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Richmond alum who sold company to Yahoo! for $720 million receives accolades

The three most important things to manage in life are experience, change and time, the senior vice president of Right Media LLC said at the Robins School of Business honors convocation Tuesday morning.

Michael Walrath, a University of Richmond alumnus, was on campus to receive the Robins School of Business Executive of the Year Award for 2008. "I graduated 11 years ago," he said. "If you had told me I'd be back to receive any sort of reward, I might not have believed you, and if you had told me I'd be here for a business award, I would've told you maybe in a parallel universe."

Walrath majored in English, and for him everything goes back to stories, he said. He told two stories, one about experience he gained from his first jobs out of college, and the other about change during the time he spent at DoubleClick Internet Advertising.

His first job out of college taught him to listen, he said. He was a bartender for six months before he decided to work on Wall Street.

As an associate at a company on Wall Street, Walrath had to make between 200 and 300 cold calls to investors each day and was expected to work Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., he said. On an average day, he woke up at 4 a.m. to start his commute from Connecticut, where he was living with his parents because he only made $200 per week, and got home between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.

One day, Walrath's boss told him he was excelling and attempted to encourage him by describing the "success" he could expect in his future: banker's hours and untold wealth and security, he said.

That evening he was so upset by what his boss had described as success that he got on the Harlem line train at Grand Central instead of the New Haven line, and ended up in the Bronx before doubling back to Manhattan and catching the right train home, he said. After sleeping for a couple of hours, he woke up in a cold sweat, having a panic attack at the age of 22, he said. He called his girlfriend at the time, Michelle O'Donoghue, a 1998 Westhampton College graduate who is now his wife, and she solved his problem by telling him to quit, he said.

From his months of cold calling experience, Walrath learned how to hear the word "no" and how to be persistent without being impolite. But, he said the most important lesson from this had been: "When you stop going after something that means something to you, you stop learning, and when you stop learning then that's the only time, the only way you could have a useless job."

Walrath then joined DoubleClick, an Internet advertising company, when its stocks were at a record high. Throughout his time there, he witnessed a loss of 90 percent of its revenue and round after round of layoffs and restructuring. He took on the projects that had been left by those that had lost their positions, and the company became his business school, he said. What he loved about the world of Internet advertising was that there were no experts, and if people had ideas they were willing to pursue they could make it happen, he said.

DoubleClick, where he was director of direct marketing and senior vice president of strategy and development, taught him that change was the only thing anyone could be sure of, he said. The two sides of change are the disrupters and the disrupted, and everyone has to think about which side they'd be on, he said.

Walrath advised students: "Understand that the time you spend today and after you leave school is an investment. One of the most important questions to ask yourself is, 'What do I want to do?' Then, try to have fun with what you're doing."

Walrath founded Right Media in 2003, and became CEO of the company before its acquisition by Yahoo! in July 2003 for $720 million. The global business consulting service Ernst & Young awarded Walrath the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2007.

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About 110 business school students were honored at the convocation ceremony. Senior business student Kerry Monaghan felt she took a valuable lesson from Walrath's speech.

"All experiences, even bad ones, can be valuable because they teach you about yourself and what you are capable of," she said.

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