'Get in the business of transport — from disadvantage to fulfillment'

December 18, 2023

Bill Anaya, '93 CASL grad, encouraged the Class of 2023 to practice and value mentorship. The Fortune 200 executive credits guidance from UM-Dearborn educators with changing the trajectory of his life.

Photo from Fall 2023 Commencement
Commencement keynote speaker Bill Anaya addresses the Class of Fall 2023 at the Dec. 16 ceremonies. Photo by Shannon Schultz/Michigan Photography

Keynote speaker Bill Anaya delivered his address during the two Dec. 16 commencement ceremonies. Anaya, a 1993 UM-Dearborn graduate who works at Coupang as the global government affairs vice president, talked about how the people and lessons in his life helped propel him to success and fulfillment. If you missed the ceremonies, here’s the advice Anaya shared with the Class of 2023.

It is a privilege to share in this day with you.

Thank you Chancellor Grasso, a dynamic and caring leader who is devoted to our students, and the great university leadership team for inviting me to share this milestone moment with all of you. 

I am overjoyed to see each of you and your loved ones.

Today, I am joined by the most important person in my life, my bride of 25 years. Erica is a fearless advocate for children in need and women who deserve a second chance. She’s also the mother of our children — William and Laura — who are studying at the public university in Charlottesville, Virginia that is ranked just behind this one. Our son will have a career in finance, and our daughter will be a nurse. So proud of them.

This occasion for many of us represents a major accomplishment, maybe even something seemingly impossible because it felt out of reach. Yet, here we are recognizing you, celebrating learning, and reflecting on from where we came while preparing for the impact we will make from this point forward. Sounds pretty meaningful and important, doesn’t it? Which is why standing here with you feels like an undeserved gift to me - in so many ways.

Please let me explain.

Thirty years ago, I was privileged to graduate from this special place. It took me 4.5 years to do it. But, the team here had my back all the way.

When I was growing up, going to and graduating college was not something I felt was possible for me.

Maybe some of us have this in common.

You see, before I was even 10 years old, I worked with my father and grandfather as a janitor. I cleaned places like local office buildings, laundromats and even bathrooms in a trucking company in a rock quarry — not too far from where we are now assembled in this beautiful space. 

As you can imagine, in more ways than one . . . that work left an indelible mark on me. Like many families, we had to find a way to make ends meet. I was working with two of the biggest lions in my life. And we worked hard. I learned priceless life lessons from them.

And, I learned different lessons from my interactions with the men who owned the facilities we cleaned. They could be dismissive of us.

Those experiences, however, helped to form a younger me and steel my resolve to seek a brighter tomorrow — and to prove to potential mentors and sherpas that I was worthy of their investment in my future. 

Oftentimes, at the rock quarry, I would finish my work and then slip out of one of the bays where the heavy trucks were parked and head over to where there was a massive hole in the earth that seemed to me to be a mile deep. From that hole, the trucks would haul out stone that would be used to build some of the infrastructure around us.

To get to the hole, I would crawl under a barbed wire fence. I would make my way to the edge and dangle my feet, somehow calmly, above the most beautiful pool of deep blue water that had collected way down at the bottom.

 Over the years, it became a sort of wishing well that allowed me to stare down into it and transport myself from the honorable work we were doing toward dreams of going to college and building a different career.

Like each of the family members here today, my parents always wanted more for their children. While they ultimately divorced, they made sure I understood the dignity of work done to the best of one’s ability and the singular importance of responsibility. They hoped I would get a college education.

Indeed, my father, while suffering from terminal cancer, essentially directed me to apply to Dearborn. I wondered whether it would even be worth it. After all, we did not have the economic resources to make it work.

But, thankfully, I listened.

And, before he would conclude his valiant and selfless battle for his life, he learned that this special place had awarded the Chancellor’s Scholarship to his son. Because of Dearborn’s decision to grant a full academic scholarship to me, I would be able to earn an otherwise unobtainable world-class education — and so much more.

I began here as a student who wanted to prepare for medical school. But a prerequisite in political science turned my plans inside out. I would soon be taking any class offered by Dr. Helen Graves. 

During my time here, she and then-Congressman John Dingell became another set of heroes and giants in my life. Dr. Graves was a force of nature in our classrooms and among the organizations, both corporate and governmental, which she convinced to take interns.

Chairman Dingell was one of the most extraordinarily thoughtful and powerful policymakers in American Government for more than half a century — and Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is extending this legacy. She is a leader and one of the most effective and influential lawmakers in the Capitol. The Congresswoman battles every day and wins for our school and all of us. 

These special people took me under their wings. 

They made THE difference in my life. 

Helen Graves worked with me to secure my first internship in Washington, D.C., where I would be of service to the then-Majority Leader, himself a Michigan Law School grad. After that, Professor Graves also forced me into an internship across the street from here at Ford World Headquarters.

I mean it. 

She made me do it.

Pretty much against my will!

If you were lucky enough to know Helen, you knew there was no sense in disagreeing with her. Helen Graves was a juggernaut in a small frame. I am not sure that she was even five feet tall, but I was afraid of her

Anaya's mentor Professor Helen Graves is pictured on the left. When President Gerald Ford, right, came to campus in 1978, he gave a talk in Graves’ “Interest Groups and the Political Process” class.
Anaya's mentor Professor Helen Graves is pictured on the left. When President Gerald Ford, right, came to campus in 1978, he gave a talk in Graves’ “Interest Groups and the Political Process” class. (Photo courtesy Mardigian Library)

When she told me that she had a slate of interviews set up for me in Ford’s government relations office and that it was important to do well because the company was a key supporter of her programs, I told her that I was not interested. 

I explained that my father had passed away, I was tired, and I just wanted to focus on school for a bit — to the extent I could while also stepping further into my Dad’s shoes in other ways at home.

Helen was not going to be moved. So I followed orders and ran the gauntlet of interviews. At the end of the day of meetings, the executives at Ford began talking to me as if I would be taking the job.

 At that point, I explained to them that the work sounded great. But there was only one issue. I was not qualified, I declared.

I thought I had outsmarted the Professor. But she was steps ahead of me. Unsurprisingly.

Wow . . . was I shocked the next day, when she called to say that I had the internship and would be serving in the role.

I would later understand that her approach taught me how important it is to take advice from mentors who see the bigger picture — and often — more in us than we see in ourselves.

After complying with her instructions, I did serve in Ford’s State and Local government relations office. 

After that role, I would rotate through jobs with Ford’s grantmaking organization, the Ford Fund, with Leo Brennan — for whom my wife and I middle-named our son — then Ford’s Public Policy office, its Washington, D.C., office, and then the General Counsel’s office for both summers while I was in law school.

Clearly, Helen knew what was best for me and she did not let me feel sorry for myself when I was tired and grieving. Because of her energy and special brand of care, my career arc was further bending in a better direction.

With the help of Chairman Dingell, I would also go on to serve an internship in the White House with a new mentor, Mack McLarty, the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States.

These internships and caring mentors made THE difference in my life. And Dearborn was at the heart of it all. Always training me, always propelling me, always encouraging me. Always making my life and circumstances different.

Because of these experiences, I would later study law at Notre Dame, work for Chairman Dingell in Congress, lead government relations for Motorola — the company that invented the cell phone, join my friend Bob Jones at Alston & Bird to practice law and represent some of the most respected businesses in the world with two bipartisan former Senate Majority Leaders and mentors Tom Daschle and Bob Dole, and then head up Alibaba’s international government relations for the Americas.

Today, I am privileged to lead global government affairs for a great company headquartered in Seattle. Coupang is a Fortune 200 digital commerce, technology and services business that is causing consumers in the Indo-Pacific to ask themselves how they ever lived without the company.

Throughout this employment journey, it has become clear to me that we are all witnessing the accelerating and disruptive power of technology, and UM-Dearborn and all of us are working to understand that.

Nevertheless, there are some human constants in our professional lives that we all must bear in our hearts and minds.

We already know the immeasurable power of mentors who lift us up and challenge us to be more than we thought we could. And we all will increasingly understand that an education from Dearborn can truly transport all of us to the careers about which we have dreamt.

When I was young, I would look down into the azure waters of that rock quarry to take me away . . . to think about what could be.

But, now, I look at what mentors like Helen Graves and the Dingells — right here in Dearborn — did to transport me.

And what UM-Dearborn did to transport me.

You will need mentorship and sponsorship during your career. But, your support of others will help you grow faster . . . faster than you can imagine. That’s a secret which is not often discussed.

Bearing that secret in mind as you encounter others in whom you choose to invest – I hope your efforts will include coaching someone . . . someone like me.

Whether it is someone with perceived disadvantages on account of skin color, religion, gender identity, who they love, where they were born or where they now stand, how one dresses, the way they learn, their heritage, their physical constraints, their developmental and emotional challenges, or what’s in their bank account, I call on you to Make THE Difference for them.

Or if their integrity, transparency, empathy, imagination, thoughtfulness, selflessness, and authenticity are getting in the way of their success — for no good reason — become a beckoning oasis - like that deep blue pool of water in the rock quarry of my youth. 

Make the perception of a disadvantage different.

Make the perception of a disadvantage an opportunity to overcome and provide to others the special brand of care that so many offered to me.

Make THE Difference. That’s the Dearborn Way.

That’s the Dearborn I know and hope you take with you when you go out into the world today.

Again… You should: Make —  With a big block M . . . — Make THE Difference. Each of you has experienced this in your own way, and I ask you to carry it in your heart and practice it, train yourself, and love to Make THE Difference.

All of us have heard throughout our lives about making A difference. But I think you can make THE difference . . .

For yourself and someone you see around you during your career, get in the business of transport — from disadvantage to fulfillment. And be a center of gravity around that idea.

Make your approach contagious and part of the DNA of any organization where you are now or will be. Provide the special brand of care. The Dearborn brand of care. Make THE Difference.

This place bet on me 34 and half years ago. A childhood janitor with Latino roots and limited resources. Now with all of the benefits of being a graduate from Dearborn, do you feel even more prepared to Make THE Difference for yourself and those around you?

 Can you plan to do it for someone . . . someone like me?

I believe in you and will count on you to make THE difference.

Congratulations, graduates, and warmest wishes for you and your loved ones this holiday season! 

Thank you for having me with you today.

Go Blue!  Go Dearborn!