For 25 years, graduates of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology have been putting their knowledge to work just about everywhere (even on the moon).
By Robert Strauss
Deeksha Hebbar was home in Kuwait trying to figure out what to do with her adult life. Soon to graduate high school, she wanted to study business in the United States and was perusing the University of Pennsylvania’s website while filling out a Wharton undergraduate application.
“I have to say, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Hebbar, now in the Penn class of 2006. “I was applying to engineering schools elsewhere, and I couldn’t decide between the two—business or engineering.
“Then I came across the Jerome Fisher section, and it seemed like fate,” she said. “I was truly lucky. Here I am, and I am inspired every day.”
Ms. Hebbar is in one of the most exclusive cadres on campus, the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology. About 55 undergrads each year are enrolled in the interdisciplinary program that offers joint degrees in the Wharton School and the School of Engineering. It’s a rigorous, no-nonsense deal, to be sure—only for students who have lots of guts. But in its 25 years, “M&T,” as its partisans call it, has produced an outstanding array of alumni: from investment bankers to environmental engineers to technology gurus—to even an astronaut.
“And yet it is sometimes a secret, this great program,” said Rob Weber, ENG’82, W’82, who graduated in the first full class of M&T and is now back as an adjunct professor. “Top high school students who are looking at Penn probably know about Wharton. Then they look on the website and say, ‘This looks like something interesting. I’ve always liked math and science. I think I’ll apply.’ Suddenly, we get some of the best students in the country. We get renaissance kinds of people.”
One of those renaissance types is Eileen McCarthy, ENG’02, W’02. She grew up in Middletown, New Jersey—Springsteen country near the Jersey Shore. McCarthy knew she wanted to stay on the East Coast, but she also knew she wanted to work in engineering and be an entrepreneur. Yet she also wanted a real campus life and an opportunity, when the time called for it, to not be an engineer and an entrepreneur—and she wanted friends who were similar in that way.
“When I was in school, my best friends were studying engineering, but they were also the ones with the busiest schedules beyond class. That’s a sign of the M&T, over-achieving type,” she said with a bit of a chuckle. Ms. McCarthy herself was the president of the M&T club, did research for Wharton professors, was a campus peer leader, and found time to be the captain of the synchronized swimming team.
“It was hard enough taking the required courses, but I wanted to take some Middle Eastern politics and British history and environmental courses. I even made a weak attempt at pottery,” she said. Now she is working with water resources as an engineer for Hazen and Sawyer in New York City. “Everything about the program and everything I did at Penn comes together for me here. I can go into meetings with other engineers and because I had the Wharton courses, I understand the social and business impacts of the projects. It was a unique experience I had in the M&T program, and it has prepared me well.”
A Natural Fit
The Jerome Fisher Program did not have its genesis, though, by any grand plan. In the late 1970s, the dean of the School of Engineering, Arthur E. Humphrey, felt the need to figure out just where that school was going to go. It was a small school on a campus that was deep into the liberal arts.
So Dean Humphrey convened some of the corporate leaders on his board of overseers and asked them to come up with ideas that could make the School of Engineering more innovative.
“After about four months, their conclusions were several,” said M&T Director William Hamilton, ENG’61, GENG’64, WG’64, who was a young Wharton professor back then (and had earlier been a mentee of Dean Humphrey as a chemical engineering student), and is now the Ralph Landau Professor of Management and Technology.
“One was that the major challenges facing not only engineering, but society, lay frequently at the intersections of engineering and other fields, not squarely in engineering disciplines,” said Hamilton. “Second, as executives they had significant challenges recruiting people who could work between the worlds of engineering and business. They could get good engineers and good business minds, but getting people to work at the intersection was a challenge. “Thirdly, they thought, Penn was an ideal place to build bridges between engineering and professions, like law, business, and medicine because of the strong professional schools at Penn,” he said. “M&T was the first response to the recommendations.”
At the time, Donald C. Carroll was the dean at Wharton and was enthusiastically looking to integrate the School’s courses with others around the University.
“Don Carroll had an engineering degree from M.I.T. and Art Humphrey had been involved with the start-up of a couple of businesses. It was a natural fit. Each from his own perspective understood the importance of combining engineering and business, and both were extremely supportive,” said Hamilton. “One of the Overseers at the School of Engineering was Ralph Landau, a Penn graduate from the 1930s, who was a very successful technology entrepreneur and immediately grasped the potential of the combination. He provided support for an endowed chair, and we were off.”
To lead the new M&T program, the leaders at the two schools selected Hamilton, who had been a White House Fellow and a research scientist at Sun Oil Co. He had already won a couple of campus outstanding teaching awards, too. He had three Penn degrees, in both business and engineering. Twenty-five years later, he is still at it, and enjoying the work as much as ever.
“The important payoff after all these years is that I think we have raised the level of student achievement throughout the University,” said Hamilton. “This has always been the exciting part of the M&T program for me. I am a Penn person through and through, though I did stray long enough to earn a degree from the London School of Economics, just to gain some perspective of the world beyond. I have always seen the M&T program as a way to make Penn as well as Wharton a better place.”
It certainly was that for Steve Polsky, ENG’86, W’86. Polsky has been a Penn person from birth, his father, Carl, having been a Wharton accounting professor since 1956.
“I met Dr. Hamilton when I was looking for schools, and he just got me excited about doing something in two different fields. My father certainly didn’t discourage it,” said the younger Polsky, who graduated from the M& T program in 1986. “At the time, it was the only program like it around. Now, we laugh, the people I went there with—we early alums look at the credentials of the people who have come now, and we wonder if we would have ever gotten in.”
Polsky said he has mostly stayed on the business side of the technology business, building two successful companies before taking on his current role as Senior Vice President for Business Development with Edusoft, an educational software venture in San Francisco. He said the combination of courses in the M&T program has made it easy for him to get where he is.
“In the tech boom, it was good to have the perspective of both sides,” he said. “But now it is even more important. To know the technology and then be able to translate it into a business plan, that is where the M&T program has been invaluable for me.”
Jerome Fisher, W’53, himself said he would have loved being in the program that now bears his name, that it would have served him well in his career.
“I majored in industrial engineering at Penn, and I have long been a strong advocate of two-degree programs,” said Fisher, the founder of the Nine West Group, now a part of Jones Apparel, who donated $5.5 million in 1995 to endow and support the M&T program. “I was always interested in operations. We operated plants all over the world, and as an engineer, I was glad I knew what those plants were doing. It was my dream to be able to endow a program with such high-level students doing a broad spectrum of things.
“When I come back to Penn, I always say, ‘I could have invested the money and had great financial returns. But seeing you sitting there and knowing what you are going to do after you leave here, I am getting the benefit of my greatest return.’”
The Next Wave
The Management and Technology Program is not standing still these days, to be sure. Hamilton and Weber are particularly concerned with raising its profile among prospective candidates. To that end, M&T will host high-school students on campus for the summer of 2005, exposing them to a three-week, four-credit course on the principles of management and engineering.
“High school students don’t have a good sense of what they might be studying when they take engineering in college, not to mention business,” said Weber. “They might say, ‘Yeah, business seems interesting. I have an uncle doing something.’ But they need a solid sense of what they will be offered. This will also serve as a way to get the word out about the M&T program.”
In addition, Hamilton wants to get alumni more involved in networking and even coming back to campus to mentor students. There are now 1,400 M&T alumni, a great number of whom are already leaders in their fields. They are listed in data base of the program’s new website, www.mandt. wharton.upenn.edu.
“We’re really looking to nurture the community at the alumni level,” said Weber. “Alumni do want to stay connected and support the program, and we want to make it easy for them to do so.”
Weber is a perfect example of that. He has been a consultant, technologist, partner, and investor in a series of technology companies, and now is a partner in a Philadelphia consulting firm, Antiphony, which he said is a musical term that grows from the give and take of ideas. He is also an angel investor in emerging tech firms through his firm, Robin Hood Ventures.
Yet he spends about a third of his time with the M&T program, teaching courses on technological innovation and management.
“Teaching gives me the opportunity to talk to the youngest of the best innovators around, which complements the consulting, which I am doing with larger companies, and with Robin Hood, where I get to work with start-up companies,” he said. “It covers a whole range of things, so I want to stay involved with the program.”
Not Even the Sky is the Limit
If M&T wanted to make a billboard, though, it might choose Garrett E. Reisman, who graduated in the five-year M&T program in 1990. Reisman went to Cal Tech for his Masters and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and then worked at TRW in its space and technology division. In 1998, he became an astronaut.
“Like most kids, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I applied to college. But I had a great high school physics teacher, and when I saw I could get an engineering degree and learn about business, too, I knew this was for me,” said Reisman, who grew up in Parsippany, in northern New Jersey.
During his fifth year Reisman realized that his training might enable him to become a mission specialist. “I thought, ‘Well, this might not happen, but it’s a possibility.’ Now here I am,” he said. He was speaking by phone from Star City, the longtime home of Russian space flight, where he was training for his first space mission. He had just been at the gym, where his locker is two away from that of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
“They keep the locker like a museum, with his shoes and towel and all,” said Reisman, his voice rising in awe. “This place was super-secret back in Soviet days. It’s just exciting to have a job like this.
“Had I not gone to M&T and not studied with people like Professor Hamilton, this couldn’t have happened. There was nothing like it to compare. My engineering training was unparalleled, and knowing business has helped me immensely in evaluating projects at NASA, which is what astronauts do when not on specific missions,” he said. “With engineering and business degrees, the program is far from limiting. They are two of the biggest strengths at Penn. M&T students are lucky to come out with such a great array of options—like even being an astronaut.”
Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor to the Wharton Alumni Magazine.