Ed Grier and Valerie Jackson

Valerie Jackson Follows "You Can" with "How To" in Commencement Address

Dec. 14, 2018 - Susan T. Burtch

Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business alumna and commencement speaker Valerie Richardson Jackson (B.S. ’71) shared encouragement and practical life lessons at the school’s fall commencement ceremony at the Altria Theater on Friday night, December 7. 

The ceremony celebrated VCU School of Business’s more than 425 degree recipients graduating in August and December. 

Jackson encouraged graduates to stay active, learn from failure and believe in their abilities. Then she followed her exhortations with her own proven strategy. Breathe. Believe. Behave.

Jackson should know whereof she speaks. She, along with her two brothers, integrated into a Richmond public high school in 1963 and persevered through daily racial harassment. Jackson was the first African-American to hold the positions of marketing account executive with Grey Advertising and regional marketing supervisor for Trans World Airlines. Married for over 25 years to the late Maynard H. Jackson, Jr, she was the First Lady of Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic National Convention and the 1996 Olympic Games. Jackson is known as an award-winning host of NPR’s “Between the Lines” and “Valerie Jackson in Conversation.” Today she is board chair and principal of Jackmont Hospitality, a foodservice management company and one of the fastest growing TGI FRIDAYS® franchisees.

“I knew that college would make a difference, but I had no idea what an impact VCU would have on my highway of life.”

Jackson enrolled as a VCU freshman fifty years ago. There she met Napoleon Peoples, Ph.D., whom she credits for launching her on the right path. She says the associate dean “pushed me and persuaded me to apply to the Wharton School of Business.” As a first-generation college student, Jackson had never even considered graduate school until Peoples “persisted and walked me through it.” As she called for him to stand up in the audience -- having just retired after 45 years at VCU – Peoples wore a wall-to-wall grin.

“Action is important because you might be on the right track, but if you just sit there, you’ll get run over.”

Jackson has always been a woman of action, which doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced fear. But she reassures her audience, “I’ve been told F-E-A-R stands for “false evidence appearing real.” And the opposite of fear, she maintains, is excitement. “It’s the same energy; you decide which side it goes to.”

Because she knows from experience these new graduates will face fear, loss and challenge, Jackson shares her personal solution to real-world problems: “the three Bs.” The first is to breathe. “Whatever it is,” she warns, “don’t panic. Take a moment to exhale, to relax and meditate for a while if you’ve got time.”

“Believe in yourself and your goal. Don’t despair. Not having hope says you know the outcome already.”

 The second B stands for “believe.” Jackson maintains knowledge is no good if you can’t imagine how to apply it. She advocates curiosity as “a journey into ourselves, helping us to discover who we are.” Once people fully explore what they have been taught, they can employ curiosity to discover what is working and what needs to be done. The graduates in her audience need only to “believe in your abilities to create a highway of connections for your objectives, whatever they are.”

“Behave in a way that attracts success. Do your homework. Stay prepared.”

Jackson further urged the students to take at least one small action toward their goal every day. “The universe will multiply your actions ten-fold. Trust me. A belief not acted upon is just an opinion.” If you are patient and behave persistently, Jackson thinks the three B’s may just be your key to real-world success. As they were hers.

“And through it all,” she adds belatedly with a grin, “smile. A smile is a little curve that can straighten out a lot of things.” 

Valerie Jackson hugs her mentor Napoleon Peoples

Jackson's mentor, Dr. Napoleon Peoples, celebrating her success.

Watch the 2018 Graduation Highlights video