Entrepreneur and School of Information (iSchool) alumnus Wiley Cerilli delivered the keynote address at the iSchool’s Convocation ceremonies on May 13, drawing from his own life experiences to leave graduates with two key pieces of advice.
Cerilli, who left Syracuse University after the end of his freshman year to work for a startup in New York City, went on to found several successful companies of his own, including online food ordering pioneer Seamless, and online business identity management firm Single Platform, which he subsequently sold to Constant Contact for $100 million in 2012.
There were two things – Cerilli told the audience of graduates, their families, and guests – that helped him in his drive to come to Syracuse as an undergraduate 17 years ago, and that helped him again as he built his companies.
“Being grateful, and being relentless,” Cerilli said. “Relentless in overcoming your challenges.”
Cerilli described for the graduates some of the early hurdles he had to overcome in life – being diagnosed with a learning disability, physical problems in his youth that left him in a back brace, and losing his father at a young age, before he graduated from high school.
Shortly before his father passed away, Cerilli recounted, he took him aside to offer some advice.
“My father was refurbishing a building in Providence, Rhode Island, and hired an artist to paint big bay windows on the side of the brick wall,” he recalled. “My father said that life was going to get difficult, and that I could let these negative things define me, or I could define my own path – I could either see things as brick walls, or as windows, and look for opportunities to paint my own story over them.”
Cerilli’s father died shortly after, but Cerilli took his message to heart, and at 17 decided that he would make life happen.
With his back brace, he couldn’t run, but he could wrestle. So he jumped into a new sport and succeeded. He joined clubs, volunteered, and pushed himself to explore new areas and opportunities where he could.
“I got into Syracuse because I took advantage of the things that were different in myself – I built windows out of what I had,” Cerilli said. “And that’s how I built my companies, too.
“The best entrepreneurs, the best co-workers, the best people I know are aware of their weaknesses, grateful for what they have, and lean on their strengths,” Cerilli advised. “They are relentless in building their windows.”
Taking stock of his own success, Cerilli ended the address by telling graduates that the road ahead would likely not be easy, but would require perseverance.
“In the coming years you’re going to run into a lot of brick walls – jobs you wont get, relationships that will end, projects that won’t work,” he said in his parting message. “And you’ll need to decide every day whether you’ll succumb to these brick walls - your insecurities - or feel grateful and paint your own stories over them.”