The atmosphere at the David Eccles School of Business felt a little bit like game night at Vivint Arena last week as we welcomed Ryan Smith, founder and executive chairman of Qualtrics and owner of the Utah Jazz and Real Salt Lake, as keynote speaker for the 32nd Annual Spencer Fox Eccles Convocation.
Smith started Qualtrics when he was a student at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management, and has grown the Provo-based company from a basement start-up to one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the world. Smith is also the co-founder of 5 for the Fight, a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of eradicating cancer. In 2020, he and his wife, Ashley, purchased the NBA’s Utah Jazz, and two years later they became majority owners of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake. As owners of the Jazz, the Smiths launched a program to create college scholarships for every Utah Jazz win during the pre, regular, and post seasons.
During a fireside chat with University of Utah President Taylor Randall, Smith talked about everything from his time as a student, to starting Qualtrics, and even addressed some of the audience’s burning questions about the Jazz. Here are five key takeaways.
- Find what matters most to you and use that to guide your decisions. Smith encouraged students to think hard about what they care about, what they would fight for. For him, it’s his family, his faith, Qualtrics, the Jazz, and the state of Utah, he said. Your life will never be perfectly in balance, he told the students, but when you know what matters most you can put your attention in the right place at the right time.
- Look for doubles and triples. On the topic of balance, Smith also encouraged students to look for opportunities to maximize their efforts. He illustrated the point with a personal example. Smith said he was due for a visit with his grandmother, but he also wanted to teach his daughter how to ride her bike, and all five of his kids needed dinner. So, what did he do? Packed the kids in the car, went through the drive-thru, took everyone to grandma’s and taught his daughter to ride her bike while she looked on. “That’s a triple,” he said. “Doesn’t get much better than that.”
- Being a fast learner is the most important skill you can develop. When Smith is hiring new employees at Qualtrics, he isn’t just looking for someone who can do the job he needs done now—he is looking for people who can do the job he needs done two jobs from now. Being a fast learner trumps experience almost every time, he said.
- Figure out how to fight through friction. Smith asked students to think of an accomplishment they are proud of. Then he asked them to think about whether it was an easy thing to achieve. “Nothing good happens without friction,” he said. “No one will say something they’re proud of that they didn’t fight for.” The key is knowing when you stay and fight, and when it’s time to take the off-ramp and try something different.
- Remember, there are no extra points for going it alone. The most valuable thing students will gain from their experience at the Eccles School, Smith said, is the network they are building and the relationships they are developing. “Everyone in this room should be thinking about how they can open doors for each other,” he said. “Everyone in this room should think, ‘I’m starting a business, and these people here with me are my first draft pick.”
Finally, Smith reminded students that he is there to help them and root for them, too—as are all the members of the Eccles School community, near and far. And this is what Spencer Fox Eccles Convocation celebrates most of all. This favorite tradition brings the Eccles community together each fall to celebrate start of a new school year, and to recognize the pivotal role of Spence Eccles and his aunt, Emma Eccles Jones, in establishing a $15 million endowment that has benefitted the Eccles School since 1991. To close this year’s event, Smith recognized Spence Eccles himself, expressing admiration for his commitment to building and supporting the community around him—an example Smith said he hopes to follow.
“There are a lot of people here who care about you,” he told the students, alums, and others gathered at the event. “We want you to be successful. We need you to be successful.”