McDonough School of Business
Ann Sarnoff delivers the commencement address to the undergraduate Class of 2024.
News Story

Ann Sarnoff (B’83) to Graduates: ‘Build Relationships’ and ‘Don’t Make a Plan’

After four years of learning, building community, and preparing for the next chapter of their adult lives, the Class of 2024 is ready to make a meaningful impact around the world in their personal and professional lives.

Starting their college career during the height of a global pandemic — with online learning and masks as a staple to the classroom environment — this group of McDonough undergraduates is no stranger to overcoming adversity and making the most out of otherwise challenging circumstances.

This year’s McDonough undergraduate commencement speaker, Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff (B’83), former chair and CEO of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc., also knows what it’s like to persevere through difficult — or rather, unexpected — times. She addressed the 356 graduates on Healy Lawn with honesty and candor.

“Seven months after I took the job at Warner Bros., COVID-19 hit and Hollywood came to a halt. There was no playbook for anyone to turn to,” said Sarnoff. “We had to figure out how to shut down hundreds of television shows and movies, then a few months later, how to get them back up and running while keeping the casts and crews safe.

Leading the major media company through the height of the pandemic, Sarnoff said she tapped into her self-described ‘underdog status’ — knowing that her past experiences prepared her well to tackle anything that came her way.

During the undergraduate commencement ceremony, Sarnoff received a degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa.

During the ceremony, Sarnoff received a degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa.

“To understand me a bit better, let’s roll back the clock a few decades and zoom in on Wilbraham, Massachusetts,” said Sarnoff. “You’d see a girl in a working-class household with limited financial means. My grandparents were immigrants who could not afford to give their kids — my parents — a college education. I did not have career mentors or advice. But those things did not get me down.” 

Since a young age, Sarnoff has led her life with grit and determination at the forefront. After receiving an acceptance letter from Georgetown, she knew she had what it took to succeed in a rigorous academic environment — even if it meant working several on- and off-campus jobs as a full-time student. After successfully completing her degree on the Hilltop, Sarnoff continued to tap into the lessons she learned during her adolescence in Massachusetts. When speaking to the graduating class, she encouraged the new Hoya alumni to adopt this mindset when challenges or uncertainty arise.

“You will have a bad boss; you will take a job that you realize is not a good fit; and you will have personal setbacks. What do you do when those things happen — call mom or dad? Of course you do! But as much as they love you, your parents probably won’t be able to give you all the help you’ll need,” said Sarnoff. “Your own history and constitution — including your special underdog status as the original COVID-19 graduation class from McDonough — will help you ski through those bumps.”

Through life’s uncertainties, Sarnoff imparted two key pieces of advice to the graduates. The first being to build relationships.

“The president of Nickelodeon hired me 10 years later to join him at the BBC. The consulting firm I worked for asked me to advise on a project years later, and that turned into a great job at Dow Jones.”

Secondly, she stressed the importance of not making a plan, despite how it might sound or if it’s counterintuitive in nature.

“I’ve worked at seven different organizations over the past 30-plus years. There were times where I actually took a pay cut in order to have a more interesting and challenging opportunity,” said Sarnoff. “It didn’t work out perfectly for me every time, but it has led to a much more interesting and fulfilling career and life. So even after hearing this, if you still feel the need to make a plan, use a pencil with a big eraser!”

James McNichol (B'24)

James McNichol (B’24)

For James McNichol (B’24), Sarnoff’s words of advice were especially helpful as he moves to New York City to pursue a career in banking. He said Sarnoff’s words about maintaining relationships, while also building new ones, especially resonated with him.

“The importance of building a network and maintaining relationships, not only for my own benefit, but the importance of helping others along the way,” he said.

Other McDonough Class of 2024 graduates, including Alice Naughton (B’24), said it was empowering to hear about Sarnoff’s life experiences and provide a great perspective for the graduates.

Sarnoff concluded the speech by encouraging the graduates to live their lives with authenticity and to never forget where you came from. She also spoke of the importance of gratitude and paying it forward — whether that be thanking family members, professors, or loved ones who have played pivotal roles in the graduates’ successes and journeys to-date—or being a resource for a future Georgetown student.

“It’s not too early to start thinking about what your lasting impact will be. More than any amount of money you make or titles you accumulate, it’s the difference you make in the lives of others that will give you the greatest reward.”

The full speech can be found on Georgetown University’s Youtube channel or Facebook page.

Class of 2024
Undergraduate Program