ASTORIA – Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, was the keynote speaker at the St. Demetrios Graduation on June 7. In his moving and inspiring speech, Dr. Yancopoulos shared his personal journey towards success and his family’s and encouraged the graduates to “go out, try to help your fellow man, and change the world for the better.”
Dr. Yancopoulos’ speech follows:
Your Grace, Reverend Archimandrite, Dean Papazafiropoulos, Principal/Dr Koularmanis, honored guests, and to the soon-to-be graduates of this great school, and to their teachers, family and friends…. Thank you for the honor of addressing you at this most important moment in your lives…
I also want to remember and honor all those who came before us, who suffered and fought and persevered just so we could be here celebrating your graduation today… My family comes from a town in the very north of modern Greece called Kastoria, a beautiful town built on a lake and surrounded by mountains… we consider ourselves Greek Macedonians – that is, the true Macedonians – and when I was small my father showed me the mountains around us, and he told me never to forget how much blood and sweat was spilled on those mountains, just so we could be standing there that day…. He told me to never forget that I owed so much to those untold generations that came before us, and that the way to repay them was to make sure I made something of my life and contributed to the world, so as to bring them honor….
So who am I? Well, I look back about 40 years, and I think I was just like many of you are now, just starting out. And then I got to live the great American Dream. Maybe you can hear a little of my story, and that can help you imagine the infinite possibilities of your futures…
Let me start first at the end, before I come back to the beginning.
I am a scientist, what they used to call a gene hunter… and people consider me pretty successful… in my thirties, I was ranked as one of the top ten scientists in the entire world… I started a biotechnology company with my long-time partner Len Schleifer, called Regeneron, which has become one of the biggest in the world… and I think we became successful the right way – that is, we didn’t do it by coming up with some devious business scheme, but by doing something very important for humanity – we invented more important new medicines over the last decade than anyone had over a similar period in history:
- One is the leading drug in the world to cure blindness, from diseases like diabetes and age-related macular degeneration
- Another is a new treatment to prevent heart attacks and heart disease
- A third is a breakthrough therapy for severe allergic disease, and diseases including asthma and atopic dermatitis
- And we came up with several new treatments for previously incurable forms of cancer….
How did we do this? I love superhero movies… how many of you have watched the X-Men movies? Well, X-men and women really exist… they are simply people who walk amongst us that have special mutations in their genes that give them special powers… well, our strategy at Regeneron was simply to find these X-men and women… we found X-men who were resistant to heart disease, who felt no pain, whose vision could resist blindness, whose bodies fought cancer, even X-men who had really large muscles… and we cloned their mutations and then made medicines that could give the power of these mutations to regular people… and that was our simple strategy, that led to all these important new medical breakthroughs… there was a lot of science around this approach, but it really was pretty much that simple… and our advantage was that others hadn’t really thought of this simple approach before, as a way to come up with important new medicines…
And with all these new medicines has come incomprehensible riches… How many of you know who Bruno Mars is? You know his song about “wanting to be a billionaire so freakin’ bad” and “wanting to be on the cover of Forbes”… well, been there, done that… Forbes also every year selects the most innovative companies in the world, and we have been on the top ten of that list every year for the last 10 years… last year we were right behind TESLA, please don’t get me started on how wrong that is…. But anyway…
That’s where we are now… but let me go back to the beginning and tell you how I got there…. And to what I owe it all to….
I am sure, like many of you, being GREEK defines me…
Growing up in a Greek immigrant family in NYC, we were very poor but I never even realized it… My parents came in the 1950’s after WWII and the Civil War in Greece, and because of that they never finished school, and we never had much money… I never realized we weren’t rich, because, most importantly, I was lucky to have the greatest parents and grandparents and sister in the world… and the greatest extended family of cousins and uncles and aunts…. And we all lived together and supported each other… there is for sure nothing better than growing up in a big Greek family….
I was born in Manhattan, and then baptized in the Bronx, but when I was small we moved right here – this was my neighborhood for a while, and St Demetrios was my church, but we kept moving, and by high school my church was Transfiguration of Christ in Corona, where I was in the GOYA and played basketball….
My parents always insisted on only speaking Greek at home, and when I went to public school on the first day – a little kid walking into PS11 in Woodside on a beautiful fall day in 1964 – I’ll never forget that day – I didn’t even know that English existed. I was in shock, I had no idea what was happening. And I was very slow in learning a new language, and I actually failed the 1st grade. Back then they didn’t have programs like English as a 2nd language, and there was no such thing as “political correctness” – they just put all the kids who failed 1st grade into what they then called the MR class, for Mentally Retarded.
But my parents and grandparents wouldn’t let me think that there was something wrong with me. In fact, they made me believe the opposite, that even then, there was greatness inside of me. How did they make me believe this?
They told me about all the greatness in our Greek ancestry… from Homer to Herotodus, from Odysseus to Alexander, from Hippocrates to Socrates… and they told me that all that greatness still lived inside of me and inside of all Greeks… They told me that the blood of Alexander flowed in my veins, and so I could conquer anything… It does not matter whether any of that was true, it only mattered that they made a 7 year old boy believe it.
My father told me that America was the greatest country in the world, and if you were just willing to work for it, you could accomplish anything here… He told me that his role -because he had no education and training – was to work hard so his children could get a better education and then be able to do anything. And most importantly, he told me that Greeks were smarter, more creative, and harder working than other Americans, and that we were destined to succeed. Once again, it didn’t matter if any of that was true, the only thing that mattered is that I believed everything he told me.
And the most important story he told me was about a hero and role model very close to home, which he claimed proved I could overcome anything. He told me my own “Founder Tale”. How many of you are named after your Grandfather??? I see by the raised hands that many of your families follow that tradition, and thus that many of you are named after your Grandfathers!
So am I, my Pappou’s name is my name, George Damis Damianos Yancopoulos. My father told me I was named after my grandfather for a reason. He told me my grandfather was born in 1883 – think of that, just imagine how long ago that is – as a Turkish slave in a little village. Many in his family were killed by the Turks, and he became a Freedom Fighter but was captured. He managed to escape and somehow found his way to Vienna, Austria. I can’t even imagine how someone from a small Xorio can escape and make it to Vienna. There, he saw the magic of electricity – he saw electric lights for the first time – there was nothing like it in his little village – and he was sure it was magic. And he wanted to learn everything he could about this magic. He didn’t even know how to read or write, and he couldn’t speak German – his job was sweeping the floors of the famous old Vienna Opera House – but he knew he wanted to devote his life to this magic. So he started taking the librettos about the opera home with him at night, and used them to try to learn German. And somehow he did, and somehow he got himself into University, and somehow and unbelievably he became an electrical engineer, learning how to build electrical power plants, because his dream was to go back to his homeland and bring back the magic of electricity. And he managed to do this. He went back to Greece and built many of Greece’s first electrical power plants, bringing light to his Patrida. And with this, he achieved incomprehensible wealth, becoming one of the richest Greeks at the time. Just to show how fragile life can be, and sometimes how we move in circles —- at the height of my grandfather’s success, the Nazis came, they nationalized his plants, and he was imprisoned and left penniless. And my father, who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was now a teenager, joined the resistance and essentially became a freedom fighter just like his father had been.
So what’s the lesson in this? Once again, what mattered to me was that my father made me believe that if my grandfather could rise from being a slave to such heights, and that I was named after him, I could do anything as well. Whatever I achieved in life, it was only because my father made me believe that I could do it.
So what have I learned, and is there maybe something you can learn from my journey?
I think 40 years ago I was maybe not that different from who you are now. I was a young Greek kid coming out of high school. Back when I was your age, I saw many problems in the world, and I was inspired to use the power of science to try to make a difference in the world by curing disease. I am sure you see many challenges facing our world, and you dream about offering hope and solutions, changing the world. You are at the beginning of the incredible adventure of life. And in your adventure you have an incredible advantage. I believe in the magic of the human spirit, and there is no greater human spirit than that of the Greeks. Your great Hellenic history flows through you, both empowering you but also obligating you to do honor to the sacrifices of your parents, as well as of all the others who came before you. You are all Hellenes, and its your turn to go out and conquer – whether it be disease, global warming, poverty, hunger, politics or business – go out, try to help your fellow man, and change the world for the better. It will not be easy, there will be many challenges and failures along the way, you will struggle and have to find a new way… but I encourage you to embrace these struggles as opportunities – to prove who you really are, to reinvent yourself, and to consider audacious new possibilities and paths.
I’ll never forget the pride of my father, who was in the Greek army for years, and how proud he was that the Greeks brought the first victory against what at that time seemed an unconquerable evil empire – turning back the Nazis at the Albanian border in October of 1940. He always reminded me that because of that first victory against the Nazis, Winston Churchill said that from here on forward, that it will be said that all Heroes fight like Hellenes. Well, you are all Hellenes, you all have greatness inside of you, and it is time to go out and be Heroes.
Thanks for your attention.