Remarks by Maribel Pérez Wadsworth at the 2024 Miami Dade College Commencement – Knight Foundation

Remarks by Maribel Pérez Wadsworth at the 2024 Miami Dade College Commencement

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Laura, for that introduction, and thank you President Pumariega and Miami Dade College for inviting me today. And to the Class of 2024, congratulations!

I know how excited you are today. 

A world of possibility is in front of you. And I know that, at the same time, you might be a bit nervous. I remember when I sat where you do today and listened to someone talk about what to expect in my future.

I don’t remember who spoke at my commencement. And let’s be honest, you probably won’t remember me thirty years from now either. But I hope you’ll remember how you feel in this moment. And I hope you’ll remember that I saw you and your hopes. 

That I understood your anxiety and your ambition. And that I appreciated how you can be both fearless — and afraid you’ll fall short.

Like so many of you, I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I felt the weight of my immigrant family’s sacrifices, and a responsibility to honor them. 

After all, my college degree was not something I earned alone. I achieved it thanks to their profound belief in my potential. So families, I see you, too. Congratulations to you on this very special day. 

Graduates, I want to leave you with one important message today: It’s your turn. 

When I graduated, I had no idea where life would take me. Having grown up reading the Herald, and fascinated by the idea of knowing the news before everyone else, I thought being a reporter would be the coolest job in the world. 

I was a painfully shy kid, so it was a counterintuitive career choice. But journalism gave me body armor; it gave me an excuse to talk to people, to ask questions, to learn. 

My first job was at the Miami bureau of the national wire service, The Associated Press. Then I moved to Illinois to take a job at a local newspaper owned by the largest news publisher in America, Gannett Media. 

I stayed there for 27 years, eventually becoming president of the multibillion-dollar company and publisher of its flagship, USA Today. 

I know that when I tell the quick version of my story it sounds like it all went pretty smoothly. Like I seamlessly made my way from newbie reporter to president of the company.

If only.

I’m a woman. I’m Latina. I was young. People didn’t just hand me responsibility and authority. Instead, they told me to wait my turn. 

I had to figure out where I wanted to go. Then I had to figure out how to get there. I had to learn what the possibilities were — and then reach for them when they came‚ or create them when they didn’t.

As a young reporter, I just wanted to be a great journalist. And as I became a better reporter, I thought maybe I could become an editor and have some say in what got covered. My biggest aspiration then was to be a managing editor — the No. 2 position in a newsroom. It never crossed my mind to run a media company. 

When I was in high school, I finally worked up the courage to try out for the school newspaper. 

I met with the teacher who ran it, and I’ll never forget what she said. She told me that it wasn’t my turn to write for the paper. 

I was a senior — so if it wasn’t my turn then, it was never going to be. But I was young, and I was still timid, so I accepted the answer. I never wrote for my high school paper. 

As I got older, I gained confidence. I worked on my college paper. I got that job as a reporter when I graduated. I saw the opportunity to get into a big publisher at the local paper in Illinois, and I took it. Eventually I was the managing editor — that No. 2 job — at The News-Press in Fort Myers. 

And then, the editor-in-chief left to take a job at our corporate headquarters, so I applied for the top job. The publisher took me aside and said those words I’d heard before: “It’s not your turn.” 

Instead, they gave the job to a guy who’d already been executive editor but had left a few years prior. Apparently, he’d get a second turn before it was mine.

I felt embarrassed. I felt like I’d failed. And I felt frustrated. How was I supposed to make a difference if I couldn’t be in charge? 

Then my former boss called me. The one who’d left for the job at corporate. She asked me to join her. I wouldn’t have a big title. I wouldn’t have my own team to manage. But I was eager for a change, and still licking my wounds a bit — so I took a leap of faith. 

And that’s the move that unlocked the most powerful lesson I’d ever learn in my professional life: Things like titles, hierarchy, so-called “authority” — they’re not what convey influence and drive results. What matters are bold, well-informed ideas and relationships. 

I learned you can create your own turn. 

When I got to corporate and started to more deeply understand the business outside the newsroom, I saw a clear problem to solve. We had no effective business model for news in the digital age. So I set about doing what good reporters do. I asked a ton of questions. I sought out the experts. 

Together, we brainstormed, researched, analyzed, prototyped, and developed a plan for the company’s first digital subscription model. None of us had a fancy title, most of us had no direct reports. But in its first year, the plan we developed and implemented delivered $100 million in profit improvement. 

That’s the move that set me up for success in the rest of my career.

And that’s my biggest lesson for you. Don’t wait for people to decide that it’s your turn. 

Create your turn. 

Create your turn by doing the work, honoring your commitments, always giving your best.

Create your turn by developing expertise, questioning the status quo, raising your hand for an assignment, even if you’re not sure you’re ready. 

Create your turn by offering solutions, by suggesting that wild idea, by adapting to change and being resilient in the face of setbacks. 

Create your turn by showing what you’re made of.

And as you create your turn, always remember to extend your hand to others, to lift up their ideas and help them flourish. Create your turn AND share the opportunity. 

The day my predecessor at Knight Foundation announced his retirement, my phone lit up. 

My friends and colleagues — in Miami, in the journalism world — they all knew that this was the perfect job for me.

I was ready for it. I’d shown that leadership doesn’t require a title. I’d learned that we accomplish nothing alone, that it’s teams that make things happen. And I’d taken on a big idea — with big results.

I knew it was my turn. And just a few months ago, I started as Knight’s president and CEO — the first woman to lead the foundation in its seven-decade history.

I love my job. I love being back in Miami. And I love getting the chance to help build the ascendancy of this amazing city.

I know that’s what Miami Dade College has prepared you to do, too. 

Miami is a great city — on its way to becoming even greater. That’s where you come in. 

Miami is a global destination for top-quality medical care — and you’re going to deliver it. 

We’re becoming a global engine for tech entrepreneurship — and you’re the founders and innovators who are going to make it happen. 

We’re emerging as a global capital for climate resilience — and you’re the scientists, engineers, and community leaders who will pave the way. 

No matter what your field, this is your time. This is your community. 

And now, RIGHT NOW, it’s your turn.

Congratulations! I can’t wait to see what you do with it.