Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of $4 billion Under Armour, the Baltimore sports apparel company, told University of Maryland graduates yesterday that he attributes his success in life to one big thing...and it is not a hashtag. 

In his 25-minute speech, Plank began by noting that he was sitting where the students were, 20 years ago. (Plank graduated from Maryland in 1996.) "I was 23 years old, I thought that I knew it all, so yeah, I get it," he said. "You're sitting there, you're wondering, What am I gonna learn from this guy? The last thing I want to be here today for you is yet another grownup telling you that I have got it all figured out because I can promise you--and let me be clear here--I don't." 

Despite that disclaimer, he urged the graduates to put their phones away so they could pay attention to his message. Plank admitted that while he remembered who his graduation-day speaker was--it was none other than Hillary Clinton--he did not remember her message. So to make sure that the students would not forget his message, Plank told them he would keep it simple--and boil it down to one word: Passion. 

He then began to tell the story of how he launched Under Armour shortly after he'd graduated, starting with just $17,000 in seed money he'd earned selling flowers. He had no experience selling apparel, let alone the stretchy, light, tight, sweat-resistant t-shirts he had created. He had no investors. He had no mentor. He had no business plan. And he had maxed out five credit cards. "The one thing I did have, I had passion," he said. 

Maybe you've heard this sort of story before. But Plank's story differs from the typical evocations of passion as an adversity cure-all. For one thing, he insists on the notion of bringing passion not merely into one's entrepreneurial goals, but into all of life's adventures. For example, it was passion that allowed Plank--a star football player in high school--to walk on to Maryland's football team. Though he was surrounded by athletes who were much faster and stronger than he was, the scrappy Plank earned a scholarship as a special-teams standout after his second season. "It was my passion to be on that field," he said. "It was all that mattered to me."

All told, he played 43 games as a collegian, and was the special teams captain during his senior year. "At some point in your life you'll find yourself in a similar position: Surrounded by people who are smarter, faster, who have more experience and more money--and you'll just have to find a way," he said. "And you'll have to do it with passion."

You might be wondering what his football success has to do with Under Armour. Plenty. As it turns out, the relationships Plank formed as a football player helped him form connections that would spur Under Armour's early growth. He reached out to countless former teammates, asking if they would simply try his t-shirts and tell him if they liked them. And if they did like them, could they encourage the equipment manager to place an order? 

This word of mouth approach helped the t-shirts--initially designed for football players--spread to other sports. Many athletes also told their girlfriends about the t-shirts--and soon, Under Armour was making women's shirts. Three years after he had graduated, Plank was running the company from the basement of his grandmother's old home in Georgetown. Many of the earliest employees were his former teammates. 

Plank's passion for the product compelled him to drive up and down the east coast, putting 100,000 miles on his Ford Explorer, driving anywhere if he could get an actual t-shirt into an equipment manager's hands. Plank's passion also persuaded him to promise, in the first company catalogue, that customers could place orders 24 hours a day. His girlfriend, now his wife (whom he also met at Maryland), once woke up at 3 a.m. to take an order that was phoned in. She wrote it down on the back of a magazine because "there was not a decent pad of paper next to our bed at grandma's house," Plank recalled. 

Plank's ultimate message was that passion is not the same thing as emotion. "Please don't confuse the two," he said. "It's not a hashtag. It's defined by conviction. And it's the single most important thing you can have going forward," he told the graduates. "Passion means finding a way." 

He pointed out that the only reason he had $17,000 with which to start Under Armour was that he'd started a previous business at Maryland, selling roses by the dozen. Plank needed money because the rules of football scholarships prevent athletes from having jobs. But they don't prevent athletes from starting businesses. So Plank started Cupid's Valentine Rose Delivery in his dorm. And he recalled, down to the last detail, how many dozens he'd sold each year. For example, his $17,000 in profit his senior year came on $50,000 in revenues, which came from sales of 1,186 dozen roses, some of which he upsold by saying to customers: "For just $10 more we could put that in a vase." 

You can watch the entire speech on YouTube or in the box below. It begins at the 1:00 mark. And it's safe to say, you'll remember the message. 

 

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