6 Lessons for Graduates from an Entrepreneur

By Paula Tompkins on May 25, 2015
Paula Tompkins-Marshall University-Commencement_Speech

Paula Tompkins, our CEO and founder, spoke at the 178th Marshall University Commencement on Saturday, May 9, 2015. Following is her speech.

Good Morning, graduates, and congratulations on reaching this major milestone in your lives. Congratulations, also, to all the parents and grandparents!

It’s hard for me to believe, that 41 years ago I was sitting right where you are today, with no real idea the direction my life would take after college.

I graduated from Huntington High School in 1970, then attended Marshall University, during which time I held jobs at Amsbarys — a men’s clothing store — and AB’s Shoes, trying to make enough money to pay my way through college.

My most vivid memory of my time at Marshall was the plane crash of our football team and boosters in 1970. I was a freshman and several local friends lost parents in the crash. It was a very difficult time for all of us in Huntington and at Marshall University.

I graduated from Marshall in 1974 with a business degree in hand. Soon, I was on an airplane for the first time in my life winging my way to New York City. I had been hired by The Bank of New York as a commercial banking trainee upon graduation. I thought, “Look out, Big Apple and Wall Street, here comes Paula George, a country girl from Huntington, West Virginia!”

Frankly, at that time I had no idea life was going to be a journey and not a series of events. My goal today is to share my journey with you, so when you walk through these doors to the world that awaits you, you will understand that your adult life is indeed a journey and one over which you need to assume control.

My formative years…

I was born here in Huntington, on June 16, 1952, to Emil R and Helen Hensley George. My mother was a hairdresser and my father owned a shoe store. Neither attended college.

An only child, I grew up on Fairfax Drive. I attended Gallagher Elementary, Beverly Hills Junior High and Huntington High School. My mother and father divorced when I was a young child. In those days, divorce was not common and my parents’ divorce created many challenges in my teenage years, especially financially. My mother insisted that I learn the value of a dollar and made me get a job at the Dairy Queen on 20th Street when I was 16. I was never a straight A student, but was a solid B+. I started my first year in college out to save the world as a sociologist. That ended after my first class on the subject.

When I realized I had a knack for business, I decided to pursue a degree from the School of Business. During my senior year, I attended interviews on campus with companies arranged by the University. One of the companies represented was the Bank of New York, now Bank of New York Mellon.

Our country was in the midst of a sea change from a corporate perspective. The government was enforcing new Equal Employment Opportunity laws that pressed companies to hire Women, Indian and African Americans into the same jobs that had been reserved for White Anglo Saxon Males. Suddenly corporate America was required to diversify its workforce, especially in white-collar jobs. I was the beneficiary in many ways of this tipping point in corporate hiring.

Life’s Lesson 1: Take your shot, get out of your comfort zone while you are young and resilient.

Living in New York City was like living in another world. I did not want to leave Huntington, but my Mother insisted. She wanted me to be financially independent and experience life beyond W. Va. I was totally overwhelmed with NYC at first; and, work on Wall Street was beyond anything I had ever imagined. Without exception my coworkers graduated from Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Mt Holyoake, Skidmore… all Ivy leagues schools. There I was – a graduate of Marshall University – in the midst of them.

I quickly learned that banking was not for me. I had been told while at Marshall that I could always make a living in industrial sales, so I pursued that path. I joined 3M Company as the first woman in the industrial abrasives division’s sales department of 136 men across the US. My territory included the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Long Island, NY. It was a tough territory for a 23-year-old woman. I called on factories in the NY metro area and, within 2 years, I was awarded top salesperson of the year.

Life’s Lesson 2: Do not be afraid to change directions if you don’t get it right the first time.

I decided to leave New York City and move across the country to San Francisco to work for General Electric. I was a Sales Engineer responsible for sourcing high tech batteries that powered circuit boards, high tech equipment and all kinds of computers. I ended up in Silicon Valley right at the tipping point of the birth of the personal computer.

After a few years with GE, I was recruited away by an entrepreneur that wanted to compete with the world’s first luggable computer called the Osborne. My job was to sign up computer retailers across the US to sell a new 32-pound all-inclusive luggable computer. At the time I had no idea this experience would be the equivalent of earning an MBA. I witnessed in real time the rise and fall of a tech startup in one year. The company had many points of failure. Needless to say, it was an education in what not to do if you want to succeed in the rough and tumble high tech world of Silicon Valley.

Never mind the challenges and risks of working for a startup. I was hooked. Soon after the luggable company failed I joined another startup. This time my mission was to turn a patent on embedding electronics in airline tray tables into a product that would appeal to airline passengers. Skytray, literally, was 30 years ahead of its time. Once again the challenges the company faced were enormous, but what a fantastic learning experience. I met with most of the major airlines in the world and worked diligently to convince United Airlines to outfit a plane with Skytray for a 30-day trial. The good news was that consumers responded favorably to interactive programming sponsored by large corporations on Skytray. Skytray was a great diversion as they winged their way from destination to destination. However, Skytray came at a time when the airlines were struggling with AirPhone, the first telephone in the cabin, which created lots of customer complaints. United management decided not to move forward — as United or other big airlines go — the others follow. The Skytray product died.

Life’s Lesson 3: Out of adversity comes the mother of invention.

These experiences made me determined to start my own company. So at the ripe old age of 32 in 1985 I founded The SoftAd Group, the world’s first digital marketing agency.

I started the company in my apartment on the kitchen table. After socializing the concept of software-based advertising with friends in Silicon Valley, I picked up the phone and started cold calling large corporations like BMW, GM, Chase and Ford. The concept was born out of the limitations discovered during my stint with Skytray and my previous experience with personal computers.

There were only 10 million personal computers in use in the world in 1985, and most of those were in businesses. The idea was simple – send interactive marketing information about a company’s products and services to target audiences on 5 ¼ and 3 ½ diskettes. I convinced GM and Ford to do focus groups with consumers that fit the target audience profile… upwardly mobile, college educated, high wage earners in their 30’s and 40’s and early adopters of personal computers in the home. The focus groups confirmed the concept and the rest is history. Over the next 6 years, many of the world’s largest corporations become my clients. We soon expanded into Europe with offices in England, France and Germany.

Fame and fortune followed with appearances on PBS television special Tom Peters’ “Thriving on Chaos” and’ “The Nightly Business Report.” Also I was featured in National Public Radio’s “Money Talks” as well as other online and print publications, including American Banker, Automotive News, Auto Finance News, F&I Showroom, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Time, The Washington Post, Business Week, the New York Post, CIO, Advertising Age, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Crain’s Business Detroit, J.D. Power and Associates and Esquire.

Then the ’91 recession hit. All of our clients cut their budgets in marketing and advertising drastically. For the first time in my career I needed to lay off employees. It got so bad the bank shut down my line of credit and demanded payment instantly. 

Life’s Lesson 4: Be strong, believe in yourself and stay resolute no matter how difficult the situation.

By 1994, I had recovered and was on my way again. This time around, I decided to make the company’s software offering more strategic and less tactical, more recession proof. Ford, a long-standing client, requested that we put them on the World Wide Web. On the what?

At that time the Web was very primitive. There were no software tools or platforms available so everything was hard coded. By 1996, we launched Ford, Lincoln Mercury, Jaguar, Volvo, Land Rover and Fordcredit.com. Further we invented dealer websites for Ford’s 5,000 dealers in the US, Canada and Mexico and launched the world’s first Fleet and MyFord owner websites.

The company experienced spectacular growth during the go-go .COM years and then the 2001 .COM bust happened and another recession hit. This time I was ready. The company hunkered down, held on tight to the existing business and survived yet again.

Life’s Lesson 5: Keep your head down and do what needs to be done to survive.

The next crisis I faced was in 2007. The American auto industry was on its knees. Ford went into decline earlier than GM and Chrysler. We had extensive relationships with all 3 of them, with a heavy concentration in Ford. After 23 years as a supplier in good standing, Ford pulled the rug out. More layoffs ensued and the company was at high risk of going bankrupt. By 2008, the entire market melted down. Both Chrysler and GM entered bankruptcy. Frankly, it was by far the worst recession I have experienced in my lifetime.

As luck would have it… while the American auto industry was in the tank, the Koreans were taking the US by storm with Hyundai and Kia. We ended up landing a major strategic relationship with Hyundai Capital, the financing company for both brands. Building upon our experience in auto sales and marketing we transitioned into auto financing and today work with the vast majority of auto financing companies including Toyota, Lexus, Jaguar, Land Rover and Subaru, to name a few.

This year my company, now named ChannelNet, turned 30. Sitting where you are today 41 years ago I had no idea that I would be a high tech entrepreneur that has employed thousands of people, done business with many of the largest corporations in the world and survived in spite of the odds being stacked against me. Even in 2015, it is not uncommon for me to be the only woman in a room full of executives.

Life’s Lesson 6: Nothing is standing in your way graduates; you can do anything you want to do and be anyone you want to be.

It is completely up to you. The diploma you will receive today is one small step in your life’s journey. The real work begins for you when you walk out these doors. Keep in mind nothing replaces hard work and perseverance.

Thank You, and I wish you nothing but the best as you leave here today, excited to dream big, and to make those dreams come true. Remember, you CAN do it.

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