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DeEtte Gray’s North Carolina State University Commencement Speech

DeEtte Commencement Speech2
Intelligence and Security sector president, DeEtte Gray, was honored to be selected as the commencement speaker for North Carolina State College of Education’s undergraduate programs.

Gray, an NC State alumnus and North Carolina school teacher addressed graduates in today’s ceremony held at the Needham Broughton High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Gray encouraged students to seek challenges and step out of their comfort zone to achieve greatness.

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Transcript of BAE Systems Intelligence & Security sector President, DeEtte Gray’s, speech at North Carolina State’s College of Education commencement ceremony.

Thank you, Dean Fleener, Dr. Maher, faculty, staff, graduates, and families.

Being here today brings back so many wonderful memories. Twenty-three years ago I sat in your seat, bright-eyed, waiting for my diploma, eager to be a teacher. And now, I’m standing in front of you— the next-generation of bright-eyed graduates, waiting for your diplomas, eager to be teachers. Wow, how time flies!

My assignment this afternoon is to impart some inspiring words of wisdom to mark this significant occasion, with the added expectation that I also be interesting, amusing, and, most importantly, brief.

As I look back at my career, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is this—

Do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, stretch your personal boundaries and seek challenges. I’m not talking about jumping out of airplanes or eating live goldfish. It’s about leaving that comfort zone and routine. That’s where potential is maximized, and can lead to great things.

Let me tell you a story about how I came to NC State. I’ll never forget the day I got my acceptance letter to this incredible institution. It was a cool, November day.  I climbed into my mom’s Ford Aerostar van. “Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. & Aerosmith was playing on the cassette player. Parents, remember those days? I had to drive to our local post office to get the mail. Yes, people actually did that back then, especially in small towns, like the one I grew up in, Morganton, North Carolina.

I had the sealed envelope from NC State in my hand. I was a little nervous about opening it because I didn’t have a “plan B.” I only applied to one school. Being a North Carolina girl, there was only one place I ever dreamed of going to college. It wasn’t the University of North Carolina or Duke. It was North Carolina State University.

I remember walking outside onto Union Street, and slowly opening the letter and it said “Congratulations, you have been accepted to North Carolina State University” I was ecstatic! I was going from my small town, with a population of about 15,000, to a school with roughly the same amount of people in its undergrad alone. Out of my comfort zone? Yeah! But I was up for the challenge.

I loved my experience at NC State. I loved the campus, I made great friends and I really enjoyed most of my classes. Basketball was huge then. Jimmy Valvano was the head coach. I loved going to the games, and watching him run up and down the sidelines in his animated fashion. I remember the final game my senior year we beat Carolina and I watched Dean Smith bow his head as he left Reynolds Coliseum. 

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Like many of you, I had a work study job to help pay for college. I worked in the horticulture department in greenhouses on campus, making $3.35 an hour. My job wasn’t exactly the most glamorous. I was involved in researching the effectiveness of turkey “droppings” as an organic fertilizer. I actually loved the science part of the job. In fact, my degree was in math and science education.

After graduation, I taught math and science to middle school students for several years.  Talk about stretch assignments!  You’ve all completed your course work, your student teaching and in a few moments you will receive your education degree. But nothing really prepares you for the day when you step inside your own classroom. 

The best leadership training I ever had was standing in front of a group of middle school students. I’ve been through a lot of executive training over the years, but what I learned in that classroom cannot be “taught.” It has been extremely valuable to me in my role today: If you can command a classroom, you can command any boardroom.  You’re on stage from the minute you walk into the school, to the minute you walk out. You have to absorb an array of complex information and turn around and teach it a group of individuals with a variety of learning styles. And you have to do this while you remain calm – no matter what challenges are thrown your way.  That’s my job every day.

When I was teaching, computers were just beginning to be integrated in to the curriculum. We used our state-of-the-art McIntosh computers to do science experiments.  During the day, I would teach students how to use spreadsheets, databases and the search the internet, and in the afternoon I would teach my fellow teachers how to do those same things.

My passion for teaching and my expertise in math, science and computers led to an opportunity that I never expected. After several years of teaching, I was offered a job as a software developer down the road in Johnston County. Talk about another stretch assignment. I was working on Geographic Information Systems, think mapping before MapQuest, and way before Google Earth.

After a few years, another unexpected stretch assignment came along when I was offered an opportunity to go into business at a large defense company, Lockheed Martin. I had never worked in this type of environment nor did I have a business background. But I took a leap, finding myself in an unfamiliar industry - the defense industry. I had to quickly learn all kinds of new lingo and acronyms, since they all talked in code. Just like teachers do. I started as a software developer managing a team of six people. Before long, I was managing a team of 50, then 150, and before I knew it I was a vice president managing 3,000 employees.

After 13 years at Lockheed, I was offered an opportunity I never imagined-- to be the president of B-A-E Systems Intelligence & Security Sector. Once again, I took on a new challenge with a new company, new personalities, in a new role.  Was there a little bit of anxiety? You bet!

It was very similar to my first day as a teacher. But, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is when good things happen. And this challenge, brought with it a new opportunity-- this time, I was really in charge!  Every day, I’m pushing not only myself, but my team of experts who make decisions that impact thousands of lives. 

For those of you who haven’t heard of BAE Systems, we are a global defense company with more than 80,000 employees worldwide. The sector I manage specializes in software development, IT, cyber operations, and intelligence analysis.  This work enables the U.S. military and government to recognize, manage and defeat threats that help protect our nation and those who defend it.

Our experts also drive innovation. We are developing cutting-edge big data analytic solutions, geospatial software tools and mobile applications that are changing the way our customers do business. We’re talking about apps that allow first responders to report potential safety threats in real-time using devices like Google Glass. Our geospatial software has been used to develop 3-D maps of Mars surface, which NASA uses for its Rover missions.

We do some pretty significant and cool stuff at B-A-E Systems. In fact, right before my speech our Advanced Analytics Lab did some real-time trending of social media to learn where the hot graduation parties will be taking place tonight. However, I can’t share that with you, it’s classified.

You’ll have to ask me later!!

For all the parents in the audience, I’m sure you’re beaming with pride and excitement on this important day. You should all be so proud. And, starting tomorrow, you will receive the biggest pay raise of your life. No more college tuition!

To all the moms, Happy Mother’s Day!  I want to give a special thanks to my mom.  She’s actually here in the audience today, just as she was 23 years ago when I received my diploma. She was a single mom who raised me and my four siblings on a humble salary. That’s no small feat! She gave us a good foundation grounded in God and strong family values. And I know she’s just as proud of me today as she was back then. Thank you mom, for telling us that when we work hard we can be anything we want to be!

As I think about all the smart people I’ve worked with throughout my career, I love to think about how important their time in the classroom was in shaping their careers, their dreams and their ideas. That’s why I believe, and hope you do too, as a new generation of educators, there’s nothing more mission-critical to the future prosperity and security of our country than educating and preparing our nation’s youth for success. The students you teach today will be the future leaders, thinkers and innovators of tomorrow. These are the kind of folks I’d like to hire. And, they are the kinds of individuals you must inspire!

In a few moments, you will have accomplished the first major milestone in your career as an educator. You’ll receive your diplomas and officially be college graduates, on your way to your very own classrooms.  For a few seconds, think about that one teacher who made an impact on your life, the one who really inspired you. You are going to be that exceptional teacher for some young student…. for many students. As you head into the classroom, your classroom, know that you will touch lives and make an impact on people you never thought you would. 

As you take on this new role, don’t shy away from the many challenges that will come your way. By choosing this career, you’ve already acknowledged that you’re ready and willing to be pushed, pulled and stretched, perhaps literally! Embrace those comfort zone-busting opportunities and grow from them --because that’s where the magic happens, where potential is maximized, where we produce amazing results. It can, and will, lead to great things.

I wish you all the best as you begin your amazing journeys as tomorrow’s leaders of the classroom.

Congratulations class of 2014!