Use Your Roots and Wings: Video Transcript

Chris Makaroff [Dean of the College of Arts and Science; Professor of Chemistry]: I now have the great pleasure of welcoming Rebecca Messina as our 2019 Guest Speaker.

A member of the College of Arts and Science Alumni Advisory Board, Rebecca is a 1994 Miami graduate with B.A. degrees in both Spanish and Diplomacy & Foreign Affairs. She joined Uber Technologies last September as the company's first-ever Global Chief Marketing Officer, where she brings together Uber's marketing teams from around the world.

Prior to this, Rebecca was Senior Vice President and Global Chief Marketing Officer for Beam Suntory, the world's third largest premium spirits company. You probably had some of their products before coming here. She also spent 22 years at The Coca-Cola Company in marketing leadership roles across Europe, South America, and ultimately becoming Coca-Cola's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Innovation, Venturing & Emerging Brands.

Along the way, Rebecca has lived in Chile, Australia, and France and speaks English, Spanish, French, and Italian, with a mystery fifth language currently in progress. She says that she considers learning languages and living a global life as two of her greatest passions.

Rebecca "set the stage" for her success during her time at Miami as a Miami student, taking on leadership roles in the Miami University Student Foundation organization and the Campus Activities Council. She was also president of her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, and was named Outstanding Greek Woman of the Year.

At Miami Rebecca says she learned how to build the kind of work ethic that has sustained her throughout her professional life. Now, as a top executive at one of the world's most exciting technology companies, Rebecca frequently finds herself in various team meetings and strategizing sessions around the world, focusing on building the Uber brand. Being a powerful female leader in a traditionally male-dominated industry, she says her approach is to embrace empathy and vulnerability as she learns from those around her while also believing in herself.

Well, now it's time to let Rebecca share more about how her liberal arts education at Miami has helped to propel her incredible career success. It is my great honor to introduce Rebecca Messina as our Guest Speaker; please join me in welcoming her to the podium.

Rebecca Messina [Global Chief Marketing Officer at Uber Technologies]: Well done, Jacob. You're a tough act to follow. And thank you, Chris, and good evening, to everyone, all of the faculty, all the families and friends and all these graduates, my own family and dear friends, my sister, my parents. It is an honor to be here today, and of course, in front of all of you, the 2019 graduates of the College of Arts and Science.

I am truly so honored to be here. It was 25 years ago almost exactly to the day, May 14, 1994, that I was in your shoes, and I have a confession to make. I have absolutely no idea who my commencement speaker was. And it's true!

So as I prepared for today, largely haunted by the fact that I'm destined to be forgotten, I hope you might find this marginally memorable and the best I can do for you is at least brief, so I hope for that. I'm sure you do too!

Continuing with the theme of confessions — I have another one to make. Miami was not my first-choice school. My first-choice school didn't want me. And I thought about often the movie Pretty Woman, if anybody's seen it, when Julia Roberts takes her shopping bags, she goes back into, remember, she goes back into the stores that rejected her and she goes "big mistake!"

But honestly — it was no mistake. As the Rolling Stones best said, "You can't always get what you want. Sometimes you get what you need." I got exactly what I needed here at Miami University and so much more.

I was raised in western New York, in a really small town called Batavia, and in coming to Miami I went from one small town to another. As a matter of fact, by the time I was in your shoes and I was 21 years old, I'd only ever lived in very small towns. But I can tell you, 25 years later, that small towns can lead to pretty big worlds. It is not where you come that defines you, it's what you think and how you believe.

I never thought about standing here one day as the global chief marketing officer at Uber or, frankly, any other company for that matter. Instead I thought about being a global citizen. I never really used those words when I was super young, but I sure did wander and roam. I always had a bag in tow. I was curious about my family's Italian heritage, I took to the Italian language, I played any sport a boy could play, and I had an innate curiosity that left me believing I could do and be absolutely anything.

And I had something you have now, a degree from the College of Arts and Science. And I bet your parents have asked you a thousand times, "What does one do with that degree?" I know mine certainly did. But they let me pursue it, nonetheless, but they gave me two other critical gifts.

Let me bring you back for a minute to that first small town. We had a small, round kitchen table, and I ate breakfast at it every morning. And I remember one day finally asking about a picture that was on the wall. It was a black frame and a blue paper in it, and a whole bunch of writing on it. And the writing said, "May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may He hold you in the palm of His hand."

And I was fairly young, and I finally asked my mother what this was all about. And I remember her telling me, "It's there because I love the idea of it, this idea of the road rising up and wind at your back." She went on to explain that the greatest gifts parents give their kids don't come in boxes — at all. She talked about first this idea of roots. She says, "These roots give you something to draw from," and she used this metaphor of trees, where you get your strength, they nourish you, they ground you. But the other gift is much harder, and many parents have a harder time doing it. But as parents we have to give our children wings — that's the wind in your backs, the belief in themselves that they can fly and be anything and go anywhere. And they can. Because of those roots, they have them to fall back on, and they have a place to come home to.

Well, I know those roots and wings are my superpowers. I promise you that. They have caught me more times, they have helped me soar than the number of times I can count. The phone calls home. The rejection letter. The breakups. Even today I found myself relying on those roots for some support, and now Miami becomes for you another source of those roots and wings.

So when it became time for me to graduate from Miami, I did what every kid who wants to be a global citizen does — I started to apply to global companies. And I set my eyes on the city of Atlanta, really just 'cause some other friends were moving there, and any global company in that city. At 21 years old I honestly had no real skills that set me apart from others, a degree, a couple of languages and those roots and those wings, and a few key people that really believed in me. Short of my dear friend Scott McCune and my grandparents, all of those folks who mattered to me in that decision are here with me today.

For four years, I worked for a family here in Oxford, the Ruble family. I found them because during my move-in day to Porter Hall, there was a sign on a tree, and it said "babysitter needed." And it was eloquently written, and it was like Mary Poppins-like, looking for a babysitter to do this and do that; it was stunning. I called them immediately, and for the next four years I'd found some new roots. I'd found a second home and a family here, lucky enough to play a role in raising their — well, it started as two, ended as four by the time I graduated — their four children. They were the first people to support me in those crazy ambitions when I said, "I want to move to Atlanta and work for the Coca-Cola Company." It was Ron and Jaycee — they never doubted my credentials. They said, "How can we help? And actually, our brother-in-law just moved there. Let me make a phone call and see if he can help." Sure enough, that belief and my desire to not let them down got me in the door, and what started as a three-month internship turned into 22 years at the Coca-Cola Company in my realizing my dream of my becoming a global citizen. From living in Atlanta to Santiago, to Sydney to Paris, to see more countries that I can count, to be hospitalized in tons of them, but schooled in countless cultures and life lessons.

I moved to Santiago, Chile in 1999 with the Coca-Cola Company. Every day for months I went to work, passed the same doorman, spoke to the same doorman. And one day this doorman said to me in Spanish, "Where do you go every day?" I said, "I go to work." And he said, "You do? Well when does your husband arrive?" And I said, "What husband?" I said, "I have to meet him first!" And he said, "Well, I actually thought you went to the country club every day." Now, mind you, this was 1999 in the Southern Cone of Chile, in Latin America. And he said, "That is all the women I know do." And he went on to say, with a little tear in his eye, he said, "I'm sorry, but I've never met a female executive." I never thought of myself — I was 27 years old — I never thought of myself as an executive. But I found myself with my hand on his shoulder, so thankful that he'd actually said this to me, because I never realized in that moment that maybe I was doing something more than just going to work. Maybe I was helping to start something. Maybe I was the little seed for the next generation. Maybe he actually might raise his own daughter to believe that there was some different possibilities. We can't be what we can't see.

A couple of years later I moved to Australia, a stunning country, and I had a killer dream job. I was leading sports and entertainment marketing in a sport-crazed country. And it was almost a year into my assignment, and the day was September 11, 2001. I went to bed at the end of the day. And a few hours into the night the phone rang, like constantly ringing. I had to answer it. It was about 2 am. I answered the call, and it was my assistant, and she said, "You have to turn on the television — they're attacking your country." At this point, when I turned on the TV, all the attacks are over, and I'm catching all the replays. I sat on my couch, alone, scared, I wanted to go home, crying, desperate, and it struck me: I chose this. I chose to be this far away. This is the price of being a global citizen. So in that moment, I thought, "What does the world most need, of me? Well, I was in charge of marketing communications, as I said, for Coca-Cola in Australia and New Zealand, and we had an advertisement on the air at the time called "Life tastes good." Life wasn't tasting so good in that moment, so the first thing I did was to call the advertising agency, pull all of our out of home and advertising indefinitely, and then I went to the U.S. Embassy. That’s all I knew how to do -- was to find a way to participate in the services that were happening that day, or that week really. And I remember all the Australians coming to pay their respects to the Americans at the embassy, and a little girl of about 5 years old had made pictures for all of us. And the picture she handed me said at the top, "I'm so sorry mean people knocked your building down." And in that moment, on the other side of the world, was a moment a little less about being a global citizen and a little less about those wings. It was a lot about those roots. I was a proud and heartbroken American.

I then got the call to move to France. Now, if you've ever been to France and don't speak French, you're going to have a lot of empathy for this situation because I didn't speak French. And I mean not at all, pas du tout, not a word. So to illustrate just how little French I knew at the time, it was Day Two. I walked into a store, I buy a pack of gum, the woman says to me, "Merci." And I answered "Beaucoup." And she cracked up, OK, and it took me a minute to realize, I think I just told her "very much" to her "thank you." So that was literally the beginning of a little bit of a living hell for me. And it was going to be a very long five years, and I have tons of stories I could tell you over a few glasses of those Beam Suntory drinks about what I went through, but I realized, "Learn it or leave, Messina." It wasn't going to work, so I buckled down.

Learning languages, as many of you know, requires two things: vulnerability and confidence, in equal doses. And my French was not progressing fast enough, so I was desperate. So I invented a system — this is a true story. I invented a system where I could actually do absolutely anything I wanted, because I made the French people participate with me. So I only knew the present tense for about the first year and a half, so I would walk up to someone and say, "I'm going to speak to you in the present tense, and I'm going to tell you 'tomorrow' or 'yesterday' and you're going to know that you have to conjugate in your head 'yesterday' or future tenses." And this ironically took a long time and was a bit child-like, and once you engaged in a conversation with me you were usually sorry you did it. But it worked, and I got kitchens built and work done and you name it. And it was all fine and dandy until I was the sole witness to a hit-and-run accident.

Okay, so picture this — I'm the only person on the scene. I have a phone, I call 112. Now, 112 is the equivalent of 911 in France, okay. And now imagine there's a man lying on the ground, blood coming out of his head, and I'm on the phone, doing what I do, this whole thing. Now, if you're him, I'm not sure if he was unconscious or not, but he was maybe listening, who knows. Can you just imagine what he must have been thinking? "All the French speakers in France, and I found this lady to help save my life? Like, how is this humanly possible?" Right? Needless to say, I got on the call, I muddled through on this whole, you know, imagine you're talking to a woman who can't speak good French, but "Could you please get here quickly?" Sure enough, they arrived, he survived, and I got the heck out of there. But the list goes on. But I never learned more than I did in those five years. I am now a French speaker, stronger, smarter, wiser, more nuanced. I ultimately met my Dutch husband when I was living there, and I will forever love that country and those people.

But I have another confession. I speak four languages, and I have been married to that Dutchman for 13 years. We have Dutch speaking children, they hold Dutch passports. But I don't speak Dutch. So this isn't going down very well now, 13 years in. And the truth is, you all know this — language is more than just about getting by. It's a window into a culture, and I have done a disservice to my husband and my children's culture by not learning Dutch, so I've recommitted, restarted my lessons, and at almost 47, I am learning Dutch. You are never done!

So after Coke, I left for spirits, yes, the enviable job probably for many of you, and it was great indeed. And last October I ended up at Uber. In a way, again, learning a truly new language. Tech is literally a new language. You are all tech natives. I'm an immigrant to the tech world. I did not grow up in it, I was not born the way you were with it. But being vulnerable to what I didn't know, being confident in what I brought or could bring, opened this door, and we are now living in San Francisco. Together with that Dutchman, we're raising our own two little global citizens. We won't cure cancer, and won't solve some of the world's biggest problems, but we have shown them how to show up in the world and hopefully leaving businesses more meaningful, and our children can order a beer in many languages, four actually.

You were born of a very cool time, actually a defining one. But you can no longer count on religion or politics to give you the leadership or the moral compass you may have had in the past. And business survival is not any longer hierarchical or upward — it is inward. Your own drive, your ability to navigate those waters, will require you to dig deep. And it doesn't come free.

Remember those late nights with your computers on your lap? I still find myself there many a night. You are never exempt from hard work. And on the one hand I stand here as a successful leader, but the world is still pretty uneven. For me to win, in some ways, my husband would tell you he had to lose. And we are not better off if men and women simply trade places. But we are getting better, and the world is opening up, and one day I am confident gender, race, religion, sexuality will not be qualifiers or dividers, and thanks to folks like you, you can accelerate this, because you've chosen to spend four years. You've chosen to spend four years opening your minds, and dare I say your hearts, with an Arts and Science degree. You have the tools to make this world better.

Before I finish, I feel compelled to say one last thing. I have worked at Coca-Cola, at Beam Suntory, with a beautiful portfolio of spirits, and now at Uber. And the last two are best used together. I take the responsibility of these roles very seriously. As you head into this graduation season, I hope you take things seriously too. Drink moderately, and when you do always use Uber, and importantly, always please check your ride. We learned a very hard lesson this year. When your Uber arrives, check your license plate, check the photo, please check the driver's name, the car make, it's all there in the technology to help you. Let the technology keep you safe, because we need you. We need you, a new generation of amazing global citizens, to shape what this century will look like.

I know one thing today. I walked around here proudly — I am Miami. You are Miami. And it will always now be part of your roots. Remember them. Lean on them. Dig deep when the going gets rough. Use those wings to fly, please find some work that you love and that is important to you. And you will never be lonely if you know how to be vulnerable and open your mind and your heart to this fabulous world. And as you go, may that road rise up to meet you, and may that wind be always at your back.

Congratulations, and thank you so much.

Dean Makaroff: Thank you, Rebecca. You're a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with a Miami liberal arts education as your foundation.

[May 2019]