything about running a business. No one in my life or family had ever owned a business. But after careful evaluation, Charlie Leonard and I decided to work together for six months, to see if we could both make a living from it. And I had a lot to learn…..but fear of failing kept me going…. and working hard as we grew our business.

We made mistakes along the way, but we learned from them. When Charlie retired after eight years, I became the sole owner. Now you might think working on my business was my sole focus during that time, but I can tell you it was not It was a priority, but so was continuing to learn about the world around me, and being a part of the greater community around me. It is a great way to learn new skills, meet new people and it can lead to things you might never expect I have served on numerous boards and committees and community initiatives… and one of those efforts is the reason I unexpectedly landed on the Green Bay Packers board of directors I volunteered with the Vote Yes Lambeau Field renovation referendum committee.

I felt then, as I do now, that not only are the Packers a great brand identity for our community, but the organization is also an economic engine in our community. My work on the committee led to Bob Harlan asking me to serve on the board. Through the years, I’ve served on several Packers committees and chaired their community outreach committee…. And that led to Mark Murphy asking me to serve on the executive committee; the seven-person committee responsible for the organization’s top line personnel, the strategic direction of the organization and the overall business operations. Would I have expected to be a member of the Packers Board of Directors growing up? Not a chance. When I was growing up, a woman would never have been on the board much less the executive committee. But times change, and opportunities arise and the unexpected happens.

Oh… And to answer the one question many of you may be thinking:  No, I don’t get any tickets to the game. But being a part of the organization is such an honor, and it’s very rewarding to know, that I am in a small way making a difference. My path in life, my opportunities in life, have been shaped by good communication skills, being able to problem solve, not letting fear of failure stand in my way, and being open to the unexpected.

As the daughter of an immigrant.

The daughter of a factory worker.

And as a first-generation college graduate. My life did not turn out — at all — like I thought it would. It is so much better than I could have ever imagined. And I wish the same for all of you!

Thank you and all the best to you.