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"When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade," an Interview with Philip A. Berry, '71

June 18, 2008

Since graduating from BMCC in 1971, Philip Berry has become vice president of global workplace initiatives at Colgate-Palmolive, one of the "100 Most Powerful Minority Leaders in New York City," according to Crain's New York Business magazine, and vice chairperson of the CUNY Board of Trustees.

Naturally, Berry has some advice to give to students, and he'll have the opportunity to share his knowledge when he returns to his alma mater to deliver the keynote address at BMCC's 43rd graduation ceremony on May 30, at 11 a.m. in the WaMu Theatre at Madison Square Garden.

Berry and BMCC

During the ceremony, Berry will receive the Presidential Medal, BMCC's highest honor, given to individuals with outstanding service to the college community. Berry's ties to BMCC date back to 1969, when he was looking for the right college after graduating from high school in Brooklyn. He came across BMCC, did some research, and decided it was the perfect fit for his marketing-focused personality.

"BMCC had an excellent marketing curriculum and a good reputation," he said. "I got a very sound foundation in that area, and they also gave me perspectives on the whole business world -- not just marketing, but accounting, economics and finance."

While here, Berry took courses to that would be a foundation for his goals in life, from his move to CUNY's Queens College for his Bachelor's degree, to his career when school was over.

"That was how I used BMCC," said Berry, who went on to get his Master's from Columbia University's School of Social Work, and an M.B.A. from Xavier University. "It was a great launching pad for me. It really helped me to transition."

But he didn't have it easy, as is the story for most BMCC students. To pay for his education, Berry worked 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., then came to classes at 8 a.m.

"It was difficult, but that was what I needed to do to pay for my education. I always kept in mind that this was only for a short period of time," he said. "That kind of context helps you feel a lot more comfortable about what you’re doing. It helps you to understand that this is short-term pain for long-term gain."

A Busy, Well-Traveled Man

Berry spent eight years at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, and three at Digital Equipment in Massachusetts, before being hired by Colgate-Palmolive as associate director for organizational planning in 1990.

During his time at Colgate-Palmolive, Berry has worked for the European, African and Middle Eastern divisions of the company. Through his experiences, Berry advanced to his current position at Colgate-Palmolive, where he oversees the company’s efforts to create a globally inclusive workplace environment.

But Berry's career is not his only professional commitment. Along with being vice chairperson of the CUNY Board of Trustees, the governing body of the 22 colleges within the CUNY system, he's also a mayoral appointee to the New York City Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy, overseeing policy for more than one million public school students. Berry is also acting chair of the Board of the City University School Construction Fund -- meaning he’s involved in the rebuilding of Fiterman Hall.

"I'm very committed to seeing the Fiterman Hall situation resolved as quickly as possible," Berry said. "It is of extremely high importance to me."

Advice to Graduates

Berry said those leaving BMCC this spring should always maintain focus -- whether it's while searching for a job, when settled into one, or even as a student elsewhere.

"Stay focused on what it is you want to do, and be able to define that very clearly," he said. "Understand what your strengths are, and your development needs, and set some goals for yourself, and then a mission for yourself, so that you can understand exactly how to realize those goals and objectives within an organization. You have to be very strategic, and you have to be willing to work hard."

One way of doing this successfully is to keep a three-year plan, Berry said.

"Your one-year horizon should be in the context of a three-year plan," he said. "I have had a rolling three-year plan in my mind ever since I was at BMCC, and I update it every three years."

Finally, Berry said that while remaining focused, graduates should remain flexible as well.

"All of the jobs and opporntunities don't happen to be in New York City," he said. "When you look at BMCC, it's an extremely diverse college. You have students from all kinds of other countries, and they uproot themselves from their country and they come here to the United States looking for opportunity. People here ought to have that same degree of flexibility to go wherever they have to in order to get the job or opportunity."

As old adage goes, he said: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

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