McKelvey tells Engineering graduates it is uncomfortable to create change

If you didn't get a chance to watch the McKelvey Engineering Recognition Ceremony in person, here is the full ceremony with Jim McKelvey Jr. and Chancellor Mark Wrighton's last speech.






Jim McKelvey Jr.
Jim McKelvey Jr.

At the 2019 McKelvey School of Engineering Recognition Ceremony, Jim McKelvey Jr. gave nearly 1,000 graduating McKelvey Engineering students the universal formula for success in any industry: Copy what everybody else does.

McKelvey, a 1987 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, told surprised students that we learn to do everything in life by copying someone else: walking, talking and studying.

"We copy copiously, we copy instinctively," said McKelvey, the first Recognition Ceremony speaker for the school newly named after him. "Copying is so wired into our brains and our institutions that as soon as we stop copying, we feel uncomfortable."

But the problem with copying, he said, is that nothing changes.

"Someday you may encounter a problem that nobody has solved," he said. "And if you dare to try to solve that problem, you're not going to be able to copy, and that's going to feel very strange. You will feel alone and uncertain. You will have no guarantee that your solution will work. Every cell in your body and decades of social conditioning are going to tell you to get back to the herd. And at that point, my hope is that your engineering education will serve you."

McKelvey said when something is truly new, we are all novices.

"And we are all alone and are probably scared," he said. "And some of us do it anyway. This is how the world advances. If we have prepared some of you to be unprepared, then we have done our job."

A successful serial entrepreneur, McKelvey Jr. is co-founder of Square, a revolutionary financial services and mobile payment company credited with empowering businesses of all sizes around the globe. In addition, he is an independent director of the St. Louis Federal Reserve but is better known for his involvement in several St. Louis-based startups, including co-founder of Six Thirty, founder of LaunchCode, co-founder of Third Degree Glass Factory, founder of Mira Publishing (as a Washington University student). He also is the author of "The Art of Fire: Beginning Glassblowing," a textbook for novice glassblowers. He recently started Invisibly, which works with online publishers and advertisers to improve their advertising technology and thus create a revenue stream.

McKelvey Jr. is the son of James M. McKelvey Sr., who was the seventh dean of the university's engineering school from 1964-1991.


The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 96.5 tenured/tenure-track and 33 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.