Grace Isford '15 Delivers 2024 Commencement Speech

Grace Isford '15 Delivers 2024 Commencement Speech

Grace Isford '15 is an accomplished early-stage venture capitalist who was recently named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list for Venture Capital and is an influential figure in the technology investment world. Her inspiring remarks to the Class of 2024 are below.

"Congratulations to the incredible Class of 2024! After all the late nights studying, sports matches, dance performances and early mornings, you made it. This s such a proud and exciting moment.

Before we begin, we need to recognize your parents, faculty and support network sitting right
here in front of you – these were the people who gave you the opportunity to come here, got
you through every tough course and drove you to every match and performance over the last 18 years. Let’s have a round of applause for your parents and faculty.

It’s so special to be back at Sacred Heart after graduating 9 years ago. I actually started here at Barat House back in 2000 - a lifer - I hear we have 20 lifers in the audience! Over the last two  decades Sacred Heart has changed - new buildings, new language courses and incredible athletic facilities - turf fields, a massive gym and squash courts. I was on the swim team and I have to say I’m still waiting on the new pool (yes, the current pool has been
around since at least 2000). 

I hear we also have a few students that studied at other Sacred Heart Schools - when my family moved to Japan I studied at ISSH, the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo. When my family walked into ISSH, it felt like home. No matter when or where you attended a Sacred Heart school a lot remains the same.

Another similarity we share is that your class color is RED - my class of 2015 was the first one
to have chosen red - I’m so glad you have also chosen the color. Red is bold - the color of
passion and audacity, love and fire. The color red is symbolic of the values that I’d like you
to remember today - to be fierce, confident and fearless as you head to college next year.
I traveled across the country to Stanford University. I know we have one graduate going there.
You will grow from a class of 75 to in some cases several thousand, take challenging courses,
experience new social environments all while continuing to figure out who you are.

As much as I would like to tell you that everything will work out and you will only meet people as welcoming as they are at Sacred Heart - the truth is - sometimes it’s going to be hard.
When I got to Stanford, I knew only 1 other person going, got placed in a dorm with a random
roommate and was interested in every major, as you may feel today - from International
Relations to Computer Science and Psychology. My first learning is to find strong
communities and people who energize you - this goes for friendships as well as for clubs and
study groups. I joined an organization called Stanford Women in Business - through it I met dozens of women pursuing internships and careers in finance, tech, consulting and engineering. I learned a ton from them about what those jobs were really like and landed my first job at the Stanford Endowment. And through that same organization I expressed interest to an upperclassman about venture capital and she introduced me to a venture capital fund where I landed a part time job. I was only 19 at the time.

Find communities that take an active interest in your personal development and help you grow.
Campuses are large, and they become much more manageable if you can find your space.
Don’t spend time on people and experiences that drain you. Along the way I also joined and left
several clubs and joined and left several friendships. I often get asked - “how did you become a partner in venture capital so quickly?” And my answer is pretty simple. Work hard and ask for what you want and deserve. So that leads to my second learning - always ask.

At Lux, I am the youngest partner in the firm’s history and I did so by asking – I’ve proactively
asked for every promotion I’ve gotten. Before Lux when I was graduating from Stanford, I
landed my first job by asking a mentor for advice on another offer I was considering. He told me
why don’t you work for us instead? This goes not just for careers but also for problem solving in the classroom and in sticky situations - always ask questions - ask why? Ask how? If you don’t ask a question in a thoughtful way, you’re not going to get an interesting answer. And it goes for your personal life too - ask someone out on a date, ask someone for help. Remembering our color red again, be bold. If you don’t ask, people don’t know. Value your voice and always negotiate. I will caveat that when you ask for things, people often say no. This happens to me all the time.

I spend a lot of time as a venture capitalist convincing entrepreneurs to take my investment. I’ve introduced hundreds of customers and candidates to court entrepreneurs, I’ve coded apps and written long emails expressing my excitement to invest, only to hear a deafening, no.
When this happens don’t be discouraged - ask someone else and use it as motivation to make
yourself better so that someone in the future will say yes. A mentor of mine, Dr. Tina Seelig,
taught a class at Stanford called Creativity Rules. The class was all about creative problem
solving - about reframing the problem. What this means is changing your frame of reference,
asking why and seeing the problem from a different point of view. If I can’t lead the
entrepreneur’s funding round, how can I build a great relationship and position myself to lead a
future one. With the right frame of mind, you can find the seeds of possibility in even the craziest of ideas. I recognize that asking can be hard - which leads to my third learning - view every problem and “failure” as an opportunity.

Dr. Carol Dweck, one of my professors coined the term “growth mindset” - a belief that
intelligence and skills can be continuously developed - you learn from criticism and see effort as a path to growth. This is hard to do - we are afraid of looking bad, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of failing the test, being rejected. It’s human to have a fear of failure. When I failed my first Stanford midterm, I called my mom crying telling her that I would NEVER graduate….my mom is sitting right here in the audience - mom, thank you for putting up with me!

Yet having an appetite for risk and failure is at the heart of entrepreneurship. I work in the
venture capital industry, which means I invest in high growth startups transforming existing
industries or bringing new technologies to market. I invest in AI and deep tech companies taking on a lot of technical risk. A majority of our investments end up being failures.
When I think of some of the most successful entrepreneurs who I have partnered with, they are
fearless. Just like the emblematic color red, they are passionate, fiercely fighting and iterating to make their product successful. They are unfazed when there are numerous setbacks along the way. At Lux, we have a saying, “chips on shoulders put chips in pockets,” meaning confidence and determination pays off. Lux invests in technologies before they are commercialized and are still in research labs. One of our latest investments, Osmo, is a machine learning platform to recreate olfaction, or the sense of smell.

Our first investment in AI was in 2013, and some of our best performing investments were made in 2018, 2019 and 2020 far before Chat-GPT existed. As an investor, the best companies are often non-obvious and sound crazy when we invest. But these high-risk bets where you can dream about how it could change the world are the ones that can change careers.
Once again recall the color red - be confident in yourself, your crazy ideas and your voice. Know that failure is a normal part of the entrepreneurial journey and celebrate it - see it as an
opportunity. And the more comfortable you can get with failure the higher you can swing to
reach your goals.

Which leads to my fourth learning - lean into your strengths and follow what excites you.
Embrace the unknown, read voraciously and delve deeply into topics. You don’t have to be well-rounded in everything. As college and your lives progress you’ll realize that it’s ok to specialize. You just need to listen to yourself - spend time doing what you uniquely enjoy and work hard on improving to make yourself the best you can be. I know that in this class we have many talents including dancers and talented athletes continuing to compete in college. We also have filmmakers, mathematicians, journalists, poets, actresses and even a student who was retweeted by John Cena!

In the venture capital world we call this a “spikey” entrepreneur - in fact, we actively seek out
people who are not well rounded but who have asymmetric talents, like someone who is a
fantastic engineer but make lack commercial talent, or someone who is a charismatic leader but less of a product visionary. Recalling the color red, fearlessly pursue your interests. I was
interested in French at Sacred Heart, and today these skills have come in handy - not only can I negotiate deals in French with the Paris AI scene but I also get a free ticket to travel to Europe! Lean into all of those special talents on campus next year and don’t be afraid to be yourself. Never stop learning - read books, challenge yourself intellectually, travel internationally, debate, update your beliefs based on new information and stretch your imagination.

And fifth and finally - enjoy and live in the moment. I first read the author Virginia Woolf at Sacred Heart. One of the many things Virginia Woolf wrote about were “moments of being” where we are fully conscious of our experience, aware not only of ourselves but also of our connection to a larger group. It’s a nod to live in the present, and take advantage of every moment you share with each other. In the decade since I’ve been here, I’ve also experienced loss of close friends and family members. I share it as a reminder to deeply appreciate the moments you are sharing with everyone you love gathered in this room today.

These aren’t necessarily extraordinary, earth-shattering moments, but ordinary ones like
dancing together with your 75 classmates tonight. Embody that red color of love.
I hope on that campus next year you’ll continue to find strong communities to support you,
always ask questions, celebrate failure, lean into your strengths and above all always
remember your values and the people sitting on this lawn at Sacred Heart who helped you get
to where you are today.

I’m going to finish with a quote from Thoreau - “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
Live the life you’ve imagined.”

So to the Class of 2024 - be bold, be fierce, be fair, don’t be afraid to get uncomfortable and
enjoy the process of what’s to come. Go confidently. Embrace the color red. Good luck to all of you and congratulations!"

Click here to watch Class of 2024 Graduation Livestream