Jim Mastrianni, MBA ’06, at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs.

Saratoga Springs business leader receives NYS Hometown Alumni Award

Jim Mastrianni, MBA ’06, was only 16 when he began working for his father’s consulting firm, which assists small municipalities with affordable housing programs.

Years later, in 2007, after receiving his degree from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management Executive MBA program, Mastrianni took over as president of the company, JEM Inc. There he found special meaning in the firm’s altruistic vision to empower individuals and families to obtain affordable housing.

Mastrianni is presented with the Hometown Alumni Award by Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations.

“I’ve found purpose in a mission-driven approach that aligns operational and financial effectiveness with a broader societal impact,” Mastrianni said. “In essence, working toward a meaningful mission while ensuring operational and financial success is where I find the highest level of personal fulfillment.”   

Mastrianni, who now lives in Saratoga Springs, near his hometown of Niskayuna, is the 12th recipient of the Cornell New York State Hometown Alumni Award. The honor recognizes alumni from New York state who return to the areas where they grew up and make a positive impact on their local communities.

“Jim is precisely the kind of person we seek to honor with our Hometown Alumni Award, and Cornell is proud to recognize him,” said Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations, who presented the award at a ceremony June 12 at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs.

Holding the event at Caffe Lena was of special significance, as Mastrianni has been intimately tied to the historic music venue since returning to the area. Founded by Lena Spencer in 1960, Caffe Lena is touted as the oldest continuously operating folk music venue in the U.S., and is recognized as a national treasure by the Library of Congress. Many American songwriters, including Bob Dylan, have performed there.

Caffe Lena – now a nonprofit – has also helped Mastrianni combine his interest in music and culture with his skills as a businessperson. He has served on the venue’s board for seven years, four as chair, and implemented a new strategy that increased its revenues from $200,000 to $1 million per year. Caffe Lena continues to support both established musicians and those just getting started.

Mastrianni also owns and operates a recording studio where emerging artists can record their music, with him as producer, without any upfront costs. The arrangement helps cash-strapped artists gain a foothold as professional musicians, and in the event of breakout success, Mastrianni shares in a percentage of sales.

Cornell impacting New York State

“This is yet another example of Jim’s dedication to removing barriers to opportunity and giving people the chance to succeed,” Malina said.

In high school, when Mastrianni began working at his father’s company, he began tinkering with the “newfangled” Macintosh computer, and writing code for processing a myriad of complex government forms, he said. While completing his bachelor’s degree in sociology and music at Hobart and William Smith colleges, he expanded that code base into a suite of products that became a new software development spinoff company, HAPPY Software, Inc., which he co-founded with his brother and father. His foray into software delayed his intention to get an MBA, and his eventual return to JEM, Inc., where he found his passions for business and helping others.

JEM, Inc. administers the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, the federal government’s largest program for assisting low-income families, the elderly and the disabled with their rent. The program allows eligible individuals and families to find safe and affordable housing in the private market. 

“Jim’s leadership in the field of affordable housing has given countless families an opportunity to thrive in communities that may have been out of their reach without the assistance of the Housing Choice Voucher Program,” said Nancie Williams, JEM Inc.’s community outreach specialist. “At the same time, it is Jim’s dedication to music, as evidenced by his service on the board of Caffe Lena, which is a testament to the power of his leadership guided by a head attuned to the needs of the soul.”

“Jim leads by example,” said Alan Smith, a retired colleague of Mastrianni’s in the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, “and in so doing, he challenges his team to work with conscience and compassion in providing affordable housing to the families they serve.”

Malina presented Mastrianni with an award plaque at the ceremony, which also included his friends, Joel Moss, an independent record producer, and Sarah Craig, executive director of Caffe Lena, who accepted a $1,000 donation from Cornell in Mastrianni’s name, in recognition of his community service.

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Kaitlyn Serrao