Barnard College Commencement
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
New York City


Sylvia Rhone. Recording industry megastar. Mastermind of Universal Motown, making hits and breaking ground. As influential to American culture as you are to the musical artists you embrace.

From Philadelphia to Harlem’s Sugar Hill, where the sounds of jazz echoed through your childhood. Nancy Wilson performed for your birthday and Aretha and Duke and Cab Calloway were family friends. Seems like you were destined to keep their songs alive. With a B.S. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, you entered the management training program at New York’s Bankers Trust, wearing pants and causing a stir. So you left, and landed a job at Buddah Records as a secretary… taking a major cut in pay but wearing whatever you chose.

Pants might have started it, but it was savvy and determination that propelled you… through promotions at Buddah and ABC Records to Elektra Records in 1980 where you rose to director of marketing in a few short years. You were a natural at learning the business and, with your big break at Atlantic Records in 1986, the business quickly became yours. You were brought in to head, and turn around, Atlantic’s black music division, and you did just that, making it number one and profitable again. By 1988 you were senior vice president, by 1990 you had your own label and, in 1994 you made history when you were named chair and CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group—the only African American and the first woman ever in the recording industry to attain such a title. There was no flip side. You were it.

A decade later, you brought your brilliant vision and your ear for the next great sound to the legendary and iconic Universal Motown Records. As its president you have fused the venerable voices of Stevie and Smokey, Marvin and Michael, the Temptations and the Supremes, with a stunning array of new artists. Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Nelly, Erykah Badu… the list and the beat goes on.  

With your keen ability to spot and nurture talent, you yourself have made the charts of nearly every “most powerful women” category there is. Protégé Busta Rhymes even rapped your praises in his 2009 hit, Shoot for the Moon, with the lyrics, “And it feels good to be home with Sylvia Rhone.”

So thank you, for your seminal contributions to the industry, to the artists, and to the aspiring women you see before you. You have motivated us, filled our iPods, and earned our R-E-S-P-E-C-T.