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Build Your Virtuous Cycle

Nasdaq Chair and Chief Executive Officer Adena Friedman addresses the Kogod School of Business Class of 2023.

Adena Friedman

Nasdaq Chair and Chief Executive Officer Adena Friedman speaks at the 2023 Kogod School of Business commencement.



Thank you for asking me to be part of this special day. Congratulations are in order for so many people here - the faculty and administration who helped shepherd another successful class of students to this moment. The parents and family members who supported these exceptional young people throughout their entire educational journeys. As a mom who celebrated with her own college graduate sons not too long ago, I know how proud you’re feeling right now!

And, of course, our graduates. My biggest congratulations go out to all of you, who put in so much heart and effort to make it to this day.

Soak in this moment—you earned it!

Now, as your commencement speaker, I’ve been asked to provide some words of wisdom for the road ahead—and this is a responsibility I take seriously.

Here’s the good news: your education here at American University has prepared you well for the demands of the real world.

You’ve received a top-notch education that has taught you how to think critically about the world. Kogod has honed a unique approach to building interdisciplinary capabilities, combining entrepreneurship, sustainability, entertainment and analytics – which now provides you with a terrific foundation and distinct leadership and collaboration skills that will help you thrive in your chosen fields.

And perhaps most importantly, living and learning here in our nation’s capital, you’ve honed a bias toward action—a willingness to go beyond the theoretical and into the practical.

With these attributes, you are poised to succeed in just about anything you set your mind to. But how you pursue that success is going to matter—not only for yourselves, but for all of us.

This is especially true at a time when trust—in institutions, and in each other—seems to be eroding just about everywhere we look. It can be found at the root of geopolitical conflict, political extremes, and market challenges. It can be found in our inability to find middle ground in politics, culture, and business.

This persistent mistrust is undermining our ability to tackle the most pressing issues facing our nation and the planet. Changing this dynamic is an urgent priority—one that will require collective effort over many years.

Adena Friedman

Adena Friedman

Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Nasdaq

But as you leave AU and enter the world, each one of you can make a difference. You can help set a new tone. You can help build a stronger foundation—one that supports collaboration, and inclusion, and most importantly, rebuilds trust.

Just change the course of our global trajectory. That’s all I’m asking… No big deal, right?

I realize this sounds like a staggeringly big thing to ask of you.

But what we need to keep in mind is the macro is almost always made up of a whole lot of micro.

Which means that there are specific, very tangible actions each of us can take in our lives and careers that will add up to a big difference.

And that’s what I want to share with you today: Three choices that you can make – not once but over and over, practically every day.

Things you can go out into the world and literally start doing tomorrow – that in the micro will create more value in your career and enrich your lives, and in the macro just might help rebuild trust and start to nudge the world back in a more positive direction.

Here’s the first choice: choose curiosity over judgment.

In today’s world, we find ourselves talking past each other—never really listening and turning away from people who disagree with us.

In a noisy and complicated world, our beliefs are what keep us grounded. But they shouldn’t be so deeply rooted that they prevent us from growing.

Adena Friedman

Adena Friedman

Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Nasdaq

Your values aren’t fragile—so don’t treat them like they are.

If you can stand in discomfort, engage with people who are different from you, and actively listen to what they’re saying, you’re going to have a richer and more valuable understanding of the world around you.

It is not about approaching every interaction with someone who thinks differently than you as a chance to change their mind. It is also not about being antagonistic toward those with different opinions. Instead, treat these conversations as constant opportunities to learn.

That is something I learned firsthand when I was a student myself. I went to high school and college back in the eighties, in the last days of the Cold War. Just about every day, politicians and the media were demonizing the Soviet Union and the Russian people. But I just knew there had to be more to what was happening than what I was seeing on TV or reading in the paper.

So, I decided to start studying the Russian language and Soviet history and politics. I went to the Soviet Union in 1989 – before the Berlin Wall fell but as the soviet system was unraveling.

And it was a completely eye-opening experience.

Over the span of a month, I met the most wonderful people—people who invited me into their homes, sharing meals and stories with me. People who became friends.

These were individuals who spoke about their own government’s actions and mistakes in hushed tones, looking over their shoulders. This wasn’t the story we were being told by politicians and the media—one that painted every Russian citizen as the enemy of every American.

That trip taught me so much—not only about what was happening in the world then, but about what’s happening in the world today. It trained me to look beyond headlines and think about people—living, working, and making the best decisions they can from wherever they sit.

My challenge to you is to be intellectually curious - push yourself further, dig deeper, listen to others, and build a nuanced, three-dimensional view of the world.

Adena Friedman

Adena Friedman

Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Nasdaq

Think about what it would mean for you to lead with curiosity instead of judgment. If you were intentional about prioritizing curiosity in every meeting or in every article you read—how would that change you? How would it change the people you engage with? How could that start changing things beyond you?

This approach will not just make you a more informed person, it’ll make you better able to excel in your career and give back to the world.

And on that journey, we find choice number two: Choose relationships over transactions.

Your career will play out over decades. And it is truly amazing just how often the same people will show back up in your life. How you treat these people, and the way you pursue your goals, is going to be the greatest determinant of your success.

You can choose to be transactional about your career and prioritize winning at all costs. I’ve spent my entire career in finance, so I’ve seen an endless stream of short-term thinkers come and go. Please take it from me that the cost of this approach in the long-run is massive.

Prioritizing relationships and being competitive aren’t mutually exclusive goals. And I am not standing here, saying… “just be nice to everyone and it’ll work out in the end.”

In fact, I take a competitive approach to work and life, and from my experience, success starts by building a great team around you. People whom you trust, and who trust you. It’s not about “doing favors,” with the expectation to be repaid later.

Rather, it is about building a lasting network of relationships who are there to help you make better decisions, who will tell you the unvarnished truth, and who will be there when you need them because they know you will be there for them too.

Relationships are often the very thing that will help you win.

Adena Friedman

Adena Friedman

Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Nasdaq

This is something I’ve seen play out at Nasdaq countless times. I recognize the irony of me advocating in favor of relationships over transactions – being the CEO of a business driven by trading, after all we literally facilitate millions of transactions every day.

But as good as our technology is, and as differentiated as our platform is, decisions almost always come down to more than that.

I can think of no better example than in our listings business. We compete vigorously to attract every company to choose Nasdaq as their listing exchange when they go public.

For many CEOs, this decision is both a right and a left-brain decision. Their company is their baby. It’s their professional pride and joy. As they enter the world of the public markets, it’s a big step for them. While they may start with comparing different exchanges on a set of objective criteria, ultimately, they want to know that they are entering a long-term relationship, a partnership with someone whom they can trust.

And it’s all the time we put into building a trusted relationship with them ahead of that moment – often over the course of years – that ultimately leads them to a successful transaction with us at Nasdaq.

Transactions are mile 26 of the marathon. Relationships are the other 25 miles.

Think about what it would mean for you to prioritize relationships over transactions within your own career. How would it change the way you approach people? The things you ask for and those that you give? Would it change how you define success? Or the way you interact with your co-workers, your clients, your boss—even your competitors?

Taking the time to build relationships always pays off. Even when you can’t see mile 26 because you’re still on mile 3.

And that brings me to the third choice: Choose abundance over scarcity.

When you start seeing the world in terms of relationships, it makes you more aware of the problem with zero-sum games.

Zero-sum thinking is all around us—any time someone treats a win for one side as an automatic loss for another. But this is a scarcity mindset—a two-dimensional view that assumes what we have today is all we’ll have in the future. Or that if someone prospers, it means there’s less to go around for everyone else.

In my experience, it is a totally flawed model. An abundance mindset opens up a three-dimensional view of whatever problem you’re trying to solve. It helps you see beyond what is today, to what could be tomorrow.

Earlier in my career, I was responsible for executing all of the acquisitions for Nasdaq. And we were quite acquisitive. One of the very first things I learned is that if you approach the negotiation table focused solely on winning every point or determined not to lose any points, you’re not going to close many deals.

There is one deal I worked on that really drove that home for me – Nasdaq’s acquisition of OMX, one of the most transformational deals in the history of our company. Just as we completed the deal negotiations, a third party entered the arena to try to outbid us. This could have easily become a hostile or contested situation. But it didn’t.

Instead of shutting down conversations in order to seek a single-winner outcome, we were able to turn the third party from a competing bidder into a large, long-term investor in the merged Nasdaq/OMX entity – a strategic investor that is still with our company to this day, 15 years later, and one we consider a critical partner to our success.

Think about what it would mean to adopt an abundance mindset in your own life. How do seemingly insurmountable problems look when you take a wider view? How does it change what you think you’re capable of? How does it change what you think we’re capable of?

People like to say that life is short, but I disagree. Our lives and our careers are long and winding, exhilarating and sometimes terrifying.

You will face endless choices. Some will be big, some small. Sometimes it won’t be clear which are which until much later. Our lives are the sum of these choices. Of how we choose to show up for ourselves, for the people we care about, and for the world.

Adena Friedman

Adena Friedman

Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Nasdaq

What I’ve found is this: When you choose curiosity…when you choose relationships…when you choose abundance… what you’re really choosing is optimism.

And when you choose optimism, just about anything becomes possible.

Optimism is at the root of resilience. And if we let optimism guide our decisions again and again, we create that essential element of trust—the unshaking belief that whatever happens today, there’s a positive path forward. We just have to find it.

Optimism is a virtuous cycle. Fear is a vicious cycle. The choice of which cycle to create is ours.

I bet these days a lot of people are asking you what you want to do.

What I would like you to ask yourself is what kind of person you want to be.

A long time ago, the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “What shall I be at fifty, should nature keep me alive, if I find the world so bitter when I am but twenty-five?”

There is more than enough bitterness and division in the world. What we need now is a dose of optimism - I ask you to choose to be a virtuous person. If you make that choice and then keep making it, again and again – you’ll be more successful, more fulfilled, and you’ll have a lot more fun in the process.

To the Class of 2023, I wish you all the very best as you go out and make your mark on the world.