Mural in Braddock. Photo by Brian Cohen.

When we caught up with Andy Hannah recently and heard about the commencement speech he gave at Pitt’s College of Business Administration, we asked to see it. And then we asked to share it with our readers. Since we’re all about change and what’s next for our region, we liked his convincing message that students will change the world. We especially like this part about the lessons he’s learned: Everything will be ok, the universe is unfolding as it should, and happiness is a choice. Read on to learn more from the former CEO of Plextronics and now co-founder of OThot, a predictive and prescriptive analytics company that helps customers predict, understand and change the future.  

I am honored to be speaking to you this morning and challenged by the responsibility to impart a few words to you that may qualify as wisdom or insight on how to navigate the incredible voyage that lies ahead of you.

In preparing for this talk I reflected on some of the important words that impacted my life – the words that inspired; the words that pulled me through difficult times; and words that were a rudder to navigate my path.

Through this reflection I wanted to understand why certain words over others have stayed with me as consistent themes for my personal journey.

For example, I love Robert Frost’s famous words “I took the [road] less traveled by and that has made all the difference.” However, I believe they are more descriptive of my life rather than instrumental in setting my course or guiding me along my path.

What I discovered is that inspiring words are only half of the equation. The other half is that you have to be in a state of life and a state of mind to hear the words in order for them to have true impact.

To better articulate my thoughts allow me to tell you a bit of my story. I graduated from a university nestled in a cow pasture in the center of Pennsylvania. After a quick tour of history, political science and pre-law, I graduated with a degree in accounting. In 1987 I accepted a job with Touche Ross (that’s Deloitte today). I spent 3½ years at Deloitte, earned my CPA, became a manager but in my heart I knew I wanted to be a CEO and an entrepreneur but I had no idea how to get there.

I decided to pursue my MBA at Pitt where I focused on Marketing and Finance. I went back to Deloitte as a senior manager in a dual rule – mostly as a new product development professional. I was doing unique things and learning a lot but I was ready for the “next step” on my journey.

One of our clients was a startup company called ISI. I met the CEO and instantly was in love with his business. A couple of months later, at 29 years old, I joined ISI as employee number 18 and as its CFO too and began to build the infrastructure of the company. ISI went on to become a great success with 250 employees and 18 worldwide offices and was sold in 1999 to a large European company. At 34 years old, I knew that new venture creation was my professional love.

Andy Hannah at this favorite breakfast place, Pamela’s in the Strip.
Andy Hannah at this favorite breakfast place, Pamela’s in the Strip.

But there is an important back story here…

In 1994 my wife and I learned that she was pregnant with our first child. She was a buyer for Macy’s and her salary was higher than mine. She made the courageous decision to leave an accelerating career to be a full-time mom. (By observation, the hardest job that I have ever eye-witnessed and the products that she generated – my two wonderful daughters – are far superior than I will ever create in one of my entrepreneurial ventures.)

She quit her job and at the same time we bought our first house. In 1995 when I joined ISI I took a significant pay cut. So let me sum up the scene for you in 1995: new baby, new house/mortgage, new company with virtually no money in the bank and our household income was reduced to about 33% of the prior year’s.

Sounds like a movie plot, no?

When this decision to leave a secure and accelerating career hit the “family newswire” the phone rang and you will not be surprised to learn that on the other end of the phone was my father-in-law asking me what the hell I was doing with my life and why I was dragging his daughter and new granddaughter into this craziness. I met him for a drink and the only thing I could think to say to him was “I can’t tell you why but I know everything is going to be okay.” Six months later we moved the company to Boston and I was well down the road on a new journey.

After ISI I spent a couple of years with two new startups. One was sold in less than a year and the other crashed and burned. Again, I realized I was ready for the “next step” on my journey.

In 2002 I met a scientist at CMU who had discovered plastic materials that can be semiconductors and conductors. With this technology, I spent the last 12 years building Plextronics into a company to change the world. We hired 25 leading PhD’s from all over the world, we had customers all over the world, and raised over $80 million. We developed an amazing culture with core values of Leadership, Innovation, Vision and Ethics. The first letters of those words spelled LIVE and we “LIVED Plex”. On March 25th of this year we sold the company to our largest investor. The financial outcome was not great; however, I am as proud of the people and vision of that company as I was with the people and vision of ISI.

Early in this talk I told you that you have to be in a state of life and a state of mind to hear words for them to have true impact. At 48 years old I look back on the decision I made as a 29 year old, to take the leap to join ISI – without significant thought to the possible negative consequences. The words I listened to were from inside myself, the words I repeated over and over again to my father-in-law: “I can’t tell you why but I know everything is going to be okay.”

You have to listen to that voice. Trust that voice.

Many of the words that have guided me since then have come from others at critical times in my life. As I was challenging the paths I was choosing on my journey a mentor said to me , “Don’t worry, whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

These words, that come from Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata”, taught me that I could not control most aspects in my life and that I needed to trust the decisions that I was making personally and professionally.

The last two years have been the most difficult time of my professional life as I struggled to maintain control of my company and obtain the capital necessary to continue our quest to change the world. I have always had a positive outlook on life but it was the words “happiness is a choice” that solidified my resolve to avoid defeat and remain true to myself. You can’t control external factors but you can control your disposition – I choose to be happy in the most difficult times.

These words: everything will be ok, the universe is unfolding as it should, and happiness is a choice came to me when I was ready to hear them.

I carefully chose the five words that began this talk: “You Will Change the World.”

It is a factual statement – it is not a prediction, it is not a platitude, they are not just nice words to give to you as you leave our hallowed halls here at Pitt. They are factual. How do I know this? Because I have seen this movie before. Yes, your journey will be unique but I guarantee you that you will indeed change the world.

Consider the words. “You” has a double meaning – “you” as individuals and “you” as a collective and interconnected group of people who have endless potential, endless energy, and endless possibilities.

WILL” leaves no doubt – no room for movement. It is an affirmative verb that gives certainty to the future.

“Change” indicates that you will leave an impression, cause new action or that you will enable a “to be” state.

“The World” gives meaning behind the change. This means that your impression on the world will be meaningful.

HOW you will change the world is up to you. As a teenager I had dreams of creating a lasting impact on the world – in a global sense. I am in awe of the well-known figures of history and how their words and actions changed the world. I aspired to lead change in that way.

What I have learned is that having a global historic impact is admirable but “world-change” is the work of leadership at every level of society and is individually defined. You have learned in your classes at Pitt that leadership can be practiced at every level of the organization – from the CEO to the new hire that will begin his or her careers at PNC, PricewaterhouseCoopers, BNY Mellon, Deloitte, Dick’s Sporting Goods or wherever your first professional assignment takes you.

Leadership and change will happen in your home, your community, your company and wherever you spend your time.

Some of you will make heroic impacts on the world by starting companies with unique cultures that hire thousands of people. Some of you will rise to the C-level suite of Global 1000 companies. Many of you will coach youth sports, volunteer in soup kitchens, and save lives in volunteer first-responder positions. You will impact lives for the better and collectively you will change the world.

Parents, friends, the University of Pittsburgh has prepared your children, these individuals, for this future. They are prepared to redefine business and how people work together. They will redefine how we attack the greatest problems of the 21st century. Pitt has not only prepared them to be agile business people and pragmatic critical thinkers but it has also prepared them to manage life in general.

What’s next for me is another step – the latest sequel of “my movie”. You are just walking into the movie theater. In fact, you are about to watch the best movie ever. It has every aspect you can imagine – comedy, romance, intrigue, and perhaps even tragedy. It will be a story of courage, struggle and fulfillment. It will be your story. Unique and ever changing.

As you take this journey, ask yourself, How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?” This line comes courtesy of my musical loving high school freshman. It’s from “Seasons of Love” – a beautiful ballad from the musical Rent, a story of inspiration and hope. As you watch your pay check, title and material metrics grow through the years, challenge yourself to measure your life in terms of love, friendships, and people you impact in positive ways.

To steal from my college freshman daughter’s blog, “In Shambhala Buddhism, there is an emphasis put on staying in touch with basic goodness, the innate goodness in everything and everyone. Every day, one should draw upon this basic goodness to live in and appreciate every moment. Draw on the positive energies (“windhorse”) to live your life in appreciation for and betterment of the world.

In other words, carpe diem. #YOLO. Harness windhorse. Live for the moment. No day but today. Which of these phrases speak to you is irrelevant; the inherent idea is the same.”

Remember, there are no limits to what you can do and the path is unpredictable. I hope my story stands as proof to that fact. I learned that each of the steps I took was preparing me for the next one. Pitt has prepared you for the next step on your journey. Take the time to listen. The words that have true impact on your life will find you. The last words I pass along to you come from the beloved Star Trek franchise and I am convinced that at least one of you 550 graduates is in a state of mind to hear these words, Imagine a future state and make it so. In no uncertain terms you WILL change the world.”

Andy Hannah

Andy has played leading C-Level roles at four high tech start-ups over the past two decades and in early 2014 Andy co-founded OThot – a Predictive and Prescriptive Analytics company that helps customers...