Remarks by Shaza Andersen for 2021 Winter Graduation

Shaza Andersen, graduation speaker at podium
Mason alum Shaza Andersen, BA Area Studies ’89, and founder and CEO of Trustar Bank, is the featured speaker at the two graduation ceremonies.Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Remarks as prepared for delivery

President Washington, Provost Ginsberg, Deans, members of the faculty, family, and friends, and most importantly, the class of 2021: Congratulations on your achievement. Thank you for the honor of spending time with you on this very special day.

I remember sitting in your seats only a few years ago, excited about the future and grateful to be done with this important chapter of my life. In preparing for my time with you, I thought back to that time and feeling both excited and tired, ambitious, and maybe even a little nervous about the future.

I also recall that I have no recollection of who our commencement speaker was, their words of wisdom, or message back then.

Nevertheless, I’m hopeful that sharing some of my perspectives and lessons learned will help you as you prepare to take your next steps and make your mark. The three main ones I’d like to emphasize today are:

1. Embracing change,

2. Working hard, and

3. Building relationships.

When we think about our future, we often like to imagine that our lives are going to be a straight line, a series of accomplishments that will be steppingstones to a successful career and a happy life.

But that’s not how life goes. Just look at where we are today, what we’ve all been through with the pandemic and how—whether we wanted it to or not—our world has changed, and rest assured it will continue to change. And understanding that is an opportunity for everyone to have an impact and make a meaningful difference.

I think back about how different life was when I was on campus. GMU had one computer, and it was about the size of an entire classroom! When we wrote our papers, we did it by hand or on a typewriter. I think the only place you can see a typewriter now is in the Smithsonian!

It’s hard to remember life before digital technology, but it really wasn’t that long ago. Things change, and often change is for the better.

I encourage you to be bold. Embrace change and the journey it offers. I did, and my life very much reflects that journey. 

My family moved to the United States to escape the civil war in Lebanon. I arrived at age 13 not speaking a word of English. My life had changed, and I embraced the change.

When I graduated from GMU, I accepted a job at a bank as part of their management training program. I thought that program provided an excellent foundation for me and was an important first step in developing myself and gaining experiences.

What followed was years of working hard, applying a tireless work ethic to every task assigned to me. Nothing was beneath me to do—if envelopes needed to be stuffed, I stuffed envelopes. And all the while I was building relationships and looking for opportunities. And when the opportunities came, I took them. I showed up and I did the work, and I encourage you to do the same.

One of those opportunities was at a smaller bank, where I ultimately became the chief operating officer. I loved the role, and we successfully grew the bank. Sometimes to move forward you must be willing to change course.

When the bank was acquired, I was then faced with the decision of what to do next. Backed by the trust of my customers, the guidance of a beloved mentor and the support of my family, I decided to start a bank and was willing to take a risk.

I understood banking and it was—and is—work I love. However, starting a bank was completely new to me. I was 34 years old with two small children at home. So, what gave me the confidence to become an entrepreneur instead of looking for another job?

1. I had lived through changes and learned that change is not something to be afraid of.

2. I had worked hard and, over the years, I had done virtually every job there is in a bank. I had prepared myself.

3. Along the way, I had built relationships with fellow employees, customers, investors, board members, and regulators. So, I had a network of people who believed in me and I knew would help me.

Starting a new bank from scratch was just the challenge I needed because it forced me to grow. We started WashingtonFirst Bank in 2004 and grew it in 13 years into a public company with $2.1B in assets and 350 employees.

While I’m very proud of what we accomplished, none of this happened overnight, and it certainly wasn’t accomplished alone. It’s important to have the courage to take risks and trust people to be part of the journey along the way.

Without the team, customers, the hours we put in together, without the trust and guidance of investors and board members, I’d just be a woman with a dream.

Now… I have two children who are in their 20s. I get the social media world and the perception it creates of overnight success. The truth is social media only shows us the results and not the hard work it takes to get there.

While we get to see Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos being launched into space, we forget that Elon Musk slept in an office for two years building his first company. And you may not remember it, but Jeff Bezos started out as just some guy selling books on a website.

The truth is that there is no free lunch. There is no substitute for showing up and doing the work, building teams, and making things happen, and nothing can replace the importance of the network of relationships you build as you grow your life and career.

This was a truth that I lived out when WashingtonFirst Bank was acquired four years ago. After staying on for a time to assist in the new bank’s transition, I found myself a woman of leisure—which is when I quickly realized that leisure time was not for me!

So, we brought our team back together and started Trustar Bank. I’m really proud of that fact because it shows the power of relationships that every one of our team members felt confident coming back together to do it again. 

Change, even if it is forced on us, is both inevitable and often good. Remember the typewriter? Think how much easier it is for you to turn in your assignments than it was for me with my pen and white-out!

The good news is that if you enjoy what you do, you will learn and grow and get paid while you do it. That’s success! And if your first career choice doesn’t work, move on. Find another. Explore what you love, don’t seek out overnight success. Whatever you do, do it with passion because life isn’t lived on the sidelines.

In that vein, I want to leave you with a brief personal story. When I was a student here, I was very involved. I was in Student Government, involved in Mason Day, Patriot Day, a student ambassador. Through that work, I developed many important relationships and developed a perspective that the student body and its various groups needed to be more connected.

So, I called up the university president at the time, and he agreed to buy lunch if I got all the student organization leaders together to discuss their ideas. Remember, this was the Dark Ages without email. So, I handwrote notes to every student organization leader and put it in their mailboxes. They in turn handwrote me a response and put it in my mailbox. Sometimes I think it is a miracle we accomplished anything!

I got everyone together for the meeting. Even if it takes time, being involved will serve you well in life. You never know when you might find just the right opportunity.

As for me, I met my best friend, my husband, at that lunch with the university president, and we’ve been married 30 years. You never know what awaits you when you put yourself fully into work and life. I’ve never been disappointed in something I’ve made the effort to do. 

Class of 2021, thank you for having me today. It’s an honor to spend time with you. I know and am confident that you are capable of and will accomplish great things. Be courageous, take risks and always do the right thing. And congratulations again to each and every one of you and your families and best wishes for the brightest of futures. We’re all excited to see what you will accomplish.