Headmaster’s Headlines

4th July, 2017

On Saturday 1 July we were delighted to welcome Mrs Smita Suchde Gruetter MBA as the guest speaker at our Prizegiving and Upper Sixth Graduation Ceremony. Smita grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai, in India. She attended the Cathedral and John Connon School, and then studied Economics and Political Science at the Hazarimal Somani College, followed by General Law at the Government Law College. She has made a very successful career as an entrepreneur, as you will read in the words of her speech copied below. She is now settled in Switzerland with her husband Dr Urs Gruetter and is working on the strategic marketing and communication for Lokales Wasser 37, a Swiss mineral water company. She also finds the time to fulfil her passion in philanthropy by running her own charity called Hemlata that supports the education, health and empowerment of girls and women in India.

Smita’s son Siddharth Suchde also played a role in the ceremony, addressing us via video link. Siddharth attended Merchiston from 1999 to 2003 and then went to Harvard University in the States, where he gained a BA in Economics. He is a former professional squash player – he reached the world ranking of 39, and also held the record of being the second highest ranked Indian squash player in the world. Siddharth has now retired from the professional world circuit and he has set up two businesses in India (LiveYourSport.com and Azanisport.com), and like many Merchistonians is doing business within today’s global world.

The theme for the address was Stepping Out of your Comfort Zone, a subject that clearly resonated with our Upper Sixth Form leavers. As they step out of the doors of the Memorial Hall into the next chapter of their lives, we encourage them to have their own vision for the future; a vision that is guided and strengthened by the values of community and friendship. Smita succinctly summed up at the end of her talk, “All you have to do is step out of your comfort zone, appreciate the challenges that come your way, and look forward; for the power lies in your hands and your hands only, to build a future of your choice.” I urge you to read the words below, and the Vote of Thanks from the Captain of School.

Smita Suchde Gruetter

Good Morning Chairman, Governors, Headmaster, Teachers, Parents, Students and Merchistonians.

Our world, as we know it today, is transitioning rapidly, with changes that affect our lives, our communities and industry. It is in this changing environment and these challenging times, dear School Leavers, that you will step out today, from familiarity into newness, where the ability to move out of your comfort zone, to make the right choices, will become the pivot to determine future success.

Let me begin by telling you my story. I grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai, to a strict father and a loving mother, at a time, when success in life was defined and idolised by the position one held and the amount of money one earned.

My dream as a young graduate was to become a lawyer, but my family disapproved of their daughter practising in court. I then made a choice to go to Management school, but, this too was ruled out. And so, with little choice, I became an Entrepreneur, creating high-value jewellery and fashion garments. Wanting to expand my knowledge in Fashion, I took the bold step to enrol in Parsons School of Fashion, in New York city (NYC).

Roy T. Bennett once said, and I quote, “You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone”. This time around I was ready to challenge the status quo.

The year was 1990 and I landed in NY to a culture shock, from drugs being sold openly in the streets, to my dorm mates who spoke in a twang, and yes, even to my vegetarian food habits. Culture was making me feel more than infantile. The city police informed us to wear dark glasses in the subway, not to make eye contact with anyone and to put our money in our socks. Coming from a protective family background, NYC seemed overwhelming!

It would take a full 8 weeks before I learnt to walk and talk the NY way, with money in my socks and sunglasses in the subway. NYC created a shift in me by pushing me out of my privileged, comfortable lifestyle into an unknown zone. Taking the step from familiarity into newness, instilled in me a sense of self-confidence, and liberated me, giving me the conviction that I could survive in any city of the world.

On my return from NYC, I moved into the export of couture garments, shipping to Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Japan. During this period of growth in my company, Siddharth, now 10 years old, was excelling in Squash in India, winning all the National tournaments, including U12, U14, and U16. For him to continue to excel in his game, he would have to make the move to the UK, the home of Squash. After listing 19 schools in England and one in Scotland, we chose Merchiston!

Merchiston, then, did not have a single student from India. Siddharth would also have to wear a kilt, learn Scottish dancing and eat Haggis. What was I thinking?

I was thinking of my time in NYC and how this period had influenced me. If Siddharth was to make his mark, it was important that he too, moved out of his comfort zone.

We were lucky to have a dream foster parent in George Mieras and receive amazing support from Andrew and Barbara, while the boys at Merchiston, took him on as one of their own, cheering for him at Squash matches, especially when it was against England!

When my son moved to Scotland, I too decided to make a move, to Switzerland, a place I had often visited, and was comfortable in living and working in, or so I thought!

I recall a rather embarrassing situation, entering a local shop in Zürich, not realising that the tomatoes I wished to purchase, were to be first weighed on a scale, which would scan and print the price. As I approached the counter to pay, the shop-keeper spoke to me in Swiss German, informing me that the tomatoes had not been weighed. Not understanding, I of course said, I was willing to pay. But she lifted the tomatoes again, telling me they had to be weighed. These few minutes of interaction were turning out to be an embarrassment as a queue was quickly forming behind me. Here was culture again, making me feel infantile. I felt terrible but more than that, I was ashamed!

To combat this feeling of insecurity, I enrolled in intensive German classes which resulted in a feeling of self-efficacy but most important, autonomy. Today I speak German fluently and count it as my second language, after English. Learning German also helped to propel me to the next leg of my journey, in Switzerland, as a Buyer for Lifestyle products and later, as a Founder of my own Event Management company.

In 2003, when Siddharth graduated from Merchiston, my son and I settled on a deal. He was free to play Squash professionally, as long as he completed his college education. Siddharth had received early admission into Harvard, but Harvard did not agree to him playing Squash professionally, leaving him to compete at college level, where he proved his skills by winning the All American, the Ivy League and the National Championships. These 4 years of playing Squash at college level further validated his desire to play professional Squash and achieve World level rankings.

On graduating from Harvard in June 2007, Siddharth took the step towards his long-awaited passion. While his friends landed so called “fancy” jobs, earning 6 figure salaries at large conglomerates, Siddharth, who was slowly inching up the world rankings, was struggling to make ends meet. I was a little disappointed that my son did not have a “proper” career and at the same time, worried, that he had chosen the hard path. But we had a deal and he had fulfilled his part.

In 2008, less than a year after Siddharth’s graduation, the USA was struck with the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression. Banks and Institutions faced a terrible crisis, the Stock Market had crashed and Television showed young enthusiastic employees, being laid off from work. It was during this time, that I received a call from my son, asking me if I was watching the news on how the Financial crisis was unfolding? I informed him I was and how terrible it must be for these young boys and girls to lose their jobs?

My son, then jokingly said, “Mom, aren’t you happy I’m playing Squash and you are not watching me lose my job?” I smiled. The words made their mark. Siddharth had made a choice, and in all honesty, he had chosen wisely!

To tell you more about his own choices in life, I would like to invite my son, Siddharth, who joins us via e-link.

Siddharth Suchde

Good Morning Chairman, Governors, Headmaster, Teachers, Parents and Merchistonians.

It is a tremendous honour – and responsibility – to speak to a group of boys that I was, not less than15 years ago, a part of. I remember sitting restless, like I’m sure many of you are, impatient to throw myself into the exciting world outside.

When I was a young graduate, I had just emerged from a frenzy of playing in the squash world championships where I captained the Indian Team, sitting for my SATs, representing the school in cricket, being junior prefect, and attempting the A Levels along the way. Thinking back, it all seems like a bit of a blur and indeed it was! While I’m sure you all are impatient about leaving this room, and graduating into the pleasures of the world, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learnt, that may help you along in the important choices you have in the months and years ahead.

Most of you must be waiting to go to college, and will attend some of the finest institutions in the world. I was privileged to attend Harvard University, and nothing until then – not competing at a global level in squash, nor leaving my home in India and everything I knew as a 13-year-old – threw me out of my comfort zone more than that shift. The next 4 years were some of the most physically and emotionally taxing experiences of my life. College is everything that school is not. Suddenly you’re an adult thrown into the outside world with the responsibility of that one choice – How am I going to leave my mark in the world?

At Harvard, I was just an average kid, a little fish amongst the brighter stars, but, it was freedom! Thanks to the squash team I had more privileges than the average freshman, and just in case you are wondering, that meant access to copious amounts of alcohol, wild parties and, for the first time, the constant presence of attractive, unattached women. From the regimented, regulated life at Merchiston, I went straight into the chaos of American college life, where precocious young men and women with underdeveloped emotional IQ were all thrown in together. We asked to be treated like adults and were expected to figure our lives out as adults, whether we were ready for it or not.

It was a fantastic time, until my grades came in. For the first time, I had fared below average and significantly below my own abilities and expectations. I now had to make the choice, to continue with the temptations all around me or follow my path and create the life I had dreamed of.

I left my comfort zone once again, of friends and fun, choosing to focus on the only two goals of life that were under my control: becoming the best intercollegiate athlete in the world and excelling beyond my own expectations, academically. That choice – to focus on my goals rather than go with the flow – has defined my life since then. Merchiston gave me the foundational ability to think clearly and to make rational choices and this, more than anything one learns in the classroom or more than any other advantage, has guided me through college and life beyond.

Up until the age of 18, every young person with an education lives in their own bubble. The lessons we learn at school are still untested. But the character-building that takes place at Merchiston gives each of us the unparalleled privilege to choose any sphere of life with confidence. Thus, I am encouraging you to choose the deliberate life; to resist the comforts of material success, the easy and convenient relationships and the affluent drug of social status.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to do what everyone else is doing. However, there is a far more insidious danger to such a life. For me personally, it was the choice between a prestigious banking job and starting from zero as a professional athlete, putting in blood, sweat and tears for every step up the world rankings. It was not easy for me, but probably harder for my Mom, who worried over my choice. But I was determined! I started at 700 in the world rankings, right at the bottom of the table and found myself in the top 30s within 5 short years.

Sure, there will be adversity and challenges, even moments of doubt and fear. But when you choose to pursue your own dreams, you go home every night to lie in a bed of your own. And that is a wonderful feeling, even if, as it was in my case, that bed is a mattress on the floor of one of the most underfunded squash academies in the world.

That’s because it isn’t adversity that will knock you on the head; rather, it is the tedium of life within the comfort zone that chips away at you from the inside. When you allow the world to give you a template where your choices are already made and defined for you – whether it is an illustrious career, a socially advantageous partner or the expectations of a particular lifestyle, you are allowing other people to take over your life.

The world I’m living in – the world we are all living in – is in a phase of accelerating change, and in such a scenario there’s nothing more dangerous than holding on to what we know. And yet, despite whatever talent, education or achievements, I can count on, I still don’t have all the answers.

I remember my mother as an Entrepreneur and how she took responsibility for her staff and business. As an Entrepreneur, I try to do the same. I still spend many sleepless nights unsure of myself as people’s livelihoods depend on the decisions I make. Every ill-considered choice challenges the survival not just of my business, but the lives of all the people who have put their faith in me as a leader.

The minute you take responsibility for your own life and actions, you cross the expiry date of blaming anyone else – circumstances, parents, climate change or whatever else – and that day for you 6th Formers, is today.

From this moment onwards, you are the master of your own life, and even if it isn’t apparent or seems difficult, you have the privilege of choice, and that is the biggest advantage that life can ever give anyone. To use your privilege and choose an automatic, templated life, or to use your privilege and live a life of achievement.

Thank you, all! I would like to hand back the baton to my Mother, who will conclude.

Smita Suchde Gruetter

In their recent book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, have this to say about building character and resilience, “It isn’t about having a backbone,” they write. “It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”

Remember my story of not being allowed to go to management school? Well, 35 years later, I challenged myself and made a choice, to go back to study. In 2016, I graduated from IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, with an MBA, achieving another curve of personal growth in my journey.

In conclusion, as a proud mother of a Merchistonian, who has the honour of addressing you today, I say:

Dear Leavers,

As you move forward from this vital period of your education, stepping out through these hallowed doors for the last time, know that this is your moment to create a life of vision. All you have to do is step out of your comfort zone, appreciate the challenges that come your way, and look forward; for the power lies in your hands and your hands only, to build a future of your choice.

Thank you!

Vote of Thanks – Captain of School

Good morning. It is now my pleasure to address you all and offer a few words to bring proceedings, and our Merchiston journeys, to a close.

Firstly to our guest speakers, Mrs Smita Suchde Gruetter and your son Siddarth – thank you on behalf of the school, and indeed the whole congregation, for returning to Merchiston today. It was a pleasure to receive our prizes from you and your message is one that we will all cherish.

Mrs Suchde Gruetter and Siddharth’s reflections on their experiences of leaving their respective comfort zones and facing the challenges of the unknown will certainly have struck a chord with all the Leavers here today. However, also for the younger boys who are still fortunate enough to have their Merchiston journeys ahead of them, I would like to echo Mrs Suchde Gruetter and Siddarth’s words; I challenge all of us here to push ourselves to undertake tasks which at times appear daunting and unappealing in order to excel and achieve our own personal best and fulfil our potential.

Please allow me to present you with a gift on behalf of Merchiston to thank you for your address.

I would also like to present Mrs Kirsty Baird with a small gift on behalf of the whole school as a token of our appreciation.

I – and I’m sure all of us – Leavers, parents and teachers – feel mixed emotions today.

The excitement of embarking upon the next chapter of our lives and striding out into a world of infinite possibilities is tinged by sadness and apprehension; sadness at leaving Merchiston – which has been a safe, supportive second home for us for many years – and apprehension at the challenges that we will undoubtedly encounter when we walk through the school gates as pupils for the very last time and embark on a path whose ultimate destination is unknown.

We have all faced hurdles along the way. From the international students who have had to learn to adapt to new cultures, thousands of miles from their homelands, to the wide-eyed young boys who joined Pringle as boarders for the first time and had to develop the resilience and self-sufficiency required to live away from home.

But throughout our time at Merchiston we have had the support of our parents, our teachers, Mrs Hunter and the Headmaster and our friends and classmates who have always been there to rally around us when the chips are down. It is the pride that you take in our achievements which makes our gratitude all the more heartfelt. Let us ensure that we make these special people proud of what we become.

I would also like to thank our parents, grandparents, relatives and friends. Merchiston has provided us all with is a true home from home, however, without your unwavering support for us, love for us and encouragement for us, our lives here would not have been nearly as magical.

So much of our time at Merchiston has been focused on success, whether striving for sporting, musical or academic excellence. We have all had expectations to live up to. Many of our parents have made sacrifices to send us to such a prestigious school and while our teachers have worked hard to help us achieve our potential we have all, at one time or another, felt a heavy burden of expectation on our shoulders. We all want to do our families, classmates and the school proud, even if, at times, that has seemed difficult to achieve.

Those difficult times in many ways have taught us the most important lesson of all – how to learn from our mistakes and, to quote Old Blue Eyes “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again”. As the Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates once said: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it’s more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

The defeats we have suffered on Merchiston’s sports pitches, the disappointing exam results, and the stupid mistakes that we may have made in our personal lives have taught us the invaluable lessons that have arguably done more than our successes to prepare us for the reality of life beyond these walls. They have also helped cement the relationships between the boys in this room that I know will endure regardless of passing of the years.

We leave this school in uncertain times into a world of rapid change. In recent times, there has been greater focus on what separates us than on what binds us together – whether geography, race, religion or economic circumstance. I am proud to say that that’s not the Merchiston way. Our culture is one of community and the school’s strength is its ability to harness the talents and perspectives of boys from many different countries, and of many different religions and cultures, to create something that is much more valuable and much stronger than the sum of its parts.

Facing the unknown is frightening but the light of friendship kindled by joint experience – good and bad – will, I hope, illuminate the paths we take through life. The humility learnt from mistakes and adversity will help us understand other people’s failures, to be compassionate and, I hope, make an active decision to use our privilege to improve the lives of others and make a positive contribution to the world we share, rather than being motivated by avarice or self-interest. To those who are returning next year: cherish this and ensure that this collective humility remains central to this great school.

I felt the same fear and apprehension that I am experiencing today when I first came to Merchiston as a 13-year-old. I had left the comfort zone of my small prep school and felt alone and exposed as I walked through the school gates into Merchiston’s imposing grounds. I was a young boy alone. Now, as we prepare to walk out of those gates towards a bright but uncertain future I no longer feel alone. We are brothers and together anything seems possible.

To quote Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

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