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U of I Commencement Speaker Urges Grads to Take “Harder Road”

Shahid Khan reflected on his own success as he encouraged the Class of 2013 to chart their own futures.

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Shahid Khan

Billionaire businessman Shahid Khan delivers the commencement address during Sunday's graduation ceremony at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (University of Illinois)

Billionaire businessman Shahid Khan gave the commencement address Sunday at two seperate ceremonies on the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. 

Khan, a native of Pakistan who received his engineering degree at the U of I in 1971, urged students to build their futures from scratch, rather than taking the easy road to success. The 61-year-old runs the Urbana-based auto parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate, and also owns the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kahn said when he was seeking his first job out of college that would allow him to receive a green card and stay in the U.S., he took a position at what was then a blacksmith’s shop in Urbana, with the name of Flex-N-Gate, turning down a better-paying and easier job at a Campustown ice cream parlor.

Khan said that at the time, there were concerns about him taking work away from American citizens.

“Yes, I did take that job,” said Khan about his first position with the company he would eventually buy, “and in the process created thousands of jobs right here in America. Imagine if we fixed immigration, how many more millions of jobs will be created in America.”

Speaking at a second commencement ceremony a few hours later, Kahn urged students to continue dreaming big and working hard, despite the challenges that may exist.

“Whether you’re foreign born like me or sons of daughter of Illinois, the American dream belongs to everyone and all of you have the opportunity and the obligation to seize all that it has to offer,” Khan. “You can aspire to anything less. You cannot settle for anything less, and you cannot accept the inevitability of being told no.”

During both addresses, Khan praised students who choose the “harder road,” when they provide the potential for greater gains.

He told the graduates that the luckier among them were those who did not already have jobs lined, up, “but are committed to creating their own path, their own job, their own future.” Khan concluded, “As creators, you will face hardship, uncertainty, but in the end reap unimaginable awards.”

The commencement ceremony took place at the University of Illinois' State Farm Center (previously named Assembly Hall).

Outside the facility, a group of demonstrators held signs criticizing Khan and the university’s selection of him as commencement speaker. “Dangerous, Toxic + Low Paid; Hey UI Grads, Kahn Has a Job For You,” read one of the signs.

A Facebook page advertising the demonstration cited OSHA violations at the Flex-N-Gate Urbana plant, due to a lack of proper training and protective equipment that exposed workers to the toxic chemical, chromium VI.