“Roots of Steel” — Blast Furnace Accelerator Graduation Keynote Speech

Barry Rabkin
5 min readDec 10, 2017


“You have made it through the red hot fires of the Blast Furnace. The tallest trees have the strongest roots, and now your roots are made of steel.”

“Hi, I’m Barry Rabkin and I am an entrepreneur and technology marketing leader. I grew up in Pittsburgh, went to school here, fell in love here, got married here, my children were born here, and there is nowhere on earth I’d rather call home. I know our students thought they were finally done with classes, but from my education and career in technology so far, I have 4 last lessons that I’d like to share to prepare you for your journey ahead.


If you’re looking for the future, you’ll find it in Pittsburgh.

The innovation revolution is not GOING to happen. It IS happening, right before our eyes.

We have a half dozen autonomous car companies driving our roads. We can talk to our phones, and they’ll listen, understand, and respond. Pandora knows our musical taste better than we do. More people are learning new languages from the DuoLingo app than in all the classrooms in America COMBINED.

Even more exciting is the fact that today’s most cutting-edge technology is only the beginning. It’s just the foundation that tomorrow will be built on. The innovation revolution is now, and the pace of change is increasing every day.


The world needs you. There is more demand for innovation now than at any time in human history. What innovation means for entrepreneurs, employees, investors, and customers is taking dull, dirty, and dangerous work and making it better, faster, safer, and cheaper.

The power and impact of this is only accelerating and late adopters will be left too far behind to catch up. Within a few years, it will be just as unthinkable for companies to compete without continuous innovation as for Fortune 500 companies today, to go without computers, phones, email, and the internet.

Innovation won’t just be a way to get ahead, it will increasingly be required just to keep up.


The only people who innovation is going to leave behind are the ones that run from it, instead of embracing it.

Electric drills don’t replace carpenters, they help them get more done with less time and effort. We already have supercomputers in our pockets, 60 inch flat screens tv’s, hybrid cars, and yet, the demand for more has only increased. When asked “How much is enough?” John D Rockefeller said, “Always just a little bit more.”

New technology is not going to end the demand for smart, creative people, it will increase it. It’s going to take the combination of humans working with innovative technologies to fill that need. The hybrid of human intellect aided by technology is always going to be more powerful than the human or the technology alone. I can’t carry 1,000 pounds for 100 miles. But put me in a car and I can do it without breaking a sweat.

Super technology lets normal humans achieve superhuman feats.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus told us that “The only constant is change”. Most of the jobs today didn’t exist 30 years ago, and most of the jobs that will exist 15 years from now don’t yet exist today. Jobs and technology are evolving more rapidly now, than at any time in human history. Fortunately for us, Pittsburgh has taught us to invent. And then, to reinvent.

When the foundation of your economy crumbles you don’t give up and you don’t cling stubbornly to the past. You ask, what’s next?

You evolve, from steel to education, energy, healthcare, finance, and technology. The steel industry may rust, but we will never stop building. Coal may someday burnout. But the need for energy will only heat up. Facebook may eventually stop getting likes. But there will always be a strong demand for human social connections.

As long as we stay focused on solving timeless human needs and don’t get caught up in temporary trends, the best days of our careers, lives, city, and world will always be ahead of us.


Pittsburgh is leading the way for AI, robotics, computer vision, and VR, doing things virtually no other city in the world can do. That’s why Google, Uber, and Apple are all putting up offices here. It’s for talent and technology, and a capacity for innovation that’s impossible to find almost anywhere else. We once made the majority of America’s crucible steel right here in Pittsburgh. Since then, we’ve brought ourselves back from the brink. Transforming from a dying steel town to a flourishing city of living steel, of robotic wonders that can see and move and think.

We are Pittsburgh and with our blue collar work ethic and white collar education, we have the skills and the grit to roll up our sleeves and get things done.

Our capacity for innovation is our city’s most rare and most valuable natural resource.

As innovators, you will get knocked down, just like Pittsburgh has, and just like Pittsburgh has, you will get back up. Like our city, you will continuously evolve to meet the world’s changing needs.

As I look out at you, our next generation of innovators, I’m confident that the only thing brighter and stronger than our past, is our future with you leading the way.

  • While others ask why, innovators ask why not.
  • While others tell you how it could struggle, innovators envision how it could succeed.
  • While others stop when they fail, innovators know that every failure just brings them one step closer to success.

You are champions for innovation, graduating from a top innovation accelerator, in a city built on innovation. You are part of the largest academic medical center, ranked 5th in NIH funding, bringing in over 500 million dollars to support advanced life sciences research.

You are joining the ranks of over 400 other students across 80 teams, 36 of which have gone on to receive funding or acceptance into leading national accelerators. Companies like Interphase Materials which just closed a new million dollar contract with the Navy. Companies like Hibersense, Utranslated, or Aeronics who were ranked by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer as America’s Best University Startups.

Wherever your education brought you here from, as PITT students our city is now part of your story, and you are now part of Pittsburgh’s story.

Innovation beats in our hearts and flows through our veins because we are Pittsburgh.

We are rising up, from the ashes of our coal-dusted dark days. From a broken down rust belt town, to a global pillar of innovation. We are doing the impossible every day because we are Pittsburgh.

Students, you have made it through the red-hot fire of the University of Pittsburgh’s Blast Furnace. The strongest trees have the strongest roots, and your roots are made of steel. It is an honor to congratulate the new Blast Furnace graduates. Please, everyone, make some noise!

Just remember the best product, the best company, and the best you, will always work in progress.

Like all innovation, this graduation is not the end. It is only the beginning.

  • We are Pittsburgh and we built America’s proud past.
  • We are Pittsburgh and we are building the world’s thriving present.
  • You are the very best of our city. Wherever your journey takes you, you will carry what you learned here with you, for the rest of your lives.
  • You are Pittsburgh and you will build the world’s bright, bold future.

Congratulations, thank you, and good luck!”



Barry Rabkin

I love my family, friends, city, and startups. Learn more @ BarryRabkin.com