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HEC Commencement Ceremony 2019: Mortarboards, Online Degree and Vernimmen Award

HEC Paris hosted its 2019 Commencement Ceremony on June 14-15 with around 4,000 guests congregating to celebrate the graduation of 2,000 students. The festive occasion featured keynote speeches by Hubert Joly and Pascal Cagni, who made strong calls for the graduates to engage in the societies of tomorrow.

HEC Paris - Commencement Ceremony 2019 - MBA Graduates

They arrived from India, Taiwan, Lebanon, Italy, Germany, the United States, China, or simply from Avignon and Brittany. They all came together, sharing with the 2019 graduates the tears of joy, the mortarboards thrown in the air and the whoops of celebration. Parents, friends, partners traveled to the Jouy-en-Josas campus to witness the end of an educational chapter and the start of a new journey for this latest batch of alumni. “HEC Paris has been instrumental in pushing me in ways I never dreamed!” exclaimed Fabienne Diouf after succeeding in her Executive Master. She and fellow-graduate François Lignon were two amongst 74 students graduating from HEC’s first-ever 100% online degree, the MSc in Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MSIE). “Today my confidence and ambitions as an entrepreneur are much higher,” she said to warm applause.




Fabienne and François were part of a forward-looking HEC Master forged with Coursera, the US online learning platform. “Graduation today shows that even in this online world, we are still attached to human interaction,” noted HEC Professor Marc Vanhuele who was instrumental in creating the degree. He was joined at the ceremony by Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda.

HEC’s Social and Geographic Diversity

But Fabienne Diouf was also a reflection of the social diversity and cosmopolitanism evident during a Commencement Ceremony spread over two days. “HEC’s quest for excellence is founded on hard work, merit and the highest standards of teaching,” said Didier Kling, President of the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “However, excellence is not elitism. We support the concept and HEC’s implementation of ‘Egalité des Chances’, or affirmative action, and, with this program, we fight social divides. This ceremony is the best evidence of how we are winning.”

Fighting social and societal injustice was at the heart of Patricia Wilson’s speech. The eloquent and feisty graduate accepted her MBA degree with characteristic aplomb and humor: “Is someone in your workplace being underpaid, overlooked, or maybe even mistreated? Complain! … And when you face that unavoidable experience that you just have to endure because ‘that’s the system’, complain! And then, of course, promptly start your own business to disrupt that market…” The former president of the HEC Public Speaking Club was nominated as “one the 2019 MBAs to watch” by Poets & Quants. She marked the 50th anniversary of the school’s MBA program with a spirited, humorous and much-applauded speech.

Going Beyond Existing Values

Former VP of Apple Europe, Pascal Cagni, urged the newly-baptized alumni to seek innovation and initiative: “Technological transformation is an inevitable future. Ride the wave of this massive disruption and play a major part in it!” he told the graduates before quoting the ABCs which guided Steve Jobs in his career: “A for authentic, B for bold, C for compassionate.”

PhD alumnus Elena Plaksenkova appears well set on a promising career path, joining one of the United States’ top faculties, the Fisher College of Business. Her five-year residency at HEC was capped at Friday’s Commencement ceremony by a moving insight into her doctoral voyage: “My experience here was about striking the right balance between going forward and knowing when to pause. It was also about learning. Not only about how to do research, but also about the way I perceive the world… The big revelation for me was not that people from different social and cultural backgrounds have different opinions. The revelation was about how to understand the true ‘Why’s’ behind those opinions… I would like to encourage you to go on this self-development journey, to go beyond your existing beliefs and ideas and stay open-minded.”

HEC Paris - Commencement Ceremony 2019 - Grande Ecole Graduates

On to the Professional Track

The two-hour ceremony climaxed with the ritual singing of Les lacs du Connemara, Michel Sardou’s rousing homage to an Irish lake. Blissfully spared by the rains predicted by the weather forecaster, the 2,032 fresh graduates then exchanged and celebrated on the campus lawns with fellow-students, staff and professors. “This is the first time we left our native India, and we’re so proud of what our daughter has achieved,” said the mother of Meghna, a graduate from the Master in International Finance. This future consultant in London was surrounded by beaming parents and a brother, all intent on sharing this family first. Taiwanese Graduate Tara Wu, meanwhile, said she was to prolong her stay in the French capital with an internship putting into practice the corporate finance management lessons she learnt during her three years at HEC’s Grande Ecole.

“Almost everyone in my MSc Entrepreneurship course has found a professional outlet or course,” observed Emmanuel as his Grande Ecole friend Nicolas nodded. “And I hope none of us will forget the advice from Hubert Joly to remain humble as we go up the corporate ladders some of us have chosen.” During the ceremony, the Executive Chairman of Best Buy had shared the lessons he learnt since graduating from HEC in 1981. In what he called his “Back to the Future” moment, he said: “On the eve of the next chapter in your lives, reflect on the higher purpose of your careers. Start by trying to answer the question: ‘Why?’. It took me a long time to find an answer, but I came up with: ‘Serving the common good’. It was a long journey, but I saw that work is both essential and can be instrumental in doing good.”

Family Affair

Joly set up the HEC Purposeful Leadership Chair in 2018. His was a call appreciated by Grande Ecole alumnus Timothée. His double-degree with Sciences-Po was also a “long journey and a heavy investment” and the Ceremony had left him with a wealth of emotion. “But such advice from someone as respected as Joly can only be inspiring and rejuvenating.”

Equally moved was Ali Shantia. Intriguingly, the Doctor in Operations & Supply Chain Management was following directly in the footsteps of his wife Sara Rezaee Vessal. She graduated from the same PhD course exactly a year before. “Ours has been something of a family odyssey,” the Iranian academic confided. “Now, I’m just looking forward to furthering my academic career at the Toulouse Business School where I’m already an assistant Professor in my field.” Meanwhile, the MSc graduate in Public affairs and management, Nathalie, brought three generations to the ceremony: her mother, husband and 10-month-old toddler. “I finished back in December and am already invested in my career in Berlin, but today was a wonderful occasion to see all the faces of friends and teachers that were part of my life for two years.”

Vernimmen Awards to Sellier, Bossard and Becker

Many present lauded the ceremony’s traditional tongue-in-cheek film - made this year by the student association Making Of - “HEC Back in Time”. In it, the student protagonists traveled in time as far back as 11,500 BC in search of a vital manuscript to save the prestigious Vernimmen award. Named after Pierre Vernimmen, one of HEC’s most distinguished professors and businessman, this annual distinction is given each year to the school’s most outstanding professors. At the Commencement ceremony, the sponsoring BNPP representative, François Debiesse, awarded the Vernimmen Prize to Professors Anne-Laure Sellier (Marketing), Olivier Bossard (Finance) and Sebastian Becker (Accounting). He said it was for, among things, their ability to “transform austere fields into lively matter which integrates company strategy.”