On June 23, Hillhouse’s founder Lei Zhang gave the commencement speech to the graduating class of 2017 at Renmin University. Many of the topics shared with the new graduates reflect values that are deeply embedded in Hillhouse’s investment philosophy and organizational culture: orient yourself toward the long-term, be mission-driven, and think from first principles.
Below is a transcript of Mr. Zhang’s commencement speech:
Secretary Jin Nuo, President Liu Wei, respected teachers, dearest graduating students, and all of your family and friends who have come a long way to join you on this special occasion,
It is a privilege to attend this year’s graduation ceremony and speak as an alumni representative. This year also marks our university’s 80th anniversary. Looking out at so many youthful faces in the audience, I feel very happy to be in present company.
Most of you receiving degrees this year must be a member of the post-90s generation. Actually, I am too – I was accepted to the Renmin University of China in 1990.
After graduating in 1994, I went to the United States to study and then worked there for a while. I came back home and founded Hillhouse Capital in 2005. The name of the company (in Chinese) is taken from the idiom – “pouring water off a steep roof,” which means to take a commanding height and operate from a strategically advantageous position. In a way, you can say Hillhouse is also a millennial.
I know that not all of you have heard of Hillhouse. But I bet you have used products or services like WeChat, Mobike, Didi and JD.com. JD.com, by the way, was established by a RUC grad as well. Its founder, Liu Qiangdong, came here in 1992. Hillhouse has invested in each and every one of these companies.
In 2005, we had only $20 million under management. That has grown to $30 billion, and now we’re one of the largest institutional fund managers in Asia. If you look at Hillhouse’s history, it took 12 years, a full cycle in the Chinese zodiac calendar, for us to come this far. But I think the beginning actually dates back to 1994, when I graduated from university. Without these four years, I would never have become who I am today, and Hillhouse would have never come to be.
Looking back at these 23 years since graduation, I have so many thoughts that I’d like to share with you. But I think it would be better if I just focus on one word, choice.
Let me first share a quick story. When I was still studying at Yale, I went to a job interview with a consulting firm in Boston. The case study challenge was to solve the problem of how many gas stations the great Boston area needed. Everyone began analyzing data and building mathematical models to answer the question as soon as they could. But I began to ask the interviewer a lot of questions instead. Does it have to be only a gas station? Can I build a convenience store also? If people had some other way to transport themselves in the future, what was the point of building so many gas stations? I might have been a bit too much to handle, because the interviewer informed me on the spot that I wouldn’t be getting a job. I had many interviews like this, where I never made it to the second round.
Just when it seemed like all doors had been shut, I was accepted to an internship at the Yale Endowment. The Endowment was where I found the compass that helped me map the rest of my career, and led me to be an investor.
Looking back, I always thought my life would have been totally different if I had followed instructions and answered the questions they wanted me to, like everyone else. If I did, I probably would have become a consultant, or an investment banker, and I may still be working on Wall Street. I guess this wouldn’t have been too bad, either.
But I chose to be honest with myself. I chose to speak my mind, and when I made these choices, I put myself on a path few others would choose. Just as Robert Frost wrote in his most famous poem The Road Not Taken, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
What is life but a series of choices, one connected to the next. At each crossroad, your choices and attitude determine the scenery you see as you move forward.
To all of the new fellow alumni sitting here today, I congratulate you on the wise choice you made four years ago. You are members of an amazing community. The longer it is after you graduate, the more you will come to understand the extraordinary strength of this community.
In your coming journeys, we should also keep in mind that the companions we choose to travel with are more important than the final destination. We have more than 7,000 graduates this year. Please, everyone, take a good look at the people sitting around you. They may be your teachers, or your friends, or the love of your life. Or perhaps you don’t know them very well, or maybe you don’t know them at all. Walking out of this place today, you may still be able to see each other from time to time, or not. The paths you choose may take you thousands and thousands of miles away from each other, and there’s no telling when you might be able to see each other again. No matter what corner of the world you find yourself in, our shared identity as RUC alumni will bind us together. I cherish this bond because it has allowed me to know so many interesting people, and together we have accomplished memorable things.
Cherish those who are by your side at present, because you don’t know when you will say goodbye in the future. Whatever happens, the roads you traveled together, the views you saw, the silly moments you shared and the tears you wept together, will be some of the most valuable possessions in your keeping.
I hope that you choose to make a friend of time. In my work as an investor, my experience is that if you use a long-term horizon to consider questions and make decisions, time will naturally become your friend. In 2011, I donated funds to establish the Hillhouse Academy (高礼研究院) at RUC. In the academy, I often tell students that the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. We embrace what may come with an open mind and open arms. We observe the whole from afar, and we always consider the implications of the future. I’ve always suggested to my entrepreneur friends that they should learn from the strategies of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Yuanzhang. “Secure your food supplies; build your fortress. Do not rush to be king.” (广积粮，高筑墙，缓称王) This strategy has been battle-tested in the world of start-ups. It will also work for you and me as we go about our daily lives.
Being friends with time also requires exceptionally strong discipline and responsibility. In a world where many are drunk on instant gratification, those who understand the value of delayed gratification will already have a massive competitive advantage. Laugh later, laugh harder.
I hope all of you will insist upon the choices that lie deep in your own heart. Resist the temptations of arrogance and shallowness. All that is worth pursuing will present a challenge. Persevere in whatever you do, and time will eventually turn out to be a good friend of yours. I find this helpful in my own life, and I hope you might find it useful as well.
Besides the question of choices, I think there is another important point to remember – we not only need to engage with advancements in science and technology, but we must all keep the spirit of the humanities alive. Today’s world leaps forward with developments in genetic research, robotics and artificial intelligence. We are standing at the threshold of what is shaping up to be an entirely different age, defined by the nearing of singularity and explosive developments in technology. We will face greater challenges than ever before. It is the liberal arts education we received here at RUC that arms us with a broad perspective and humanistic spirit, that allows us to thrive amidst a fast-changing world, to ask questions from first principles.
I studied international finance in college and have never taken a course in coding or computer science, and yet I have made investments into startups that have become world leaders in their respective fields. I must thank the liberal arts, and I believe my fellow alumni will also derive endless benefits from this education.
In my investing, I follow three principles summed up in the words of our great ancestors. The first, rule with principle, win with ingenuity (守正用奇). Second, from a flowing stream, I quench my thirst with a single ladle (弱水三千，但取一瓢). And third, peaches and plums are silent, yet the world finds a path to them (桃李不言、下自成蹊). These words are taken from The Tao Te Ching, The Analects of Confucius, and The Records of the Historian. The theories and tools of modern finance originated in the West, and combining them with the wisdom and traditions of Chinese philosophy helps me use them with greater skill. We must remember to take nourishment from the fertile soil of the humanities. The past is not yet the past, and the future has already arrived.
I hope all of our RUC graduates, regardless of what jobs you take or which industries you end up in, will retain your optimism and passion. Use the spirit of humanities to shape yourself, and enliven all that is around you. In giving another a rose, its fragrance will linger on your hand.
After this graduation ceremony, I will sign an agreement with the RUC to donate 300 million RMB. This is to support the development of innovative interdisciplinary courses. It is an expression of gratitude to our university on its 80th birthday.
I hope the challenges you encounter will only add to your passion and kindness, and that you arrive at your destination with a forever youthful heart.
From this moment on, you will become a member of the great RUC alumni community. From now on, the experiences you’ve had here will blend together into warm memories, and underlying all of it will be a word all of you will share in common, “Alma Mater”. I sincerely hope all of you will choose to embrace change with a sense of duty to your community; that you will use first principles to express unceasing curiosity in and discover the truths of the world around you; and apply the wisdom of the humanities to keep alight the beacon in your heart. Think big, think long!