CHICAGO – Everyone should dream big. Just ask Coca-Cola Chief Financial Officer Kathy Waller, who delivered an inspirational commencement speech this month at DePaul University’s Richard H. Driehaus College of Business and the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.

Waller, who started at Coca-Cola 29 years ago in an entry-level finance and accounting job, climbed the executive ranks by following both her head and her heart. Her ambitions – and her conviction to always stay true to herself – kept her moving forward even when she wasn’t sure of where her path would lead.

“I’m a fact-based, analytical person,” Waller told the class of 2016 on June 12, 33 years to the day after graduating from business school herself. “But I believe that the primary thing that limits us is ourselves, not our circumstances. We all have ingenious methods to get in our own way. We let the blank spaces ahead intimidate us. “Dreaming is my way of thinking about what I want to happen without worrying about how it is going to happen. I fill in the blank spaces when I get there.”

Waller offered these pieces of advice based on her experience: 

When you are interested in doing something, make sure everyone knows.

“Dreams are very personal,” Waller said. “But to help them come true, you need to share them. You never know where help or opportunity will come from… so the more people who know what you want to do, the more help you will get.”

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Waller spoke to nearly 1,500 graduates and more than 12,000 guests on June 12.

Assume that you can influence an outcome. 

Waller shared a story of going to lunch with the company’s Controller many years ago and expressing interest in an open role. “He gave me the funniest look and said he never would have thought that I was interested in that role,” she recalls. “I told him why I wanted the role and what skills I had that I believed would make me a good future candidate.” When she returned from a business trip a few weeks later, she was offered the role of Director of Financial Reporting. “That changed the trajectory of my career and allowed me to become Chief of Internal Audit, an officer of the company, Controller and now Chief Financial Officer,” she added. “And it all started from a lunch discussion…”

Be purposeful in meetings.

That conversation could have gone in many directions, but Waller used it to both give and receive information… and her fortitude paid off. She shared a story of how, soon after joining Coke, she was listening to the new CFO rehearse for a board presentation when the executive asked for feedback. Waller spoke up, offering a few constructive suggestions, which he gladly incorporated. Later that day, he called to ask her to work with him on his quarterly board presentations – which she did for the next two years. He became a mentor to Waller, and their bond helped her build other key relationships within the company. “I have often wondered how my life would have been different if I hadn’t spoken up that day,” she said.

Act on your dreams. 

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'Step up, speak up, and take risks,' Waller told the grads

 “Step up, speak up, and take risks,” Waller told the grads. When the Director of Financial Reporting role opened up, she assumed there was someone already identified for the job. “But I had no idea I could get the role at that time,” explained Waller, who said dreams, when combined with life’s lessons and unexpected turns, come together like a puzzle. “In your dreams, there are no limits… no voices in your head telling you what you can’t do. There is no one to tell you that what you want isn’t practical or it isn’t rational or it isn’t for you.”

Waller concluded with a quote from astronomer Carl Sagan: “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be found.”

“This day represents a beginning,” she concluded. “I hope you find your something incredible. I hope you dream it into being, and I hope you stay true to yourselves throughout your journey.”