Art Institute Houston 2017 Commencement Speech

Keep it REAL

Let’s hear it for the class of 2017! You did it. You got up early, and pulled all nighters. You sacrificed to get ahead. You set a goal to graduate and you achieved your goal.

Now what? What are you going to do with this abundance of knowledge, hopes and dreams. And why did The Art Institute of Houston’, choose me, The Vintage Contessa, to send you off on your journey to find that perfect combination of success and happiness?

I think the answer is that I always keep it real. When I met Amy Gordon, Director of Campus Relations, I was in the midst of this very “real” part of my life.  I had just experienced one of the biggest dreams in life coming true while traveling on one of the hardest personal journeys of my life. I had recently completed writing a children’s book with my daughter, Bella, titled, The Vintage Contessa & Princessa.  And I am so proud to tell you that your amazingly talented big hearted professor, Marina Saba was our illustrator.

Completing the book was one of the hardest and most rewarding accomplishments of my life.  I was told by many I would fail. I was told by others I was wasting my time. I felt completely vulnerable and exposed with every world I wrote.

However, I had read...No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, show up and never give up.

… So, I persevered.

Our storyline included a mother and daughter planning a charity party in honor of a friend was created to teach Bella and other children the importance of charity and giving back.  Bella and I chose my goddaughter Scarlett as the “friend” character in the book. Ironically, as we were writing the book, Scarlett, then only 6 years old, was diagnosed with T cell lymphoma.

Im happy to share with you, both OUR story and HER journey have happy endings. Scarlett won her battle with cancer and is now 10 years old and happy and thriving.

The book on the other hand was NOT a profitable venture however the proceeds have funded numerous charities and added momentum to the many fundraisers. In fact with the assistance of many students, professors and administrators at the Art Institute, The Houston Design Center Risotto Festival and raise over $100,000 for pediatric cancer research in the name of the Scarlett Fund.

During this process I reflected on the quote of the Author of The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho, selling over 20 million books. “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.

This quote leads us to the first step of 7 in our journey to success.

  1. DREAM.  Dream BIG. 

If your dream doesn’t scare you, It isn’t big enough. 

Im one of the lucky ones who achieved one of my dreams. In fact my husband says, the luckiest people he knows are the ones that work the hardest.

It took me years to get here to the point I could fulfill my dream. As I was dreaming, I was working.  I spent 22 years in my family’s marble business, before I created The Vintage Contessa.

I didn’t achieve my dream of being in the fashion until I was in my mid 40’s. I spent years reading about it

I truly believe in the  the quote, “Enthusiasm is common but Endurance is rare.

  1. Practice

My favorite success guru when it comes to “practice” is -Malcom Gladwell, who wrote Outliers. he shared success stories of the biggest titans in different industries. He states, “researchers have settled on what they believe is the magpie number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” 

You better enjoy something if you are going to spend ten thousand hours doing it. 

It’s been said, if you truly love what you do, you wont really work a day in your life. And for me, Im not only selling a product, Im selling a lifestyle. Every day in my life, I am working.

I believe in the quote, “Enthusiasm is common but endurance is rare.”

…it all really goes back to the basics of the story of the tortoise and the hare doesn’t it? As quick and enthusiastic as the hare behaved, the tortoises ENDURANCE overcame adversity to win. That’s GRIT.

Which leads me to the third step on our journey…

  1. Passion

I mean that again “real”, lifelong, feel it in your gut forever, passion. How do you find passion in your career? Passion that will last a LIFETIME?

I LOVE FASHION. Fashion is my passion. Yes, extremely cheeky but true.

  1. One of the most respected businessmen of the 21st century, Steve jobs  said, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”

It’s so true.  In the beginning of my business, I tried more things that failed than succeeded. I had people tell me I would fail but I loved doing what I do.

  1. One of my favorite books I read this year was Grit, by Angela Duckwort, she said…“Iwon’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.” 

I cant tell you how often I feel that way…Im not the smartest person in this room but I am definitely one of the most passionate and push myself the hardest. The biggest reason I can push myself and never stop trying is I have the gift of FAITH.

Faith is the 4th step in my journey to success.

  1. Faith in something bigger than yourself- 

Im not telling you WHAT FAITH to chose but Im telling you that life has more meaning if you find something lasting, it grounds you. 

Faith doesn’t mean you wont struggle. It just gives your life a bigger picture as you go trough the struggle. It helps you find light in the midst of the darkness. It balances you in a world throwing things at you on a daily basis. It keeps things REAL. And it holds you to a higher standard. A standard of honor.

  1. A spiritual leader everyone knows, Buddha said of faith,
 “Health is the greatest gift, 
contentment the greatest wealth, 
faithfulness the best relationship. “
  1. As a Christian my favorite quote when I feel lost or uncertain is Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future.” 

And Graduates YOU HAVE A FUTURE AND YOU GET TO WRITE YOUR OWN STORY. What do you want your story to be?

Which leads us to number 5…

  1. PURPOSE. 

Im talking about Finding a bigger purpose…I realize selling handbags and luxury goods doesn’t make the world a better place but the work I do for charity does change the world one person at a time. 

  1. One of my favorite fashion icons, Audrey Hepburn, also happens to be one of most generous goodwill ambassadors of all times, and was one of the most REAL people in Hollywood.  She stated,

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others. 

  1. One of my favorite authors… Mitch Albom of Tuesdays with Morrie wrote…“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”  

He is basically saying…KEEP it REAL.

  1. With that in mind, if your job doesn’t change the world, then let your EXAMPLE change the world one person at a time. 

Gandhi made a profound statement when he said, ” Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow-men.” 

  1.  One of my favorite quotes for charitable giving is…a Chinese Proverb. “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.”

But if any of you are actually fisherman, you will know that with fishing and with business, you do more casting than actually catching.

And you may be very surprised that number 6 on the journey to success is

  1. FAILURE…Learn to accept FAILURE as part of the process but always, always, always couple it with RESILIENCE & GRIT
  2. According to author Angela Duckworth of Grit her research claims that, “thekey to success in life – whether you’re an athlete and or a business person, isn’t talent but a special blend of passion and perseverance, or what she calls “grit.” 

“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

That is REAL. Falling seven times and getting up eight. 

When I cant us the power of positive thinking to pull myself up from my bootstraps on my own, I turn to my closest confidants, for connection, which also happens to be number 7 on my list.

  1. Connection. 
  2. Brene Brown said, “Connections is why we’re here;it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

The greatest connection in our lives now is social media. And Im sorry to say…IT ISNT REAL. But at this time in the world, it is the way people want to connect.  To do business with you, they want to understand your lifestyle and know that your recommendations mean something. They want a personal connection.

B.― Malcolm GladwellOutliers

The values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround  ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.” 

Choose your group wisely. Chose to carry yourself in the way you want to be perceived for years to come. If you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people. If you want to be in fashion, dress fashionable. Don’t walk around in work out clothes as day wear. If you want to be the President of the company, dress like the President of the company. You become what you are perceived to be.

You will only get there by doing things you have never done before.

  1. And last but not least on our journey to success… Dare Greatly , with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt in 1910


It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. 


My graduation wish for you today is that you find your passion, Dare Greatly and remember to Keep it Real. 

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