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Top 50 Hokie Spotlight: Dave Calhoun

By Preston Huennekens | August 10
Top 50 Hokie Spotlight: Dave Calhoun

Since graduating from Virginia Tech in 1979 with a degree in accounting, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has seemingly done it all. He’s risen to the executive level at multiple companies, written a book on business strategy, raised four children, and maintained an impressive golf game. He is also one of Virginia Tech’s most generous donors, having recently given a $20 million gift to the university in 2018.

Calhoun grew up in Pennsylvania before coming to southwest Virginia. Calhoun cited his mother as the reason for his choosing to become a Hokie in a 2005 Virginia Tech Magazine profile. While in Blacksburg, Calhoun participated in intramural sports and was a brother of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity. He graduated in 1979 and immediately took a position with General Electric and was a member of their corporate audit staff by 1981. So began his 26 year tenure at GE, where he’d eventually become CEO of GE Infrastructure. After leaving GE in 2006 he went on to lead the Nielsen company. During his time at Nielsen, he joined the board of directors of Boeing, unaware then of the implications this would have on his career later on. He retired from Nielsen in 2013 to join the private equity firm Blackstone while still serving on the board of Boeing.

By January 2020, Boeing was a company in chaos. Two Boeing 737 Max planes had crashed in the prior two years killing hundreds of people. Investigations revealed that Boeing’s flight control technology was at-fault for both crashes. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 737 Max planes until Boeing could fix the software, which cost airlines millions of dollars in revenue. After months of mounting pressure, Boeing’s board of directors voted to sack CEO Dennis Muilenburg in favor of Calhoun. Guiding Boeing through one of the worst crises in the company’s history is no small task, but it speaks volumes to Calhoun’s business, management, and leadership skills that the board chose him to take on this incredible challenge.

NPR considers Calhoun’s commencement speech to the Class of 2005 as one of the best university commencement addresses ever given. In it, Calhoun spoke about overcoming adversity by maintaining what he coined “your own brand of self-confidence.” He said one important way to build this self-confidence is to “seek out the toughest jobs, the most daunting scientific, engineering, or management challenges.” Perhaps this self-assuredness is what drove his fellow board members to turn to his leadership during Boeing’s 737 Max crisis.

Dave Calhoun is a Top 50 Hokie not only because of his incredible success in business and support for the university, but also because he serves as an example to the thousands of everyday Virginia Tech students who may never step onto Worsham Field as a football star or onto the floor of Cassell Coliseum as a basketball player. The concluding remarks in his 2005 commencement speech give all Hokies a roadmap to success that any person in any major or at any stage of their career can follow to achieve their goals. In concluding this article, Dave Calhoun’s own words are even more relevant today:

Grow your self-confidence… and move quickly to repair it when it is damaged by the setbacks and failures and mistakes that lie ahead for us all.

Continue to grow intellectually… and listen to the little alarm inside you that sounds when stagnation or boredom… or becoming a know-it-all… begin to creep up on your.

Tackle the toughest jobs and challenges… and watch yourself do more… and learn more… than you ever dreamed possible.

Understand the difference between process and purpose… and never begin a day without being able to articulate that purpose… even if it's only to yourself.

Know yourself… particularly your weaknesses… and don't let a day pass without moving toward eliminating them.

And understand that whatever else may fail you… whatever bad luck or failure may befall you… your personal integrity is always in your own hands and can never be taken from you.

— Dave Calhoun, 2005 Commencement Address (Blacksburg, VA)

Top Image Attribution: Dave Calhoun speaking to CNBC [link here]

Preston Huennekens

Preston Huennekens

Following in the footsteps of my dad and uncle, my dream growing up was to attend Virginia Tech for college. When it came time to choose what school to attend, the choice was clear. I enrolled in Blacksburg in the fall of 2012 and graduated in 2016 with a degree in Political Science. While at Virginia Tech, I was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and a fundraiser at the Student Calling Center, which I still maintain is the best on-campus job because you do not work weekends.

I now live and work in Washington, DC doing swamp-creature things, but I'm always planning my next trip to Blacksburg.

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