Commencement speaker Rabia Kamara reflects on her personal journey as she prepares to celebrate VCU’s newest graduates
Rabia Kamara seems a little young to be delivering this semester’s commencement address at Virginia Commonwealth University.
After all, Kamara herself just graduated from the VCU School of Business in 2010.
But she’s accomplished so much since then: graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine; opening Ruby Scoops, a popular Richmond-based purveyor of premium small batch ice creams, sorbets, sherbets and other desserts; and winning the Food Network’s “Clash of the Cones” competition, in which she created custom flavors for Kevin Bacon, Ludacris and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s founders.
Still, she was taken aback when VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., pulled her aside at an event earlier this year and asked her to be the commencement speaker.
“That was overwhelming in the best way,” she said. “Because, I guess I have accomplished things in my life, but I’m still very young in the grand scheme of things. [It was] really emotional … to be in my almost-mid-30s and to be asked to speak around people that are not necessarily that much younger than me.”
Kamara has experienced enough in just the past year to fill a speech. Professionally, she’s in the process of finding a new home for her second business, Suzy Sno. And her flagship shop, Ruby Scoops, is moving from its original 960-square-foot shop on Brooklyn Park Boulevard to the 4,000-square-foot first floor of a new mixed-use building just down the street.
Kamara shared with VCU News how her own post-college experiences will inform her speech on Saturday.
Were you surprised when you were asked to deliver the commencement address? Even though you’ve accomplished so much, are you nervous about public speaking?
That was surprising and a little emotional. I called my parents immediately to let them know. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get all of my words out without getting all sappy. I’m a little nervous. I think I do well on camera, knowing that thousands of people will be watching me. But to be doing it live in real time is a little nerve-wracking. But I’m hoping it’ll be OK. When I share with my loved ones that I am nervous, they feel pretty confident that I don’t have anything to worry about.
How did your years at VCU change you?
[Richmond] is the only other place I have known. You know, I came to VCU when I was 17 years old. Very much a baby — even if I didn’t think it at the time. But that was half of my life ago.
Coming here and being able to meet some friends that are still very close to me, meeting the man that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with, having a space to really get to know myself. The way I did it, I don’t know if that would have happened if I wasn’t here.
Being able to go to college in a place that was affordable enough that I’m really going on my own and able to really delve into something that I knew I enjoyed, even as a child, which was cooking. And realizing that I wanted to make food and having the people in my life here support me in that decision and telling me that I need to do what makes me happy. Especially coming from a house with immigrant parents, where you got to do what is expected of you.
Honestly being here changed the entire trajectory of my life, because it made me realize what I really wanted to do, which was to cook. I didn’t know that it would end up leading me to starting my own business and coming back here to open up my first shop. That was not necessarily in my plan, but it seems it’s always been a part of the universe’s plan. So I think once I got here, everything ultimately about what I wanted fell into place. So that’s really the theme that I’m hoping to share with this year’s graduates.
How have you changed since you graduated from VCU?
I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with myself. Being a woman is hard. And you’ve got a lot going on, especially with petty girl drama, if you will. So learning to not really get involved in that. Trusting my gut. I’ve been blessed enough to build a life that is profitable, but mostly passionate. I can’t imagine what it would feel like if it weren’t like this. But I’ve grown up. I’ve had to grow up working for myself, and I had to grow up working in restaurants. Learning how to just be an adult, which no one really tells you is really hard.
Because when I was 17 or 18, I could stay up all night and still go to my 8 a.m. classes. Those days are gone.
What do you want to share with the students? What’s the most important thing for them to know?
When you graduate, everyone is like, “Well, what’s next? What are you going to do next? What do you have planned?” And it’s like, I just spent at least four years of my life getting this degree and trying to figure out what that means to me. And I want [the graduates] to know that they need to honor themselves and what they love and breathe life into the things they’re passionate about. You never know what life has in store for you. But in the time that you’ve spent being in school or being able to graduate, you’ve already laid down the foundation of what’s next for you in life.
I want to share with them that they should be proud of themselves for what they’ve accomplished. Graduating, especially living with the pandemic. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be in school and kind of lose all those things about college that make it interesting and that would drive people to want to attend. The camaraderie, being on campus, getting to do things in the city where you live — all of the time being snatched away from everyone. So being proud of themselves and living in this moment, not being so concerned about the future that it shuts them down.
Obviously, they don’t know it, but the world already has things in store for them. So just being where they are now and not being in a rush to get anywhere else, not being in a rush to have to grow up and own a home and get married and have kids if that’s not what they want. But just honoring themselves.
I think it’s important for them to know to relish in this moment. I think when I got to college, I was so excited and so filled with emotion and just so proud of myself. When I graduated, I was like, “I’m done.” My mom was like, “You’re not. What’s next?” That took me out of my excitement for what I had accomplished.
So I just want them to know that they can enjoy where they are now and be proud of themselves, where they have brought themselves in life and know that whatever’s next will reveal itself, that they don’t have to work for it in the way that they have probably been told that they do.
Tell me about your own graduation. Were there any speakers, professors, others who gave you words of wisdom at that time? Did you receive any advice that — in retrospect — was just terrible?
I’ll be honest with you — I don’t remember a thing about my graduation. Not a single thing.
[As for terrible advice], my mom telling me that I wasn’t finished yet. I just graduated. I just spent five years in college. Five years in college, 13 years of education before that. That’s 18 years of school. I’d like to think I accomplished something!
What would you like to add?
Just that I hope it goes well.