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Commencement address by Cynthia L. Davis ’84

Furman University Commencement Address
Cynthia L. Davis ’84
May 7, 20212

Greetings President Davis, Trustees, Furman faculty, staff and administration, honorees, families, friends, and the Furman University Graduating Class of 2022.

What a momentous day! I’m sure so much excitement and anticipation is pulsing through your bodies right now. It was for me a mere 38 years ago. I, too, was sitting right where you are today, politely waiting for our commencement speaker to wrap up his comments. So, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m what stands between you receiving your college diploma and officially launching into the world!

But, there are a few things I want you to share with you and encourage you to think about as you participate in your last Furman event – your graduation. I’m going to talk in terms of sports and athletics because a large part of my career was in the sports business. And, we had a belief at Nike, where I spent a decade: If you have a body, you are an athlete. So, you all are athletes to me!

When I was at Furman, I was an economics major who played on the women’s golf team – thank you athletic scholarship for making that happen. As soon-to-be Furman graduates, all of you join a far different world than I did, especially with a lingering pandemic, inflation, heightened geopolitical tensions, and a war, to mention a few. You all will be called to leadership in ways that are more important and likely complicated than ever, no matter what path you take.  But, there will be so much opportunity.

My message to you:  BE THE ONE.  BE THE ONE to answer that call. BE THE ONE to have that courage. Because we – and by that I mean the world – are counting on you.

Now, let me tell you what I mean.

I mentioned earlier that I spent a portion of my career at Nike. Whenever anyone thinks about Nike, they think about Nike as engaging marketers, inspiring story tellers, and as having one of the most ubiquitous brands on the planet. However, what Nike often doesn’t get credit for is being brilliant innovators. What do brilliant innovators do? They answer the question, “How do we make it better?” They reimagine. They take risks to think differently. All of you, as new graduates, will be put in this situation. Whatever it might be, you will be called to make it better.

We had a simple formula at Nike. Find the best athletes in the world. Work with them to develop products that make them better. Then, tell inspiring stories to build the brand and build the athlete. We did it first in running, then in basketball, tennis, soccer, football, baseball and that was the same approach we took with golf, the business I led for Nike.

In golf, we signed the best athlete, Tiger Woods. While everyone knows Tiger for some of the most thrilling sports moments over the past two decades, we knew him also as an athlete who had a sixth sense regarding products. When talking product, Tiger could feel things, hear things and see things differently than 99.9% of athletes. It was remarkable what we’d learn by sharing new product concepts and testing products with him.

On one occasion, our apparel team noticed Tiger pulling up his shirt sleeve as part of his pre-shot routine during a tournament. So, we asked him about that. He replied that there were areas of distraction around his sleeves and collar which he could feel or sense that at times would limit his swing. We were a bit surprised to hear this, as no athlete had ever made a comment like this before. We began to wonder if our shirt was inhibiting Tiger’s golf swing which, as a result, caused him to make manual adjustments while he played.

Now, if you don’t think that matters, imagine the Nike Golf team’s horror when tuning into network tv to watch Tiger’s final round and ultimate victory at the US Open only to see him on the driving range get a pair of scissors and cut a hole in his Nike shirt sleeve because the seams were bothering him. So, our goal became inventing a golf shirt that would minimize limitations and distractions while Tiger played. Or, to put it another way, we wanted to design a golf shirt that created a competitive playing advantage.

To solve this problem: we looked at materials, we looked at sizing, we looked at construction, we listened to sound, we evaluated seams and bonding, we measured flexibility, stretch and breathability. We looked at everything. The result? We designed an entirely new golf shirt that reduced any limitations and all distractions. And, Tiger noticed. He told us that he considered his apparel to be as important as the rest of his golf equipment – and that this new shirt design allowed him to swing with more power and confidence.

We reimagined a golf shirt – a golf shirt – and, made a golf shirt that gave our athletes a competitive advantage.

At some point, you will be asked to reimagine something too – big or ssmall, transformative or mundane. You will be asked to think differently to find a solution. My advice to you: BE THE ONE to answer that call. BE THE ONE to have that courage. Because we are counting on you.

At Nike, whether you agree with this approach or not, we were not afraid to weigh in on cultural issues, whether it was about social justice, human rights, or current events. Today, many companies are being asked to do so – by their consumers, employees, investors, and media – whether they like it or not. That can be risky. It takes courage. At Nike, we held our breath at times – and, we didn’t always get it right. When we didn’t, we did our best to fix it.

When we signed Tiger, we launched an ad called “Hello World” where Tiger did the voiceover. As part of his narrative, he said, “There are still courses in the U.S. I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. Hello World. I’ve heard I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me? Hello World.”

That ad was controversial. We were asked why would we introduce an athlete by being so provocative? Why would we introduce a new business division in a way that could be polarizing? We were highly criticized. Tiger was criticized. But, at the time, his message was true. In fact, some golf courses wouldn’t carry Nike Golf product for the same reason.

That didn’t deter us though. We were unapologetic. We were unafraid to say the quiet part out loud. While doing so was certainly provocative, we believed we were starting the right conversation and that, ultimately, it would serve as a catalyst to build our new Nike Golf business. It was bold, it was courageous – and, it worked.

At some point, I’m confident that you, too, regardless of the career path you take, will be put in a situation where you might feel uncomfortable. You could have an experience where you realize that you are different or someone else may even point out your difference. It could be because of your race, your gender, your religion, your sexual identity, your physical abilities or for a variety of other reasons.

As a woman in the world of sports, I have felt that. I have been the only woman in the room of executives or athletes. Like Tiger, there were also golf courses that I couldn’t play as a woman or parts of the clubhouse I couldn’t enter. I have been told that it would be new experience to work with a woman in a leadership role like I had. I have been questioned about my qualifications. I have been judged differently and held to different standards. How do I know? Because I was told. But, it didn’t deter me. In fact, I saw it as an advantage. I embraced it. I viewed being “different” as a strength and as an opportunity. It made my personal brand unique.

So, maybe you have felt different or uncomfortable in a particular situation. If not, at some point, you will — it’s part of the human experience — and, you will be called to stand strong in your differences and lead by example. My advice to you: BE THE ONE to answer that call. BE THE ONE to have that courage. Because we are counting on you.

I have been blessed with three kids, and I’m thrilled to say that the oldest Savannah is here today. But, these three kids came as a result of tragedy.

I’m here to tell you that life will throw you curve balls. There will be situations, experiences, events that were never part of your life plan. You will all face unplanned circumstances. For me, it was suddenly becoming a “parent” of three kids with my long-time partner. We didn’t have kids of our own. But, seven years ago, we became legal guardians and, as I like to say, life coaches and parents to our two nieces, ages 15 and 16, and a nephew at age 12.

These three wonderful kids lost their dad, my brother-in-law, due to a massive heart attack when they were 8, 7 and 4 years old. My younger sister and only sibling became a young widow at age 42. After moving a few years post her husband’s death from Maryland to Oregon, we all endured yet another tragic event. That day, I received a phone call no one wants to receive. My sister was missing, from a scuba diving trip she had taken with my 12-year-old nephew.

It all changed with that phone call. My sister was missing for four days when we learned that an equipment failure had taken her life. Suddenly, her three kids had not only lost their dad eight years prior, but now their mom, – and, we were instant “parents” as a result of unspeakable tragedies. All of our lives changed in a second.

Fast forward seven years to today, after many highs and lows: our oldest niece graduated college five months ago, our younger niece is a semester away from graduating college and the youngest starts his sophomore year in college this fall. And, forever, we will have what I like to call this newly defined modern family that has truly brought more blessings to my life than I thought ever possible, certainly during those early years following the death of my sister.

Life threw all of us a massive curve ball. It wasn’t part of our life plan and wasn’t even something we could have imagined happening. And, you know what, life will throw you a curve ball too, I promise. Hopefully, not to this magnitude, but a curve ball nonetheless. Something will come your way that alters your life plan and the trajectory of your life. My advice to you: BE THE ONE to answer that call. BE THE ONE to have that courage. Because we are counting on you.

Now, in my career, I’ve had the chance to work with some amazingly talented people and I’ve had the chance to build high performing teams. Beyond experience and talent, I looked for character. I have a belief that you can tell much more about a person by how they leave than how they arrive. It’s easy to enter a situation – a new school, a new job, a new team, a new neighborhood – usually there’s lots of positive welcoming energy. The in-between part – the experience of being there – is typically filled with ups and downs. But, it’s the ending time when you can really tell what a person is made of. So, whether you’re leaving a job, a team, a relationship or a school, just know we will learn much more about who you are and your character by how you leave.

You now are about to do your final act at Furman and then leave. Remember, how you leave will tell us everything. Remember to thank those who got you here. Remember to show respect as a new alum.

Remember that you represent the Furman brand now too.

Why does this matter? Because, simply put: YOU ARE THE ONE, now, armed with a college degree from Furman University and an opportunity to take your next authentic step.

My advice to you: BE THE ONE to answer that call. BE THE ONE to have that courage. Because we are counting on you.

Congratulations, Furman Graduating Class of 2022!  Thank you.

Cindy Davis ’84 is the former vice president of Nike Inc. and former president of Nike Golf. Before joining Nike, Davis, who also holds an MBA from the University of Maryland, was a senior vice president of the Golf Channel, CEO of the Arnold Palmer Golf Company and vice president of the LPGA. Sports Illustrated named her one of the “50 Most Powerful People in Sports” in 2013. She serves as a board member and adviser for a number of companies in the footwear, apparel, restaurant, manufacturing, and health and wellness industries.

A current member of the university’s Board of Trustees, Davis was an economics major and standout collegiate golfer at Furman, where she was three-time All-American and runner-up at the 1983 NCAA Championships. The Davis and Faxon Training Facility, dedicated earlier this year at Furman’s REK Center for Intercollegiate Golf, is named in honor of her and fellow Paladin golfer Brad Faxon ’83.

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Last updated May 5, 2022
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