Text of Minnesota commencement address by James Prom

Thursday, June 5, 2014 9:05:00 PM

The following is the text of the commencement address by James Prom, which he delivered at Stritch's  Minnesota commencement ceremony June 1 at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. 

Good afternoon. You have got to try this. I haven’t had this much adrenalin since the engine went out on my ultra light airplane. To give myself a few deep breaths to download this, I ask you to to take a bold risk. Turn to a random stranger and introduce yourself. Give your first name only. Go ahead. I’m going to take a drink of water.

Thank you. Statistically, 50% of you have already forgotten the name.

My name is James but most call me Jim. I am a risk taker. I take risks. That’s how I arrived here.

This is a great honor for me. Since my graduation in 1999, it tops the list of recent honors I have received in the last few years. I have been honored by the City of Plymouth. Honored by my Knights of Columbus dubbing me Grand knight. Honored by a Navy SEAL who offered me a full-time position to manage their prototype business. All of these honors occurred recently due to a single change in my personality.  That change is humility.

Oh boy. Now you are probably thinking, Really? Humble people don’t get up and proclaim their humility. True, they don’t.  But to every rule, there is an exception. My story of this prodigal son may be that exception. As I share it with you I invite you to ruminate on the difference between confidence and arrogance, bold risk and reward, and then I have a challenge for you.

In 1964, Fred Smith produced a movie titled, "Seven Up." It followed one class of British children with interviews and observations at the ages 7, 14, 21,and 28. What was fascinating about it was the uncanny uniqueness of each personality and outcome of each child. The disciplined one at seven was the disciplined one at 28. The wild one at 7 was the same. The prodigal son at 7 was still learning the hard way at 28. This movie, along with life experience, revealed a natural truth. Our personality and nature is hard wired in a particular way from the instant we appeared material in this time space distortion of a largely unknown universe. It also hinted at a potential truth that is worthy of investigation. What made you happy when you were 7 was God’s or nature's hint to what would make you happy now.  The American dream encapsulates the ultimate human experience in the history of the planet. Pursuing true happiness is a course you should carefully consider. It takes a risk.

For example, when I was seven, I loved adventure, and hunting, butterfly hunting. There was always a bigger and better one around the corner. My buddies would build devices to extend net range and collect and frame them like the Robinson family. I also remember we used to play a game of emergency based on the television show about Squad 51. I was Jonnny and Mike was Roy. I was the ambulance driver and would come screaming down the hill to rescue and help others. That was my hint. My hint to happiness was adventure, excitement and helping people.

I was formally schooled at St. Charles and Totino-Grace in Fridley. Frankly, I didn't enjoy it too much. Not that I was looking forward to the paper route, mind you, I just didn't like sitting and structure. I graduated high school in 1981 without significant accomplishment other than being the president of the band. At 15, I took an EMT course at Spring Lake park and at 21 I was working on the ambulance. From then to 28 I took every new risk I could regarding life. My brothers built a home, I flew ultralight airplanes and was part of the cardiovascular industry’s beginning. After dropping out of Winona State, my next decade was a series of medical jobs that I trained in on the job.

Starting with my early dream I drove the ambulance like a mad man.  I was whistling down County 10 at 90 miles an hour saving lives and transporting the elderly.  After I mastered that job I was hungry for more. My never-ending search for adventure took me to the ER, morgue and Cath labs of many hospitals here and in L.A.

In 1990, a new company called Interventional Technologies. developed a new device that was super high risk for the worst patients, often dying on the table. They needed a clinical specialist that could teach the physician while the patient was dying, and if necessary take over if the technique looked too dangerous. Hmm, danger, life and death, sky miles and a company car! I took a risk. All over California and Nevada that is. This work was the most challenging work I had to date. I knew It would take more effort to master. If the doctor or tech pushed too hard the device would cut through the patient's bypass graft and filled the patient's chest with blood, assuring death…in about 30 minutes of absolute medical intensity. In the past I had taught CPR and it occurred to me that there was no angioplasty manikin.  So I did what most entrepreneurs do. I went into the garage and made one. Now life was advancing and I needed to get serious. My wife had her degree, was excelling in sales, and I needed to go back to school.

So I was 31 years old with an idea and a 1-year-old daughter. It could have seemed daunting if I were not conditioned to risk. It was time to multitask. Formal school was always a chore for a ADHD boy who doesn't sit still. When I first learned of Stritch, I didn't believe it could be true. One class every month. Really? Little did I know how perfect it was. I needed to understand how to start and grow a business. My courses were taught by rational critical thinkers who taught me the knowledge that I needed most. My capstone was the business plan for Invasive Models. I earned a B.

Despite many setbacks, I followed the capstone and succeeded in introducing Angiogram Sam to the market. In three years I established it as the standard for training invasive technique. I sold the company in 2005 as we moved into our fifth home and third on a lake. It was so perfect.  We had a million dollar home and I was a successful businessman.

I couldn't believe how relatively easy it was to be successful. What could possibly go wrong? William Clinton said, “life’s deepest wounds are usually self inflicted.”

My confidence had turned to arrogance. I had gone from adventurer and confident master of patient care to successful small businessman who could do what others could not….or rather would not.  What could go wrong? Me, that’s what could go wrong.

So this is the one class I must have missed...humility.  An acquaintance at our kids' school called me one day to pitch a plan for a multi-million market idea. Roameo …a GPS dog color that would allow the owner to use GPS instead of wires in the ground, At first I was suspicious and hesitant. With some prodding and encouragement from others, I took a risk.

My attorney neighbor said I was crazy…. I was crazy,.. crazy full of myself.  The red flags were everywhere, but I paid little attention.

The business plan showed a solid market and 10,000 units a year in only three years. This aggressive plan had to be executed with precision.  First step was to get a patent on the utility and build a prototype. Right off the bat, flags appeared. The CEO and CFO were friends and had tried this before and failed. After giving them initial funding they refused to sign a buy-sell agreement and had no idea what their exit number was on the stock. As I continued to fund and research solutions to the problems in the software and technology, my money ran out and I reached out to my family and friends.

Nearing completion of the prototype, it was time to brand Roameo and give it a tagline. "Roameo…There’s no place like home" was my favorite. I asked the CEO what he thought it should be. “Let your wallet be mine!” he blurted out. Startled, I asked again. He said it again. Oooo, gut punch. I thought we were in the business of creating something new and helpful. I was wrong. After much turmoil we finished the prototype. It was Shark Tank time and I was hopeful that we would raise $8-10 million. As I arranged and attended the venture capital meeting with the CEO, clarity and wisdom came upon me. Each of the five meetings went as follows. The venture guy sees the technology and spends 10 minutes asking us eyeball to eyeball, “Does this really work?”

“YES,” I would answer.

“OK how much do you need?” 

“I don’t know," replied the CEO.

“What do I have to give up?” 

These seven words killed the meetings, then killed the company. The CEO wanted to keep control despite directly telling me he would give it up. I left the company 10 months before it declared bankruptcy.

Lying in a pile of mud I had gone from millionaire to broke. I lost my savings, I lost my siblings' money, my friends' money, and my dignity. I had nothing but humiliation.  No one would trust me again. It changed my life forever. 

Broke, rejected and humiliated, I dropped to my knees. O God, help me.

About the same time one of the people who bought my heart model company called me. He was in serious trouble. His partners had sold the inventory and he had parts that no one could assemble. I told him I would assemble the 1,000 models for him at $20 a piece. Sitting in the mud hole praying of mercy, mercy came. I assembled his models. He paid his debts and gave me my molds back. In 2011, I had the chance to start over. Lucky me! I did start over. I found new partners who were decent and honest. I have revenue coming back in and my new interests have kept me on the right track.

The first time I ran for office I was still a bit burned and bitter about the Roameo thing. My neighbor decided that since I paid a handsome fee for my lake lot, he could split his off and do the same. As he lied to the council and I saw them buy his line, it hit me again. I could do that job. Why doesn't someone see through this and say no? 

Although thoroughly humiliated by the loss at Roameo, my entrepreneurial self went for it. I entered the race. Brash and arrogant, I pretty much told them “I can do this job.” Talk about ingratiating. They smiled politely as I was given access to the information they receive as I ran in 2008. In a five-way race (with an incumbent in the year Plymouth was named best city to live in by Money magazine), I came in third. Something about "epic fail" put the final nail in my ego's coffin. I returned to my faith for the first time in my life.

In the following five years, I trained and became a licensed pyro technician with Zambelli fireworks. It was simple work, not easy, or really profitable. Through a humble spirit and bold action, I was offered the best job in the industry. One man shows at Valleyfair -- it was the pinnacle of achievement for a old hobby. Always looking for opportunity, I ran into a Navy SEAL, Larry Yatch, one day, and he had a business idea of his own. He was back from the Gulf War and opened a self-defense center in New Hope teaching Navy SEAL techniques to civilians. Can you say, "Where do I sign up?" So I took a bold risk. He needed instructors to teach and 10 military guys and I participated in a  two-day tryout. They chose three. Yup, I was third again. Far from the bottom, I couldn't believe my luck. He said, “Jim, I want you to develop the Permit to Carry 8 hour class." So I did.

Another election year and I decided to go for my ward. The incumbent was there for 18 years and not thrilling everyone. I was handing out constitutions while she walked with her little green wagon. This time I had to do something different. So I knocked on doors. I listened. I didn't argue and politely went on my way. She beat me, but not in the areas where I actually talked to the people. Humility and bold risk paid off.

In reality, local government, which is closest to the people, is not the dramatic folly we see in the federal government. These people are all well-accomplished critical thinkers trying to do what is right. They must be willing to sell themselves, door to door, and then conduct the business of the city. It’s fun, interesting and sometimes a bit frustrating all in the same day. It was my return to humility that directly contributed to my new happy life. 

In all seriousness, I challenge all of you to be humble in spirit and risk boldly. Humble wisdom. Wisdom comes from the fear of the lord. Most Americans knew this in our founding and throughout our short history. Had I not been humiliated, I would not have accepted wisdom. I would not be Plymouth City council member, Navy SEAL permit to carry instructor, state-licensed pyro, heart model business owner and now commencement speaker at my private university.

So now that you know a little about me I’d be curious about you. Not so much about your cultural background, or your orientation or gender. You are not a skin color, a gender or an orientation. You are not a worker or a disabled person. You are a miracle that is here right now with these other miracles. Uniquely created in a single instant in time by two half cells becoming one. How lucky are you. A close scrutiny of the likelihood that those variables would all line up is staggering. You could be from nearly identical odds of time color, gender, etc. and be completely different people.

The family is the perfect example of the diversity of the individual. With the major variables of genetics and environmental variables being nearly identical. One would think the product would be very similar. Not so fast. Tiny fluctuations in behavior and attitude trigger changes in the micro environment of family, that results in major diverse differences in otherwise two identical group members. No, you are not a member of a group, unless you cede your individually beauty to the collective. I don’t see you that way. My best friend is a first generation immigrant from Lebanon. I didn’t know he would be my best friend. I just wanted a decent person who shared similar interest and values. It’s really not too difficult to find new friends this way,  but it takes a few years to break down the barriers to trust and find true friendship. Trust, like how you trust yourself, is the most important variable to true friendship. Without trust, all relationships and institutions decay to failure. 

So how will you do in the next 15 years?

Humiliation brings humility to the arrogant. You, however, don’t have to be humiliated to choose to be humble in spirit. Now it’s your turn. Consider the risk you took at the beginning of this talk. You introduced yourself to a total stranger. Are they decent? How decent? How will you know? Victor Frankel wrote in "Man's Search for Meaning" that there are only two kinds of people -- the decent and the indecent. I agree. If you are not humble, you are likely to become indecent. Taking bold risks with decent people will lead to a full and happy life, and perhaps even the honor of giving a commencement speech 15 years from now.   

So I challenge you now, Class of 2014, be humble in spirit, and risk boldly in your action.

God will bless you, beyond your expectations. Thank you.