You could hear a pin drop as Andrew Florance recalled the spring of 1971.
Seven years old and homeless, he had barely attended school. He was living on the streets of Richmond not far from where the Greater Richmond Convention Center stands today when police took him into protective custody and away from his mother. He’d never see her again.
He remembered that April night, when a police officer treated him to dinner at McDonald’s, probably because he felt sorry for the young boy whose outlook in life seemed bleak.
Florance shared the story Saturday morning as he addressed Virginia Commonwealth University graduates and their friends and loved ones during commencement festivities at the convention center.
From those early years, Florance went on to Princeton University and while there, founded CoStar Group, today one of the world’s largest digital commercial real estate companies that oversees online marketplaces such as Apartments.com, LoopNet, BizBuySell, Lands of America and more.
Florance talked about the people who helped him along the way, from that compassionate police officer to college professors, saying that his supporters — and even his biggest critics — shaped his drive to succeed and formed in him a tendency as a young man to “loathe mediocrity.”
“Finding something that you are passionate about in life is the key to fulfillment and happiness,” he said, though “it’s hard to find your passion because most people do not stick with new interests long enough to ever become proficient at those things.”
VCU awarded more than 5,200 professional, graduate and undergraduate degrees and certificates to nearly 5,000 graduates on Saturday.
“If you’re sitting here today, unsure of what’s in store for you, don’t worry — we’ve all been there, it’s normal, keep looking,” said Florance, adding: “Do not wait — today is an exceptionally good day to thank someone who has changed the trajectory of your life.”
Florance was also the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, VCU’s highest form of recognition, bestowed by VCU President Michael Rao.
Thousands of VCU graduates celebrated Saturday, and as has become tradition, many of them showed off their passions, their destinations or their general feelings by wearing decorated caps during the ceremony.
Some were obvious, like the ones that read “future soldier” and “off to dental school” — even “because dog mom isn’t a career.”
Others were a bit more obscure.
Buckingham County native Adriana Coleman’s cap was detailed with bright jewels and a sea goat, a creature meant to represent the Capricorn zodiac sign, with the head and body of a goat and a fish tail. It read: “Make Way for the Goat.” She explained that she was an environmental studies major and hopes to one day work to fight land and water pollution.
Atop the cap of Northern Virginia native Tyrone L. Frye Jr. was a stuffed fox he named “Prince,” sitting inside a large bejeweled crown. A business economics major, Frye said his ultimate goal is to continue his education by earning a master’s degree in product innovation, and then to establish an incubator for minority-owned businesses.
Saturday, however, he just grinned as he explained simply that “there’s a theme in my life: I like foxes, and I’ve always thought of myself as royalty,” so he put the two together to create a comical graduation cap. He wore fox earrings, too — bought on the popular artsy website Etsy, he said.
Prior to Florance’s remarks, Rao addressed the Class of 2019, telling them that their place in history is special. He said their contributions to society may start at VCU through academics, research and scholarship, but don’t stop there, noting that countless hours of volunteerism and community advocacy take place alongside those vast academic achievements.
“The thing that you’ve done that I’m really impressed with and most proud of you for, is you’re redefining the American dream to truly represent who we have become as a people,” Rao said. “We’re so much more inclusive and cognizant that we live in a world that has changed dramatically.”
“What I see in you is that you’re entrepreneurial,” he explained. “You’ve taken your personal interests and you’ve taken your personal passions and you’ve used them as tools to solve age-old problems that our society faces, and they’re problems that matter to all of us.”
“You’ve done all this because you belong to a group destined to be the most educated generation in American history,” he said, and “I dream of the amazing things you will do to make society a better place for all human beings.
“You’re graduating from a place that is truly in awe of your abilities.”