Paypal co-founder to UI grads: Take risks and don't fear failure

Paypal co-founder to UI grads: Take risks and don't fear failure

CHAMPAIGN — One of the world's most successful entrepreneurs told University of Illinois graduates they should embrace failure, not fear it.

PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, a 1997 computer science alumnus, told Saturday's commencement crowd "whatever your definition of risk is, go experience it now, while your entire life is ahead of you, and you have almost nothing to lose.

"You might just find out who you really are."

It helped that many of his closest co-workers were Urbana campus graduates, he also said Saturday — though he joked about the fragrance of the South Farms.

Levchin grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, and his family desperately wanted to leave the country because of growing anti-Semitism.

"By the time I reached my teens, in the late '80s, the country was being held together with shoestring and bubble gum," he said. "But because it was Soviet-made bubble gum, it was made out of tree bark and superglue."

And then there was the Chernobyl crisis in April 1986, the world's worst nuclear accident — and Kiev was the closest major city.

The family of five made it to Chicago in 1991 with about $600.

Levchin thrived in Chicago schools, mastering English, developing a self-deprecating wit and showing himself as a master of the science fair. An impressed counselor told him he should apply to the UI.

"I loved my time at UI, and I take great pride in being an Illinois alumnus," he told the graduates as the sun cut through the clouds. "And, I am happy to report, your Chambana-conferred degree will serve as a badge of honor out there in the real world."

Though he was humble about dispensing "life advice," Levchin did have stories of failure leading to success — and how luck plays a part.

"I got insanely lucky," he said about his family being granted refugee status in the U.S. Luck for Levchin also came down to timing, as well as his ability to make friends.

"I ended up at the UI on Quad Day 1993, in blazing 100-plus-degree heat, wearing a Soviet-made flannel shirt buttoned all the way up," he said, and then walked up to recognizable nerds squinting at a computer.

Living on Mountain Dew and Snickers bars and without much sleep, he showed two engineering students his work.

"They were up late because they were going to start a company," Levchin said, and they invited him to become the first vice president of engineering.

The startup failed about a year later, with serious damage to his GPA and credit score — they'd financed the startup with credit cards.

"I failed, but I found out who I really was," he said.

Failure always hurts, "and you live through it by staying human."

But after several disasters, he and Peter Thiel — not a UI grad — founded a company together that ended up being PayPal.

He begged the grads not to grab him after the speech with PayPal problems — "it's been well over a decade since I had anything to do with PayPal."

His next startup taught him about being a human.

He had to lay off staffers, twice.

A colleague told him "instead of feeling sorry for yourself in a corner conference room, go help those you just let go to pack up their stuff, and show some compassion."

"Failing sucks. There is no getting around the pain you experience when you fail, and it doesn't get much easier with experience," he said. "But don't let fear of failure deter you from taking those risks."

Finally, "whether you are starting a company or joining one, or even thinking about a life partner, ask yourself, 'how motivated do you feel to become an even better version of you?'"

The team is everything.

"The friendships you forged here at Illinois are going to turn out to be the foundational relationships of your life," Levchin told the graduates. "And find, and hang on tight to, those who make you a better you."

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