Personal finance guru Suze Orman encouraged 150 graduating high school seniors to follow both their hearts and their hands during inspirational keynote remarks at the 27th annual Coca-Cola Scholars Banquet. 

“If you live your life going for what makes your heart happy, then you can change the entire world,” the Emmy Award-winning TV host, bestselling author and motivational speaker told the group of Coca-Cola Scholars selected based on academic achievement and a commitment to service-based leadership. “You can choose to make bad decisions and do what is easy... or you can choose to do what’s right. Your future is in your hands.”

Orman shared several lessons from her life story. Now 64, she grew up in a working class family on Chicago’s South Side. Though she suffered from a speech impediment and had trouble reading during her younger years, she was accepted into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked to pay her own way through school.

“I will always thank my parents for poverty because of what they didn’t have… what they were not able to give me… for I had no choice but to give it to myself,” she said.

After college, Orman borrowed $1,500 from her brother so she could buy a used van and move to Berkeley, Calif. After living in that van on the streets for a few months, she landed her “dream job” waitressing at a bakery and making $400 a month. Seven years later, when she was 29, she decided to open her own restaurant. But she needed startup capital.

When her mom – a secretary who sold Avon products on the side – politely turned down her request for a $20,000 loan, one of her regulars at the bakery, Fred Hasbrook, huddled with a few other fellow customers Orman had served for years. After a quick chat, they handed over a stack of checks and handwritten commitments totaling $50,000.

Along with the checks came a handwritten note on a napkin that said the following: "This is for you to make your dreams come true... to be paid back in 10 years, at no interest, if you can.” 

Coke Scholars Group 2015
Giving a thumbs-up to the 2015 class of Coca-Cola Scholars.

They advised Orman to open a money market account at the local Merrill Lynch branch, but a broker duped her into buying options – a speculative and risky investment practice. “Within a short time, I’d lost all $50,000,” she recalls before a short pause.

Yet just as one door closed for Orman, another opened. She decided to apply for a brokerage job at Merrill Lynch. “If you’re going the wrong way, God permits U-Turns,” she said with a laugh.

The manager reluctantly hired Orman simply to fill their women’s quota, as the branch’s first female broker. While studying to take her Series 7 exam, she learned that what had happened to her was illegal and under the advice of friends, sued her employer to get her money back. Before the case made it to court two years later, she had become one of the top-producing brokers at that office of Merrill Lynch, so they decided to give her all the money back plus interest, and she was able to pay everyone back. 

“You define who you are,” Orman concluded. “And who you are will always be 10 times more important that what you have. Your goal in life is to be happy… to leave more for others that was there when you came. But you can only do that when your hands are strong enough so you can pick yourself up and carry yourself through every situation.”

Orman concluded by sharing five guiding principles she strives to follow each day:

1.     May every thought that you think be etched in fire in the sky for the whole world to see, for in fact it is. “Think great thoughts,” she said. “Don’t waste your time on thoughts that are destructive, gossipy or evil.”

2.     May every word you say be said as if the world were one great big ear for everyone to hear, for in fact it is. “Your words have the power to create or destroy,” she said. “The choice is up to you.”

3.     May every deed you do recoil on top of your head, for in fact it will. “Do what you would be proud of,” she said. “Don’t try to go too fast… just do what’s right, and your deeds will give you greatness versus misery.”

4.     May every wish you wish another be a wish that you wish for yourself, for in fact it is. “Don’t be jealous of others. Wish others greatness,” she said.

5.     May everything you do be done as if God himself is doing it, for in fact he is. Everyone enters the world with two wings: one is the wing of grace that flaps by your side, 7 days a week 24 hours a day. The wing we bring to this equation is the wing of self-effort, Orman explained. “When the wing of self-effort flaps equally as hard as the wing of grace, you’ll have flight into the world of unlimited possibilities, where anything and everything is possible,” she added. “You can change this world, but only if you’re willing to think great thoughts, speak great words, take great actions and do what is right verses what is easy.”

Learn more about the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation here, and get to know the 2015 class of Coca-Cola Scholars in this short video.

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