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UW-Eau Claire Commencement Speaker Stresses Positive Attitude and Integrity

RELEASED: May 18, 2009

JoAnne Brandes
JoAnne Brandes

EAU CLAIRE — JoAnne Brandes, a 1975 journalism and political science graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who Saturday received the Alumni Association's Lifetime Excellence Award, delivered the commencement address during the morning and afternoon ceremonies in Zorn Arena.

Brandes, who graduated from the Willamette University College of Law in 1978 with a doctorate of jurisprudence, retired in 2007 as the executive vice president, chief administrative officer, general counsel and secretary of JohnsonDiversey Inc. She now serves as an outside director of several corporate boards, sits on numerous nonprofit boards and is a partner in a new business that provides programs and consulting in global leadership.

In her address, Brandes told the 1,000-plus graduates that her varied experiences at UW-Eau Claire, which she described as "a very special place," contributed to her ability to overcome the many challenges she's faced in her career and personal life.

"I left here with confidence, optimism and four very important words — OH YES, I CAN," Brandes said.

One of the first challenges Brandes faced after leaving UW-Eau Claire was discrimination against women at her law school in Oregon.

"Within the first week, professors told the handful of us women in the first-year class that we probably wouldn't make it here because they didn't want us here — women in the profession would only lead to the degradation of the profession, they said, and we were only here because of blind admissions," Brandes told the graduates. "Instead of complaining, I just remembered what I learned right here, smiled and said to myself, OH YES, I CAN."

Brandes related a similar experience when she became determined to be the first woman from her law school to be hired by one of the large law firms or corporations. Once again, she said, despite the fact that she'd performed well in school and had been editor of the Law Journal, she was put in her place as a woman by the senior partner of a law firm with which she interviewed. Once again, she said, she put her energies into proving him wrong.

Brandes went on to advise the graduates to dream, and dream big.

"Dreaming creates hope, and hope instills optimism," Brandes said. "As you start on that path toward the realization of your dreams, start looking for opportunities to make a difference right away don't pass up those very important early opportunities."

One of Brandes' opportunities came when she had her first child and found herself shocked by the "limited and substandard choices" she had for child care. Concerned about this issue for all parents, she did what she could about it within her own sphere of influence. She took a leadership role in making her employer, SC Johnson, one of the first large companies to establish its own child care center for employees.

"The center grew from the 78 children it opened with, to 250 by the end of the first year, to over 600 children every year in our programs," Brandes said, adding that a few years later her model for corporate child care was copied by a company that today operates over 700 high-quality centers for employers throughout the country.

Although Brandes didn't mention it in her address, she was named Working Mother magazine's 1994 Working Mother of the Year in recognition of her efforts.

Brandes related another story from years later when she learned about the horrible conditions in Romanian orphanages. Once again focusing on what she could achieve, rather than on the overwhelming size of the problem, she visited some orphanages with a local reporter and cameraman. As a result, more than 100 children were adopted by families in Southeastern Wisconsin. One of those children, her son Adrian, was adopted by Brandes herself.

"That's how you accomplish your dreams — you continue to move forward, with boldness, courage and determination, and always with your values intact," Brandes said. "You turn the frustration and disappointments along the way into positive actions for change. With every opportunity taken, your ability to make a difference grows."

Brandes also talked a little about her definition of success, saying her father was her most important teacher and mentor. Although her father had never had the opportunity to attend college, and he told her that she would achieve levels of success that he couldn't even have imagined, he stressed integrity as the most important measure of success.

"It's what you do with power and money that determines your success," Brandes said.

-30-

NW/JB

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