“The transition from the academic to business world is fraught with issues. If you’re smart enough for engineering, you’re smart enough to succeed in business. At the end of the day, surround yourself with people who care for you and support you.” –John Sharkey
John Sharkey earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial and systems engineering (ISE) from Rutgers School of Engineering in 1979 and 1990 respectively. His long and successful career with Corning Incorporated culminated in his role as vice president-chief of staff to the CEO, from which he retired in 2018. A self-described “pay it forward kind of guy,” he and his wife Chris have recently established the Elsayed A. Elsayed Endowed Scholarship with a gift of over $500,000. The scholarship, which honors industrial and systems engineering distinguished professor Elsayed A. Elsayed, will support underrepresented minority ISE students with demonstrated financial need.
Why did you choose Rutgers?
The Vietnam War had just ended when I was graduating high school. I received an appointment to West Point from our local congressman. While my parents considered this a great honor, they expressed serious concerns about my joining the military and suggested I consider other schools.
I knew I wanted to be an engineer – my dad was a mechanical engineer and I was good at math and science. I applied to and got into Princeton and Rutgers. But I’m the oldest of five – 4 boys and one girl. My parents sat with me at our dining room table and had a frank discussion about family finances. My father said he couldn’t afford to send me to Princeton with my siblings right on my heels.
I visited Rutgers and immediately fell in love with the school. Rutgers was the perfect place for me.
Why industrial and systems engineering?
For me, engineering school provided a structured framework for thinking about problems. I’m not a typical engineer. For example, I wouldn’t be the one to ask to design the next lunar module. I often joke that I’m actually the world’s worst engineer. But the foundation of an ISE degree gave me a strong analytical and quantitative toolset and the ability to be a critical thinker. I put these skills to use across a wide range of complex business and strategy problems throughout my career.
Did you return to campus for your master’s degree?
I took courses part-time and finished everything except my thesis before moving to upstate New York to take a job with Corning. I fell in love with the company, area, and my wife, Chris, whom I’ve been married to for more than 34 years.
Professor Elsayed called Chris in 1989, and urged her to get me to finish my thesis. I took a course at Cornell, presented my thesis, and got my degree – all because he pushed me.
What was your first job at Corning?
I started at Corning in 1984 as a senior project engineer doing strategy and logistics work.
What came next?
For most of my career, I worked in Corning’s optical fiber business leading strategy, intellectual property protection and business analytics and then corporate development working on various merger and acquisition projects across all business units.
I’d worked for and with the current CEO for nearly 30 years when he asked me to become his chief of staff. We’d grown up together in the company, and he was someone I respected and personally cared for a lot. It was a unique situation and a great capstone job.
What made you decide to retire?
When I turned 60, I realized God had blessed me. Life’s too short and I wanted to enjoy it.
How are you spending your retirement?
We bought a multiple-hundred acre farm and built a comfortable home with stunning views that’s in the middle of nowhere – our nearest neighbor is a mile-and-a-half away. It’s just us, the deer and bears and bald eagles out there. My brothers and sister call me an “apple knocker.”
It’s a working farm – we grow hay and lease some property to a local dairy farmer who plants corn there.
I love to fly fish and hunt – and I get energy from just being outside surrounded by nature.
Are you doing any volunteer work?
I’m on a couple of local not-for-profit boards.
One that’s near and dear to my heart is working with a local company attempting to provide internet access to underserved and unserved residents in a local five-county area. While Corning Incorporated invented the world’s first low loss optical fiber and are the world’s leading producer, rural upstate New York where we live is part of Appalachia.
We actually brought optical fiber directly to our farm, installed a pretty strong WiFi network that covers the house, outbuildings, and immediate surrounding area. I’ve given local kids network passwords so they can come up to the house and sit outside and do their homework. I hope to help them access this technology in their own homes in the near future.
There’s a real and tangible digital divide in rural areas. Significant numbers of people don’t have broadband access which is even more critical now in the pandemic with distance learning requirements and parents who are working from home. We’re working on a private-public partnership to figure out how to deliver low-cost, high-capacity broadband to the local community. I’m delighted to share my knowledge and experience at Corning and put it to good work.
What else are you doing?
I recently became the president of our local Scout Council. With the National BSA’s decision to declare bankruptcy, we’re working to ensure the financial viability of Scouting in our local area so it can continue to provide opportunities for both girls and boys to meet challenges and build leadership skills that will serve them for years to come. As an Eagle Scout, scouting was a significant part of my life growing up, so this is an opportunity to pay back a bit.
What do you value most about your Rutgers education?
College was the first time I’d stepped away from my large Irish Catholic family. It proved to be a true growth and learning experience. I learned it was okay to question things and challenge the status quo.
I was able to enjoy an unbelievable career because of my experience at Rutgers which taught me a structured way to approach problem solving. I was able to grow into adulthood while getting a great education – a perfect combination that helped make me who I am today. And one that Professor Elsayed played a large part in.
Is that what prompted you to establish a scholarship for underrepresented, in-need students in his honor?
I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to honor someone I respect immensely and who is passionate about teaching young people.
Naming this scholarship in honor of Professor Elsayed was important to me, but equally important was the opportunity to support both current and future deserving students.
The pandemic brought into sharp focus for Chris and me that the barriers to high quality education are even more significant for underrepresented and in-need students. There’s a strong correlation between income and academic performance; it can be hard to focus in the classroom when you’re worried about how to pay for school or put food on the table. We’re hopeful this scholarship will help reduce some of this stress and financial hardship.
We hope that the real power of the gift is less about monetary cost and more about changing the trajectory of a deserving student’s life, by helping to put young people on a path that allows them to achieve their dreams. And maybe one day, it will come full circle.
Do you have any advice to prepare budding industrial and systems engineers for successful careers?
The first job out of college doesn’t have to be the perfect job. The transition from the academic to business world is fraught with issues. If you’re smart enough for engineering, you’re smart enough to succeed in business. At the end of the day, surround yourself with people who care for you and support you.
What did you do for fun at Rutgers?
I had a great time at Rutgers – I met interesting, smart people and had unbelievable professors. I played on the hockey team. I remember showing up to an operations research class after a game with a broken nose, looking like a raccoon with two black eyes. I was a little bit of an anomaly as an engineering student.
I was a resident assistant/preceptor my senior year which presented an entirely different side of Rutgers. I’m not sure they continued the athlete/preceptor experiment after one wine and cheese party went horribly awry. There were 10 kegs of beer, one bottle of cheap rosé wine and a block of processed cheese food.
What do you do for fun these days?
I love being out in the woods and watching the deer walk by. I’ve always loved fly fishing which is something I share with my boys. I read a lot.
What are you reading now?
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. He’s sort of the anti-Malcolm Gladwell. Rather than saying you need to practice 10,000 hours to become an expert and succeed at something, Epstein believes that by juggling lots of diverse interests instead of focusing on just one, generalists become more creative, intellectually agile, and adept at making connections that specialists just don’t see.
ISE did that for me; I’m far more of a generalist. I was exposed to lots of areas beyond traditional engineering disciplines, which provided me with a wide range of experiences and skills to fall back on when I got into business.
I’ve also love reading C.J. Box’s mystery series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.
If you were to go on vacation tomorrow, where would you go?
Right now, my idea of a good time is to sit on our deck and simply relax with a cold beer or a glass of wine. We’ve loved the traveling we’ve done over the years, and I’m pretty sure Chris can come up with someplace cool to visit when the pandemic ends.