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“So here we are together, fellow members of the glorious Class of 1995: all of us wistful and expectant — wistful for the time that we have spent together, expectant as we stand at the threshold of new and uncharted territory. [ …] we pause together to compare notes on the journey that we have completed and the journey that lies ahead. And what a journey it has been! We have shared some remarkable times together — not the degrees, because each one is different; not the skills, for they are so diverse; not the knowledge, for we differ one from another, some more, some less; but the journey we’ve shared. That is what binds us together…”

– Frank H. T. Rhodes, President Cornell University at Cornell’s 127th Commencement May 28, 1995.

In the spring of 1995, I stood in the famed Schoellkopf Field as a graduate in Cornell’s 127th commencement along with 6000+ of my fellow colleagues. Frank H. T. Rhodes delivered his final commencement address as president of Cornell, ending a nearly 18-year tenure. His masterfully delivered oration left an indelible mark on me. In one wave of elegant prose, he transferred sage advice on life, adulthood, love, and professionalism. He reminded us we needed a “compass of conviction” to help direct our new gift of knowledge and to commit to lifelong learning. Finally, in a simple, heartfelt rendition of poetry, he encouraged us to covet the journey, not the destination and remember always to give gratitude.

Earlier this month, I ended my (post-acquisition) tenure at Guidewire Software, completing a decade-long journey. In the summer of 2006, Joseph Pilkerton, Julian Pelenur and I concluded an 18-month project to found FirstBest, a leader in insurance underwriting management for P&C. We chose the insurance industry because it was ripe for transformation and we picked underwriting because it was grossly underserved by technology. In 2006, there was no such thing as “InsurTech,” but we set off on a bold voyage to create a new market.

Today, nearly 11 years later, underwriting technology is a recognized category, and the global insurance technology transformation continues to accelerate.

I want to thank all the amazing people who helped to make FirstBest, our bold idea, into an important product and a fantastic company. I want to thank all our customers. Especially the first few who helped create the product, and gave us a chance when we were just a few insurance novices from Boston. I want to thank all the people who gave us advice on the industry, including how to sell, how to work with customers, how to calculate a combined ratio. I want to thank our users, the commercial underwriters we built the system to serve. I want to thank the chief underwriting officers and commercial line leads who had the vision to leverage our technology to help them transform. I want to thank the CEOs, CIOs, and CFOs who embraced the risk of working with a growing company. I want to thank all our technology partners and consulting partners. I want to thank the analyst community for giving us the opportunity to share our story and cover our emerging market. I want to thank the insurance press. I want to thank our investors, both venture and strategic. And most of all, I want to thank every employee and contractor involved with FirstBest since our inception. You all worked tirelessly to make our vision come true. Building a company takes a community, and you have been ours. I learned so much from all of you, and I am forever grateful.


Next steps? Good question. Here is what is on my list so far:

(1) Take a vacation and enjoy family.

(2) Document my key learnings in a new ezine/blog (coming soon). To join the mailing list follow this link.

(3) Advising InsurTech and B2B SaaS startups (email me at

(4) Return to my nonprofit work —

(5) Find my next bold adventure as CEO.

The full Cornell 127th Commencement speech is here.

By Published On: May 11th, 2017Categories: UncategorizedTags: , , , ,

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About the Author: John Belizaire

John Belizaire is a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and investor. He is also the founder and managing editor of CEOPLAYBOOK — an online publication dedicated to exploring what it means to be a startup CEO. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter. Subscribe to his popular newsletter — Mental Candy — read by over 500 CEOs.