President and CEO of TIAA encourages JSU graduates to close minority wealth gap

(JACKSON, Miss.) –The Lee E. Williams Athletic Assembly Center was filled with blue and gold robes as the graduating class of 2022 sat next to the golden class of 1972 at Jackson State University’s Spring 2022 Graduate Commencement Ceremony this morning.

Four hundred and fourteen graduate students, which included 34 doctoral graduates, in addition to 150 golden graduates received their diplomas.

“It is indeed an honor for me to preside over this commencement exercise as we salute the awesome class of 2022,” said Thomas Hudson, J.D, president, as he welcomed the audience to commencement.”

President and CEO of TIAA, Thasunda Brown Duckett, served as the Keynote. TIAA is a Fortune 500 provider of secure retirements and outcome-focused investment solutions to millions of people working in higher education, healthcare and other mission-driven organizations.

Brown Duckett’s speech to graduates centered on financial inclusion and opportunity, which is also her company’s mission.

The CEO let graduates know that she came from humble beginnings, recalling as a child witnessing her parents struggle financially but still finding a means to an end.

“I would open the refrigerator only to find there was no food. But somehow, my father would make a way to feed his entire family.”

Brown Duckett called her father a hero. Reflecting on his tenacity and determination, she said “He taught me to reach for the moon, and if I miss, I would still land among the stars.”

Because of those moments, Brown Duckett understood the concept of perseverance.

The CEO shared several life lessons with the graduating class, advising them always to remain intellectually curious.

“It is important to understand and recognize that within your career when you take your shot, and yes, shoot your shot; there will be highs, and yes, there will be lows. Even then, ask the question, ‘what is the lesson here?’” urged Brown Duckett. “Ask it even when it’s painful. Be thankful for those learnings. Those tough times that will set you up for something great.”

She also encouraged graduates to take advantage of mentorships and explained that mentors come from various backgrounds and professions. She warned them not to limit their scopes to CEOs or fancy titles, but a mentor could be anyone of great character.

“When I interned in the halls of corporate America, it was the secretaries, the janitors, and the cooks that exposed my melanin and gender to corporate America, and here I stand making history. So make sure you see everyone,” said Brown Duckett, formerly the CEO of Chase Consumer Banking and only the third Black woman to hold the CEO position for a Fortune 500 company.

The executive reminded graduates that they are enough. She encouraged them to embrace their authenticity unapologetically and emphasized that their voice was required.

She demanded that they believe in their stories, own their stories, and bring their perspective, based on their diverse experiences, to the table.

“That’s when the magic happens,” said Brown Duckett, then challenged the graduating class to find their purpose.

In closing, the CEO turned to the topic of financial literacy. She estimated that over 80 percent of Black people often do not have money for retirement. She warned graduates of what could happen if they do not save for tomorrow and secure a robust financial future.

“When a daughter has to tell her father, her hero, who sacrificed so much, he did not have enough to think about retiring. [Having] to tell my father that he never participated in his 401k plan, [which] could have changed the trajectory,” recalled Brown Duckett. “But somehow, my father took that advice and urgently started to catch up, so yes, for me, it is personal.”

Brown Duckett then credited HBCUs like JSU as economic engines and generators of Black wealth. The CEO called for graduates to close wealth gaps in minority communities.

“It is our collective responsibility to do our part to break the cycle. We must right this economic injustice,” she proclaimed. “If we don’t, another generation of children will have to carry that burden. So, yes, we can and will be better.”