Leave it to a fashion-industry titan to offer UConn business students some words of wisdom that will likely never go out of style.
Alumna Melinda Brown ’77 (BUS) ’85 MBA shared her business perspective based on 40 years working in global consumer products and luxury retail companies.
Brown most recently served as the Senior Vice President and Controller for Tapestry Inc., the umbrella company of Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman, until her retirement in 2019.
During the undergraduate Commencement ceremony on Saturday afternoon, she offered advice on everything from the importance of pivoting in a career to shaking off pajamas, getting dressed, and traveling into the workplace. She called her 15-point speech “The List of Things I Wished I Knew Sooner.”
Don’t Get Stuck In Career—Or Life
No matter what your plan is in business, or in life, don’t get stuck, Brown urged the soon-to-be graduates.
“Plan well, but pivot better,” she said. “Or, as Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.'”
To be successful, make a good plan and follow it, until it no longer makes sense. Sometimes plans need to be adjusted or even abandoned, she said. Capitalizing on the recent UConn Men’s Basketball victory, Brown posed a scenario in which a grad is on the way to a party and a friend texts saying she just won tickets to the final 2024 NCAA championship game, which, of course includes the UConn team.
“While I can’t say what you’d choose, I can say this… You’re making a big mistake if you don’t carefully consider going to March Madness,” she said, to the audience’s delight. “No matter how good your career or life plan is, don’t get stuck. Pivot, pivot, and pivot again as opportunities come your way.”
Show Up In the Office
Brown also recommended new and ambitious employees make the effort to go into the office.
“COVID has normalized working from home. But even if you love sitting in front of the computer wearing your favorite Roller Rabbit pajamas, get yourself to the office every week,” she said.
In the office, you will learn the nuances of your business, experience spontaneous connections, and develop a work family, she said.
Being Smart Isn’t Enough
Brown also told the graduates that being the smartest person in the room isn’t good enough.
“Smart is always impressive,” she said. “But people like to work with people they like. If you are the smartest, and I am not doubting that you are, if you are always right but you are not gracious and likeable, that fast-rising star of yours will likely get bogged down. If you are likeable and gracious, your star will rise faster. If you are likeable, gracious and smart—your star will soar!”
It Is What It Is!
Brown said she has a favorite coffee mug that says: It is what it is.
“Sometimes you are dealt a hand where you just need to live with a situation, or work around it the best you can, and help make the big changes over time,” she said.
She described the adoption of her first child in 1986. At that time maternity leave wasn’t granted to adoptive mothers, despite her senior manager status at a prominent company. After many conversations, the company allowed her to work from home so that she could be with her child for the first six weeks. Although thankfully parental benefits are much stronger now, there are still workplace issues that are unresolved.
“Wishing that it wasn’t [that way], focusing on the inequality, or attempting to change a deeply ingrained behavior or law, is not going to move you forward in the timeframe you need,” she said. “I have found the answer to be creative work-arounds that sometimes get us to an even better place, while also stealthily replacing the prior norm. Just do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt. It is what it is!”
Give Back To UConn When You Can
Lastly, she urged the students to give back to the university and the students who follow in their footsteps. Brown has served as a chair of the UConn Foundation Board, the university’s fundraising entity, and created its Women in Philanthropy fund. The opportunity to give back to your alma mater brings generational changes not just for future students, but also for the State of Connecticut and the world, she said.
Before congratulating members of the Class of 2023, she offered one parting thought.
“There is no one else in this entire world who has your unique perspective or point of view. How lucky some corporation, organization, or start-up, or maybe your own entrepreneurial business, will be to have you on board,” she said. “Wear your UConn t-shirts with pride. And be fierce, be gracious, be gritty, be smart and be kind. Live your best life!”