“What Inventiveness Will Be Your Legacy?”

2014 Cal Berkeley Graduate Engineering School Commencement Speech

Sanjay Mehrotra


Thank you.

I’m truly excited to be here today. It was exactly thirty four years ago that I was here in this beautiful Greek theater graduating with my MS in EECS.

Dean Sastry, distinguished faculty, graduates and families and friends: as a proud Cal alum, I congratulate the Class of 2014 of this great college of engineering.. You have worked hard to achieve this impressive milestone. Let us all join in giving you a big round of applause.

Let me start here. A smartphone. Today an everyday device. Ten years ago uncommon. 34 years ago unheard of.

Step back and think about it. This phone is a thousand times more powerful than all the computers that put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

This SanDisk memory card, the world’s first and only 128GB micro-SD card, is thumb-nail sized and just 1 millimeter thin. It’s used in smartphones to store hours of video, thousands of pictures and songs, and it has many times more storage than all those moon-landing computers.!

That moon landing, this smartphone and this flash memory card came from the minds of men and women just like you.

So my question, or even challenge, to you is this -- where will you take us and what inventiveness will be your legacy?

In relation to my journey, I want to start by talking about tenacity. How did I get here?

There was no more tenacious person than my father.

I was born and raised in India and came to Cal as a junior transfer student in EECS in the fall of ‘76. I was thrilled to be here, but my arrival was far from certain. In fact, my application for a student visa was denied no less than 3 times.

So my father took matters into his own hands. Assuming, on my behalf, the all-in-one roles of chief spokesperson, manager, private detective and trial lawyer.

Making me tag along with him, he tracked down the U.S. Embassy official in charge of visas returning from lunch one day. Ignoring the man’s protests, and following him as he headed for his office, my father began his closing argument, so to speak.

The official had insisted that there was no way I was going to get a visa. Yet, my father talked his way into the man’s office and convinced him to approve my student visa. I witnessed this performance first hand and have never forgotten it. My Dad’s tenacious conviction, courage, and his boldness not only on that day at the Embassy but also throughout his life, has become my mantra: Never, ever give up.

If you have a dream … if you have a conviction … if you believe in something passionately … reach down deep within yourself and don’t take no for an answer!

Had my father not fought for his dream -- seeing me in a great U.S. engineering school -- I would not be speaking to you here today. Simple as that.

So, graduates, if you seek success, start with tenacity.

My memories of Cal are sweet. My first quarter here, Fall of 1976, I was staying at I-House. Some Saturday afternoons, while entrenched in I-House’s library, like a typical nerd, I would hear annoyingly loud bursts of crowd noise and cheers coming from outside. “What’s going on???” I wondered.. Well … I eventually figured out that it was Cal Football at Memorial Stadium next door.

To cut a long story short, I quickly forgot Saturdays at the library and was soon adding to the noise myself. I was initially clueless about football but fast became the huge fan that I am now. And on the Saturday of November 20, 1982, as a Cal alum, I even witnessed that Cal vs. Stanford game. Yes! The Play! That memory of The Play still gives me goose bumps.

When I watch replays of that unforgettable ending, all the frantic scrambling and constant forward momentum remind me a lot of business in the tech industry!

Football aside, I also do not remember Cal as a cake walk. I worked hard. I remember learning assembly language in CS 41, with long days and nights getting programs to work at the computer center in Cory Hall. I remember endless lab reports working in small teams, wrestling with circuit theory, integrated circuits, computer architecture and the like. I’ll also never forget my friends …in particular, “The Two Charlies” who would have loud, technical boxing matches on the blackboards at 373 Cory Hall, where we shared an office. Charlie Sodini is now a celebrated MIT professor. Charlie Giancarlo was #2 at Cisco and is now an entrepreneur par excellence. Keep your network of Cal friends tight-knit. You can change the world together!

Beyond hard work – from my first day at Intel as a design engineer through today – 34 years later as President and CEO of SanDisk, I have also incorporated the engineer’s analytical, logical and methodical approach to foresee and tackle problems .. whether technical or managerial, in nature.

Where did I learn this approach? Here, at Cal.

Trust me, graduates … you are leaving Cal with the best problem-solving skills … and knowing the value of hard work and teamwork.

Be assured, your education here will shape your future in much more powerful ways than you can imagine today..

Your journey will most likely be completely unlike mine. In fact, you may be sitting there right now trying to imagine the milestones and outcomes of your journey. Like you, I had a vivid imagination of what the world might offer me. But my imagined world was quite different from my real one. My real world offered me SanDisk Corporation.

SanDisk started 26 years ago, in 1988 … before the Internet, before digital cameras, mobile phones, and laptop computers. Three engineers, Dr. Eli Harari, a device physicist, Jack Yuan, a process engineer, and I, a design engineer. Also three immigrants: one from Israel, one from China, and one from India

Certainly the risks of our startup made me a bit nervous back then, but I also had the loving, ongoing support of my wife, Sangeeta, as she awaited the birth of our daughter, Mahncy. Both are here today, along with our lovely younger daughter, Malika.

Our vision for SanDisk was that there would be a growing need for new types of semiconductor memory, coined as flash storage.

We imagined just how to make such flash storage.

We imagined digital cameras, computers, fax machines, copiers and so on that would need such flash storage. Some of you, I bet, are taking selfies using flash on your phone and posting them on Instagram right now ... instead of listening to me … I can tell you we never imagined that when we had our vision for flash storage!

Let me say to all of you future company founders -- the early days at SanDisk were not easy. It took many years for our technology to be accepted by the marketplace. At one point, Kodak even wanted us to be exclusive. For a startup with not much sales then, this was gut-wrenching. We could have accepted Kodak’s millions of dollars, but we had grander visions. We passed on that, instead choosing to work with the broader world of digital cameras and make our media an open-industry standard.

The rest is history for us … and Kodak is history..

I have to give the credit for declining the Kodak offer to Eli Harari, who was the then CEO. He had the passion, conviction and tenacity to stay focused on what we had originally imagined. That was quite some bet in my opinion.

From a 1988 startup, SanDisk has grown to publicly traded global prominence today, with over $6 billion in annual sales.

So, graduates, trust your imagination as you navigate through the real world.

Now … I promised myself that my words to you today would not just be platitudes. Or as my daughters say -- “chicken soup for your CPU.”

I’ve talked very briefly about my journey. You are about to take a similar journey of your own. Like a good mentor, let me give you a few “GPS” co-ordinates.

First, innovation alone is not enough. Making innovation meaningful requires execution. Tenacity. . Attention to detail. And trusting your imagination at the most difficult of moments. Just because you can imagine a better mousetrap doesn’t necessarily mean that you can actually build one. The believer and the builder are co-captains leading the team. It takes more than 5,000 people to make a team like SanDisk successful today.

Second, no guts almost certainly means no glory. Take risks, be adventurous. Don't wait for all the answers. Get started now! But don’t be reckless! Find a smart and responsible way to do it faster, better, cheaper. I’m not a gambling man but -- believe me -- your quest will be much more exciting when you place big bets .. and then win. You’ll lose a few times, but that’s OK too.

Third, find your mentors. The ones that can change your life. Your heart will tell you who they are. Be on the lookout and when you find them, don’t let them go. I was fortunate enough to have had three mentors.

My father put me on the path to higher education and taught me the basic values in life.

George Perlegos: My first boss at Intel. He taught me how to design chips and how to take responsibility for their production success.

Dr. Eli Harari: I first met him when I was at Intel. Later at SanDisk, Eli facilitated my transformation from an engineer to a business leader.

I can’t imagine what my life would have been without the influence of these three mentors. They shaped my skills, my career, and my life.

Aside from picking the right industry, the right company, the right team, and the right job, I want you to be constantly on the lookout for movers and shakers … the high achievers who can mentor you. In the best sense of the phrase, take advantage of them! Great mentors can accelerate your career growth, help you learn faster, do more, and make you shine.

Thirty-four years ago, I sat where you are sitting today. Even though I couldn’t possibly imagine then what 2014 would really be like, let me now challenge you to imagine thirty-four years from now .. imagine 2048! For the geeks in us, that happens to be the year 800 in hex .. a nice round number !

Will life be like Star Trek … with tricorders to instantly diagnose our ailments? Will we be teleporting across the solar system or beyond? Of course, no one knows. However, what I do know is that many of you, as Cal graduates, will be pioneering and shaping the world on your journey. So, congratulations, Graduates! Go make this world even more beautiful and astounding.

Work hard.

Be tenacious.

Find that life-changing mentor.

Remember, no guts, no glory.

Trust your imagination.

You are the future.

Go and amaze us!

Thank you!..... GO Bears!