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Northwestern University

“Life Happens. Show Up”

Convocation speaker Paula Pretlow ’77 challenges graduates to make life count

Show up.

Convocation speaker Paula Pretlow ’77 repeated those two simple yet powerful words often during her address to the graduating Class of 2016.

Candid, personal and, at times, emotional, Pretlow tracked her life’s 60 years from the first desegregated classrooms in Oklahoma City, Okla., to the corporate suite of The Capital Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms, where Pretlow served as senior vice president.

Facing obstacles ranging from bigotry and at-odds business values to cancer and divorce, Pretlow scored personal and professional victories by rejecting a spot on the sidelines and getting in the game.

“All I truly want you to know and to remember is that life happens and if you show up, it usually works out,” Pretlow told nearly 1,000 graduates during the June 18 event at Ryan Field.

The child of a black, divorced mother of five, Pretlow recounted wearing the same dress to school on consecutive days, waiting her turn for new shoes, sharing a bedroom with her mother and three sisters and, despite those perceived shortcomings, embracing expectations that she would excel.

“I was living in a world of dreams … and I had people in my life who told me it was good to have dreams,” Pretlow said, adding that those dreams led her to Northwestern University, from which she also earned her M.B.A. in 1978.

Early in her finance career, meanwhile, Pretlow relished the mentorship of two superiors. They taught her about business, the art of negotiation, and securing deals, and she proved she was worth their time and effort by showing up day after day.

“People, some from the most unlikely places, want to help you succeed. Allow them and when it is your turn, pay it forward,” she said. “That is how to say ‘thank you.’”

Pretlow, a recent electee to Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, also acknowledged life’s inevitable twists and turns.

She recalled being wooed by a fast-paced company — a bigger title, a bigger paycheck and more opportunity. Yet, Pretlow quickly realized that her values did not align with those of her new organization, so she moved on, a risky move given that she had no other position in hand and had recently become a single divorced mother of two children.

“Have the courage to do the hard thing when it is also the right thing, even when it may feel that your world is falling apart,” Pretlow said.

Pretlow also detailed her struggle with breast cancer, a personal battle that included rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. She could have folded. She didn’t.         

“You will face challenges, and some of you will face life-threatening ones … [and] it is the grace and dignity with which you meet those challenges and failures that will determine the outcomes,” Pretlow charged.

Reflecting on her own Weinberg College graduation 39 years prior, Pretlow challenged graduates to direct their world-class education and unbridled promise “toward a good life” that includes working for equity, inclusion, tolerance and integrity. 

“As I look at you, a rainbow of colors, faiths, gender identities, physical capabilities, I urge you to show up, not only in your life, but also in the lives of others,” she said. “Life happens, show up, bleed purple and make it count.”

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