Site Content

2012: Speaker Charlie Ergen

Remarks by Charlie Ergen,
chairman of  DISH Network Corporation and EchoStar Communications Corporation
Wake Forest Commencement
May 21, 2012

Charlie Ergen

Click to see a photo gallery from the ceremony

Thank you, Dr. Hatch, for letting me be a part of this occasion today. And I know with that introduction you are thinking, “Wow, just another CEO speech. It’s going to be long. It’s going to be boring.”  He’s going to talk a lot about himself, and his company.  Well, at least I’ll make this short.

I’m sure many of you graduates are feeling a great sigh of relief today for all your hard work.  But I can guarantee you that your parents are even more relieved … no more tuition, no more monthly checks, no more filling up your cars with gas, and no more shopping sprees to the grocery store. And by the way, that credit card that we co-signed when you came here four years ago … let me put it this way, I wouldn’t try buying lunch with that today.

But, I’m sure I’ll miss the Tavern, strolling out here on the Quad, particularly after a big game with the toilet paper hanging down, or maybe just having a cup of coffee with you.

I was honored to speak today, but like many people I’m a little bit scared of public speaking so I was very reluctant.  So Dr. Hatch sent in my daughter Kerry who is graduating today. And she put the guilt trip on me … something about missing her ballerina debut when she was six years old because I was out of town. But I explained to her that I didn’t think I could do this.  There really wasn’t anything that I could say in a graduation speech that hadn’t been said many, many times before. She said, ‘That’s okay Dad, just give some advice. You are very good at giving advice.’  That was pretty ironic coming from Kerry since in 22 years she has never once taken my advice. However, I did take it as an opportunity to perhaps give her a little advice where she really couldn’t get up and leave and also a point in time where she would actually listen.

So I sat her in my office one day and I thought about what advice I could give.  And so I looked and my wife has lots of those psychologists books and Oprah and those kind of things.  I looked through those books. And I had all kinds of business books about how to be a better businessman. And I thumbed through those and there really isn’t a lot of good advice in them, so save your money.  But I did see a big old bookshelf piled full of children’s books — the ones I used to read with Kerry.  So I apologize that this is probably a little personal, but I did find that many of those lessons that I’ve used in business and in life came from those very stories that we read.

Now Kerry, like all children, loved Dr. Seuss, and while ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’ should be required reading of all graduates, the one she loved I can read with my eyes shut. It’s the story of ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ He comes back and brings a young cat in tow. He says, ‘Young cat, keep your eyes open enough, oh the stuff you will learn, the most wonderful stuff.’ And then later on, ‘the more that you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn, the more places you will go.’

Without question, that is the single best piece of advice I can give you today. You’ve been on a whirlwind learning curve for twenty-two years. You’ve just earned a college degree from one of the finest American universities. But, you had most of your language skills by the time you were five. You had most of your vocabulary by the time you were eleven. And studies show that 40 percent of you will never read another book after today. Therefore, advice number one, I encourage you to listen to ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and spend the rest of your lives learning something new every day. Never, never, stop learning.

I am a firm believer that much of our business success can be traced back to my time at Wake Forest. Just a few years after Wake Forest started their graduate school of business, I was fortunate enough to attend and graduate in 1976. The graduate program was not highly regarded then. In fact, it wasn’t even accredited. But that didn’t stop me from getting a great business education and to learn from some outstanding faculty members.

I’m pleased today just to thank Dr. Bern Beatty, who was one of my professors and my mentor back in 1976 and still teaching. In fact, Bern, I thought you were old back then. And now 36 years later, he is still teaching about why companies can make a lot of money and still run out of cash. And I’m very proud that the University will honor Dr. Beatty with a new business school atrium named in his honor.

But, I got a lot more than learning experience. I learned how to learn. I was thrown into many new situations. Some I had no experience with, and the only way to get out of that was to learn every day. And this lesson continues to pay dividends every day.  I graduated with not the knowledge of how to become the CEO of a large company, but rather with the ability and the confidence that I could learn whatever would be necessary to run a company. Each of you has also received this gift from Wake Forest University. You should use and treasure this for the rest of your life.

Now, Kerry, this might surprise you, but occasionally I have been referred to as highly intelligent. As you can attest to, this is certainly not true. But I did have the advantage of reading to you about a cute little monkey and his friend with a big yellow hat. Like Curious George, I’ve always wondered why something can’t be done.  Focusing on ‘we can,’ instead of ‘we can’t.’ Asking questions. Doing a bit less talking and a lot more listening. There is no question that the more curious you are, the better learner you will be. As a result of working with a lot of very curious individuals at DISH Network, we’ve been able to digitize video and send it to the rooftops of homes across America — send TV channels to your TV, your computer, your phone and your iPad. You can record your favorite show and watch those shows everywhere. And, yes, with a little curiosity, you can even pop over those knowing commercials. Kerry, never lose that desire to interact and tangle with the world and continue to learn by doing, by being curious.

Now, one of the primary reasons people stop learning is that they worry about failing. I can promise you that I’ve found failure to be my very best teacher. Fresh from Wake Forest, I failed in my first two real jobs. I didn’t realize that companies have two kinds of paychecks. One has your earnings with your taxes taken out, but the other doesn’t get deposited in your bank account, but rather in your body of experience. I chose to take jobs that had a big paycheck but only paid a small dividend when it came to experience. I had a boss that knew everything and therefore he had little to teach me. When I realized I didn’t have the personality to work for a big company, I chose to retire at the age of 25, albeit, with not very much money but lots of dreams.

Kerry, you will get many choices of paychecks over the years. I encourage you to take the jobs where you will learn the most, and the other paycheck will take care of itself. ‘I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like green eggs and ham. Try them, try them and you may. Try them and you may I say. Say, I like green eggs and ham.  I like them Sam I am. I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you, thank you, Sam I am.’  With those words Dr. Seuss teaches another lesson about learning. One must try things that you may think you will not want not really want to learn. But as an example, I didn’t want to give this graduation speech. But now that I’m up here in the shade, and see you guys out there in the sun, thank you, thank you, Dr. Hatch, I am.

So, fresh from failing the corporate world, I was encouraged to try something new…actually start my own business. It wasn’t something that I knew I would like, but I didn’t like the alternative. I spent the next two years traveling, asking questions, reading, playing poker, but most definitely learning. When Jim DeFranco called one day, and he had seen a big satellite dish getting signals from outer space, I knew that was the business we were looking for. So, Kerry, your Mom, Jim, and I promptly started EchoSphere Corporation, which later would become DISH Network.

As Dr. Hatch said, within a few days I again failed when we tried to install our first satellite system. The install was about 300 miles from the office in Denver. So with me driving and towing a big satellite dish on the back of the trailer, we set out late one night. But just before dawn, a big gust of wind flipped over our dish, because I was driving too fast. I had just lost one half of our inventory. Well, I had just learned a valuable lesson from ole Professor Failure. But, I also learned that I had two great partners who encouraged me to make up for my mistake. In fact, when the three of us started, we really didn’t care that much about satellite dishes. We just thought we could make a good living at it.

So many graduation speeches, you’ll hear about following your passion. Well, if I had done that, I would be dealing Blackjack in Vegas right now. So, that is not what worked for me. Rather, I would advise you to get really good at something and follow some advice from Dumbledore in Harry Potter. It is our choices that show what we really are, far more than our abilities. I know that what excited me about the satellite television business was that it was a brand-new industry. In a business world where experience was considered valuable and paid a premium, there were no experts and very few people with experience. So this was a chance for us to start a business with everyone at the same starting line. Our success would be measured by our choices and by whoever learned the fastest. They would win the race. For ten years, we got pretty good at big satellite dishes, and yes, we got very passionate about it.

But it was your favorite books, ‘Matilda,’ that was to set us on a new course.  Now, some of you may remember, Matilda. She had idiot parents and a menacing head mistress to contend with at school. But that never stopped Matilda. And in one passage, she advises, ‘never do anything by halves, be outrageous, go whole hog, make sure everything you do is completely crazy, that it is unbelievable.’

So, fresh from many failures and adversity, but still having survived it all, we set out to take Matilda’s advice and be outrageous. We decided to risk everything and launch a satellite to compete with some of the largest companies in the world including General Motors, Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner. We didn’t really have the money or the expertise, but we had the ability to learn, and our plan was completely crazy and unbelievable. Therefore, our competitors didn’t take us seriously until after we successfully launched the Chinese rocket.

Today we have over 30 million viewers who watch us every day all because of Matilda. In fact, even then we didn’t think big enough. Next month we launch our 16th satellite, and we are off on our next adventure to compete in the wireless business against the big telephone companies.

So, let’s sum it up. Never stop learning. Be curious. Try new things. Get really good at something and have the nerve to go the whole hog. Kerry, these are the lessons we learned as we grew up. Thank you for letting me remind you of them today.

I would like to close with a little bit of a different thought, one that I imagine most families are feeling today. It comes from another one of my favorite children’s books, ‘The Runaway Bunny.’ It’s about a little bunny who was ready to graduate, so to speak, and run away. As you move to the next chapter in your life, I want you to remember what the Mother rabbit said.

Once there was a bunny who wanted to run away, so he said to his Mother, ‘I am running away.’

‘If you run away,’ said his Mother, ‘I will run after you.’

‘If you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in the stream and swim away.’

‘If you become a fish,’ said his Mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and fish for you.’

‘If you become a fisherman,’ said the little bunny, ‘then I will become a flower in the hidden garden.’

‘If you become a flower in the hidden garden, I will become a gardener, and I will find you.’

‘If you become a gardener and find me’, said the little bunny, ‘then I will become a bird and fly away.’

‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his Mother, ‘I will become a tree that you can come home to.’

Kerry, I am very proud of you today, and I hope that you know that you will always be my little bunny and that you will always have a place to come home to.

Congratulations to you all for a job well done.