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Twitter CEO to speak at #commencement

Tracy Ko/Daily
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, the University's 2013 spring commencement speaker, spoke at Rackham Auditorium in November. Buy this photo

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published March 17, 2013

Let’s just say it probably won’t be done in 140 characters or fewer.

On May 4, those attending the university-wide commencement ceremony will hear from 1985 alum Dick Costolo, the current chief executive officer of Twitter. Costolo will also receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his achievements pending approval by the University’s Board of Regents.

University President Mary Sue Coleman told The Michigan Daily that Costolo's role in transforming Twitter into a powerful and ubiquitous part of everyday communication had profoundly impacted the way that people interact with one another.

“(His) entrepreneurial drive, being at the leading edge of a revolution in communication, and the impact of Twitter on the world … he deeply understands the ways that this affects people’s interactions with each other,” Coleman said. “It’s that broad view that caught my attention.”

In an interview Sunday with the Daily, Costolo said he was deeply honored — and surprised — by Coleman’s invitation for him to address his alma mater.

“I asked them if they had the wrong number,” Costolo said jokingly.

During his time at the University of Michigan, Costolo was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity — commonly called FIJI — and practiced amateur improvisational comedy. In an unusual move for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, he then spent time in Chicago trying his luck as a standup comedian before beginning to work on web-based projects in 1996. Costolo founded three companies, the last of which, Feedburner, was sold in 2007 for $100 million to Google, where he worked in various capacities until 2009.

Later in 2009, Twitter hired Costolo as its chief operating officer. A year later, he became its chief executive officer, replacing Evan Williams.

In November, Costolo addressed a full house at Rackham Auditorium, where he shared his experiences in the technology sector and some anecdotes about his personal life. Coleman said during that visit, he talked with her about creating and maintaining a renewed relationship with the University and its students.

“He got rave reviews for his speech,” Coleman said. “I think he’s going to be very, very interesting for the student body.”

Costolo said he was born a Michigan man — making the opportunity to speak in the Big House a major life moment for him.

“It’s really the single greatest honor I could ever imagine receiving,” Costolo said. “When I grew up as a kid outside of Detroit in Troy, I always wanted to go to Michigan. It was the only university I applied to, and I always knew I wanted to go there.”

While Costolo didn't want to give away too much before commencement, he said his address will focus on his time at the University, how it helped shape him and how he approaches problems to this day.

“It will be highly personal and based on my experiences at the University and the way that my education and time at the University of Michigan shaped the path of the kinds of choices that I made in my life and the way I thought about those choices,” he said.

He added that he was encouraged to see the increase in entrepreneurship at the University since his graduation. Entrepreneurship programs and opportunities have blossomed across campus due to the focus of several Central Student Government initiatives and well as organizations such as MPowered and the Zell-Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies, among others.

“When I graduated from Michigan with my degree in C.S., I was in a group at the University my junior and senior year that was an entrepreneur’s group. There were five or six of us at the time,” he said. “It’s funny, the University came out the last couple of years to San Francisco with a group of entrepreneurs from the University and it’s 200 or 250 people now. It’s funny to go back and think of the five or six of us who were really focused on entrepreneurism and starting things and creating things.