Honoree Jason Felts urges Ripon College graduates to promote change, leave a legacy

The Ripon College Class of 2024 celebrated the 158th Commencement ceremony at Ripon College Sunday afternoon. The theme was “Breaking Barriers: Creating a Legacy.” A full video of the Commencement ceremony can be viewed at ripon.edu/live.

Nearly 150 members of the class heard from three honorees: keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient Jason Felts, a serial entrepreneur, Fortune 500 brand advisor, philanthropist, film producer and founding CEO of VIRGIN PRODUCED; honorary degree recipient Dena G. Willmore, Ripon College Class of 1967, retired partner and senior vice president of Wellington Management Company; and Jason Presto, Ripon College Class of 2004, CEO of The Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area, recognized with the Founders’ Day Award. .

Felts said the Commencement theme “should resonate deeply with all of you because it speaks to the essence of what it means to be a graduate of Ripon College.”

Felts related his own experiences and perseverance in breaking through barriers as he established himself in his career. “Tell me no and I want to convert it to a yes,” he said. He started by talking his way into a job by offering to first work for free with Hollywood press agent and philanthropist David Mirisch, Ripon College Class of 1959.

Then, at the age of 32, he became co-founder and the second youngest CEO in the history of Virgin Group – only behind Sir Richard Branson himself.

“But getting in the door is only half the challenge of breaking a barrier,” he said. “It’s the work that matters, the smart work combined with the willingness to not accept someone else’s desire to maintain the status quo.”

He said, “Instead of viewing barriers as roadblocks, let’s see them as opportunities for growth and transformation. Breaking barriers is not a one-time event. It is a continuous journey that requires resilience, determination and a healthy dose of humor.

“Life will throw curveballs at you and you won’t always have the hands of Donald Driver to catch them. They will present you with challenges you never anticipated. In those moments, I urge you to embrace the power of laughter. Be OK with not caching every curveball. Let it hit the ground. It will not be you failing. Instead, you will look down, you’ll pick it up and you’ll do something with it. You’ll reassess, you’ll refocus and you’ll reset.”

But doing so does not mean that one has failed, Felts said, only that one has reset, “this time armed with the knowledge and experience necessary to break through whatever barrier you faced. The key is not to give up, the key is to stay persistent.”

Felts told the graduates that achievements themselves are not the goal. Honors, recognition and monetary success are not important to leaving a legacy, he said. “Legacy is not what you do for yourself, it’s the impact you leave on others. When we think of legacies, we often associate them with grandiose achievements, monumental deeds.”

However, he said, “I believe a true legacy is built upon the impact you have on others and the mark you leave on the world. It’s about embodying the values and principles you hold dear … and leaving others better than how you found them, either through your words, your actions or your contributions. It’s about doing that every day. That’s how you create a legacy and it starts today.”

He said building a legacy is not a solo endeavor but one that requires collaboration, empathy and a willingness to listen to those whose voices have been silenced.

“It requires you to break down the barriers and build bridges,” he said. “Your actions have the power to shape the world around you.”

Willmore said there are three ways people can give back, through their time, talent and treasure, and even small gestures can be impactful. “Each of us, in ways large and small, can always make a difference,” she said. “So much of what I am and what I have done I owe to Ripon.”

Presto said he faced many limitations as a youth, and he found his way forward at Ripon College. Now, through the Boys & Girls Club, he strives to encourage other youths with limitations.

“Kids can’t dream a dream they’ve never seen,” he said. “They cannot have a vision for their future if they don’t know what is possible.”

The Boys & Girls Club, Presto said, focuses on “taking the ceiling off the expectations of young people and creating a vision of what is possible.”

The senior class speaker was Levi James Keen of Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. Ripon alumni Mark Franzen ’83, chair of the Board of Trustees; Camille Carlson Clemons ’00, Trustee; and Lisa Wollan ’78, Trustee, also participated in the ceremony.

President Victoria N. Folse told the graduates that they have impacted the College as much as the College has impacted them. “Your successes have enhanced our profile,” she said. “And Ripon College has shaped you in so many ways. Your Ripon College degree has prepared you for a life of relevance and a life of purpose. You now represent Ripon College in the pursuit of your personal and professional passions and dreams.

“An education rooted in lifelong learning and scholarly achievement will create strategic minds that impact the communities in which they live and ignite the change we all need to move the world forward.”

A full video of the Commencement ceremony can be viewed at ripon.edu/live.

(Photo: Jason Felts)

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