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Cornell is an academic 'feast,' says Jay Walker '77, Entrepreneur of the Year

Solace, perhaps, for ILR School students struggling with their required statistics course: Jay Walker, ILR '77, didn't like it, either.

"Statistics was exceptionally hard. I was not happy," said Cornell's 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year, the man who revolutionized the way many industries conduct commerce on the Internet.

Founder of such businesses as Priceline.com and considered one of the world's leading digital age pioneers, Walker will be speaking in Statler Auditorium as part of Entrepreneurship@Cornell's Celebration 2009 April 16.

After visiting a friend on campus in the early 1970s, Walker was hooked on enrolling at Cornell.

"This is what a school should look like," he recalled thinking. "I liked the environment. I felt Cornell had incredible range. I was at Cornell for the education, not the degree," Walker said in an interview earlier this month.

Although Walker found human resource courses in ILR "very useful for an entrepreneur," he also took advantage of Cornell's breadth. He took courses in the Law and Hotel schools, and Colleges of Engineering and of Arts and Sciences. In the Hotel School, for example, Walker recalls he was the only male in a class of 41 taking shorthand – a symbols-based system of speed writing.

Now chief of Walker Digital, which develops business models for customers in the casino, lottery, airline, vending, magazine and retail industries, Walker said his electives made him an atypical ILR student.

"I was sort of a renegade … not a lot different than I am now," he said. "Almost all the ILRies wanted to be lawyers; it was sort of the prelaw gathering place. I wanted to hire lawyers but never wanted to be one," said Walker, whose name is listed on hundreds of patents.

During his college years, he earned a pilot's license and co-authored "1,000 Ways to Win Monopoly Games" with a student, Jeff Lehman, who lived across the hall. Lehman went on to become Cornell's 11th president.

At Cornell, Walker also met his future wife, Eileen Walker '76, MBA '78, a newly elected alumni trustee who begins her term July 1.

Jay Walker dropped out of ILR for three semesters to start a weekly newspaper in Ithaca.

"I thought it would be a good way to make money," said Walker, who grew up in Yonkers and now lives in Stamford, Conn. The Midweek Observer had a ready supply of free labor – "students wanting to spruce up their resumes," he said.

The Ithaca Journal competed with the upstart publication by distributing a free weekly on the same day, Walker said, and the Observer closed.

At his father's behest, Walker returned to complete his final college semester.

Walker says he was "not a particularly good student," but wise in selecting from Cornell's academic abundance.

"I always viewed myself as the customer; I didn't buy anything I didn't want," he said.

Walker's advice to today's Cornell students: Take advantage of the university's intellectual scope.

"They're in the middle of this enormous feast, and you can eat anything. Cornell offers phenomenal breadth," he said.

Also, learn to write, he advised.

"It's one of the most persuasive critical skills," he said. "If you find the right professor and the right seminar, you can learn to write. But, you've got to work at it."

Think about skills, he said.

Finally, realize careers have a way of veering from what you envisioned for yourself while in college and prepare yourself for the unexpected, he said.

"Think wide."

Mary Catt is the ILR School's staff writer.

 

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