Opening doors to talent

Jeff and Irene Jacobson.

When Jeffrey Jacobson, BS ’81, went from the UB School of Management to Cornell for a master’s in industrial relations, he says he felt intimidated at first by his high-powered classmates. 

But he realized that everyone has the same amount of time in a day, and that if he used his wisely to outwork the others, he could be as good as anyone. Indeed, that determination produced a distinguished executive career that led to a stint as CEO of Xerox.

“There are no limits to what you can achieve, if you put in the time and the effort and realize that there is no ceiling on what you can do,” he says.

But there’s a catch. For too many—women, Blacks and Hispanics and others—there has been a ceiling. Not of their own making, but one that limited individual achievement nonetheless. From his experience in the executive suite, Jeff knows that hurts everyone.

To help remedy this inequity, Jeff and his wife, Irene, endowed the Irene and Jeffrey Jacobson Fellowship for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the School of Management. The two-year fellowship will fund a first- and second-year MBA student annually. In addition to receiving full cost of education support, Jacobson Fellows will build leadership skills by participating in the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The Jacobson Fellowship will give the School of Management a competitive advantage in recruiting top students who can take the lead in increasing corporate diversity, equity and inclusion. This will be good for the fellows, year after year—and good for the corporate world. 

“I lived the struggle. As a woman, I always felt like I had to work harder. With this fellowship, I like to think we’re helping to open doors for someone like me.” — Irene Jacobson

“If you exclude half the population who happens to be female, which has happened for the longest time in the executive ranks, or African Americans or Hispanics and others, you are not integrating the best of the best in your business,” he says. 

During his career, Jeff says he has always wanted to hire the best person because it added value to his business. But he knows that barriers to career advancement continue to exist. 

Both Jeff and Irene are strivers. Irene is the second-oldest of eight children—and the first born in the U.S.—in a family that emigrated from Jordan. Her father worked in a factory, and Irene, who started working at 13, tracked down every possible scholarship to put herself through New York University. She went on to earn two master’s degrees in education.

Before leaving her career in education when Jeff started traveling full time for business, she took over as principal at the second-worst performing of 39 elementary schools in Yonkers, New York, and, in four years, transformed it into the district’s top-performing school.

Jeff started his career in human resources at the Polychrome Corporation, where one of his duties was as the company’s affirmative action officer. “I think people treated diversity then more as a ‘check-the-boxes exercise,’” he says, “as opposed to understanding that it really drives value in the corporation.” 

When he and Irene got married, Jeff took a second job as a bookkeeper in a restaurant to pay for their wedding. He kept that job for seven years—two nights a week and all day on Saturdays—to pay off his student loans. Then he went to law school at night, living on three hours of sleep, and almost left the corporate world for a law practice before Polychrome talked him into staying.

Both grew up in multicultural neighborhoods—Irene in Yonkers, Jeff in Brooklyn, the Bronx and then Yonkers—where diversity was a fact of life. “If you saw my high school yearbook, it would show that I was in the minority,” he says, “but we never noticed. It was a blessing to grow up that way.” 

Today, Jeff and Irene say most of their philanthropy goes to UB because they feel it is where they can make the greatest impact. They have previously endowed a scholarship in management.

“I lived the struggle,” Irene says. “As a woman, I always felt like I had to work harder. With this fellowship, I like to think we’re helping to open doors for someone like me.”