Ashton Newhall '98 will deliver the keynote address for the class of 2023 at Elon University’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies May 19.
Newhall is a former Elon University Trustee and was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2017. Newhall joined the Board of Trustees in 2009 and served until 2017. He is now a partner of the StepStone group, a global private market firm. Newhall was a sociology major who served as president of the Student Government Association. He was a member of the former Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity. Newhall was named Alumnus of the Year in 2007.
Elon News Network spoke with Newhall to get a preview of his keynote address. Undergraduate commencement will include two ceremonies for the Class of 2023 in Schar Center. The 9 a.m. diploma ceremony will be for the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education and Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. The 2:30 p.m. diploma ceremony will be for the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business and the School of Communications. A commencement schedule can be found here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What was your reaction to being asked to be the commencement speaker?
“I guess gratitude is the word that comes to mind just because Elon is a place that's given so much to me, and to be able to share a little bit about my journey, both at Elon and beyond, is really a pleasure. My first thought was that Connie and the senior class must have had some temporary insanity in choosing me over someone else. I guess I still have some form of imposter syndrome wondering how the heck they chose me, and then the second thought was, well, now that that's done, I gotta bring it. So trying to give some thought to what the heck we're gonna chat about.”
Did you ever imagine you would be a future commencement speaker? How do you think it will feel coming back to campus as one this time?
“I was fortunate that I was student body president. So when you're SGA president, you speak at commencement. I guess the good news is, I got a little bit of a trial by fire experience when I was at Elon, but obviously, this is a whole different ball game. I'm just feeling really enthusiastic, excited.”
What's going through your mind as you're starting to plan out what you want to say to those graduating?
“Don't procrastinate? No, I think I've got a lot of ideas and notes that I just started to write down, but I hope that in the end, what is aspirational is not as much of me telling somebody how to live their life. But rather, these are some observations that I've had. There's a lot of commonality in our shared experience. I'd love to talk a little bit about that and the fact that Elon was really a seminal part of my life, and it really enabled me to have so many opportunities beyond when I was there. It's so much like, if X didn't happen, then Z wouldn't happen, you know? I’m incredibly grateful for the time I had at Elon and more to the point, what it enabled me to do beyond it.
I'm really privileged in the industry that I work in, there's a lot of really bright people. But, when I got into the venture capital industry, I would say the vast majority of people that were in my industry either went to Harvard or Stanford, and I ended up partnering with a guy who went to Washington College in Maryland, and obviously, I went to Elon. We set out to prove we could do that, coming from the institutions that we did. I think in many ways, hopefully, my experience is emblematic of whatever field they choose to accomplish and know that there are no barriers, artificial or otherwise, and that in many ways the there's some tremendous challenges in this world, both societally, geopolitically and technologically. I think that it's more likely going forward, some of the people that provide the solutions to those really important challenges are not only going to come from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, whatever, but are going to come from Elon, and that was certainly my experience. If there's anything I can share along the way that helped me with whatever accomplishments we've had I’d love to share that story with the rest of the folks at school.”
Is there a moment or a class or anything from your time at Elon that informed your professional career? What was the takeaway? Why was it important?
“I was a sociology major, anthropology and business minor. I would say my Sociology 101 class. I went to the same private school for 12 years. It was a wonderful place. But certain points of view weren’t necessarily challenged, they were the consensus. I remember going into Larry Basirico’s class, Sociology 101. I got lit up. I mean, I couldn't support any of my points of view. In fact, I just had a lot of ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ statements. I learned very quickly that everybody had different points of view. But, there were some incredibly articulate people that had wildly different opinions than mine. I said ‘Man, I don't ever want to show up like that again.’ It caused me to really try to understand the issues from all sides. Part of that is obviously just walking in somebody else's moccasins to have a slightly different perspective. I feel like sociology did that for me and in spades. I was challenged regularly in all the sociology and anthropology classes.”
You were involved in Greek life, Alpha Kappa Psi, you studied abroad, and were Student Body President, among having other involvement. Would you advise students to follow a similar path?
“I think the theme for all of us who go to Elon is the culture of getting involved. That commitment to engagement, that collaboration and a wide variety of things, are the same types of people that we wanted to hire with the company that I started. I think that you never lose that. My experience is that an Elon student was the first person to raise their hand and say ‘I'll do it.’ That's one of the reasons why we really actively recruited at the school, because we wanted to find those kids that were incredibly passionate. I think there's just no replacement for passion. You can teach skills. We just find that folks that come out of Elon in particular, they have IQ, but they also have an EQ and a willingness to get involved, to do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission. I hope that the students don't lose that just because they get typecast or put into a specific profession right out the gate.”
Do you have a favorite Elon tradition or memory?
“Connie is not gonna like this but we might have jumped into the fountain in my day for sure. From my time in the Student Government Association, there was the Bio Bus. So that was a byproduct, the Bio Bus started as a bus just to get students safely around, after school and then the sidewalks on Haggard Avenue. Those were a direct byproduct of our time there. So my wife's probably tired of hearing me talk about it, but whenever we're back, I love taking a walk on the sidewalks or hopping on the Bio Bus because it's kind of a byproduct of my time in government.”
What made you stay so involved with Elon after graduating?
“I can't underscore this, but my parents probably were taking bets on when they were going to have to pick me up after dropping me off as a freshman. I mean, they thought for sure that I was not going to make it. It was very hard in the beginning, I'm sure like everybody, adapting to life in college, but I grew so much. All of that is foundational to who I am today. I'm a big believer in paying it forward and investing in a place that invested so much in me. There's no question in my mind that had I gone to a different institution, I wouldn't have been able to have flourished in the way that I did in North Carolina.”
Tell me a little bit about your time serving on the Board of Trustees and any big decisions that came through the university when you served in that time.
“I really enjoyed serving on the board for many years. Obviously, there’s so many buildings that you could go back and directly tie to the time when we were there. I feel like one of the ones that my family obviously was so involved with is the Schar Center, where you can see that, that we were supportive of. You mentioned traditions, I think like everybody else, when I bring my kids back we go look for the brick that’s got my name. One of the things I tried to do when I was Student Body President was to encourage everybody to give $1 to the institution, because I felt that if we could create that culture of giving, maybe today, it's $1 but tomorrow could be something new. The U.S. News and World Report rates the schools and one of the variables that they consider in terms of a school's rating is what the alumni participation is. You could have a direct impact on the value of your diploma, if you were to give and if everyone else in the senior class and maybe even some of the parents in the audience gave. So I digress. But I guess that that stuck out to me. Maybe that's something we could try and get to 100% participation as a function of this speech, which would have a positive impact on the way the schools were ranked. If the school is ranked higher, then well, hey, maybe employers want more Elon students.”
Any other thoughts about student life or Elon University in general right now that you’d like to share?
“I think that all institutions come from somewhere, right? Elon came from very humble beginnings, I describe it sometimes like the Field of Dreams, that line, like, if you build it, they will come. That's kind of what happened. They had a very modest endowment. They leveraged that to start building, and when they built this most extraordinary place, like there’s not a blade of grass out of place, the white pillars and the red bricks. Then all of a sudden students started coming not just from North Carolina, but all around and globally now. I think when you have that kind of ascendancy, it's literally a model for how you grow higher ed in a responsible way. There's books that have been written about it, there's a certain nostalgia about who you were and there's this desire to not lose yourself in that growth. I think that we deal with that with companies in the venture capital business, where they started with nothing and then there's 10 million in revenue, and hopefully 100 million and maybe one day, a billion in revenue, if we do our job. How do you go on that journey, not lose who you are, and yet keep finding new mountains to climb and to grow in a responsible way where you maintain that culture? Some days, I feel like we're very responsible and cognizant about where we came from and I hope that we continue to set the bar extraordinarily high in all aspects of the school. Sports, for example, I think we can do better. I think there's some aspects of sports where we do great, and then I think there's others where maybe that commitment to excellence just doesn't permeate throughout 100% of the school. I just feel like there's so many amazing things that Elon has to offer, that if it were to be great in all aspects, it could be even more than it is today. That's really my wish for the institution.”