Jim McKelvey earned degrees in computer science and economics from Washington University in the late ‘80s, but he said the engineering skills he learned at Wash U have proven more crucial to his career as an entrepreneur.
“It wasn’t my choice in high school to study engineering, but it’s literally changed my life,” the Square co-founder said, “and I want that opportunity to be available to as many people as possible.”
To help achieve that goal, McKelvey has given Wash U’s engineering school an undisclosed sum that the school’s dean, Aaron Bobick, said is the largest in its 162-year history.
The university announced Thursday that it will use McKelvey’s gift to fund scholarships and professor positions for its school of engineering. Thanks to the donation, Wash U is also renaming it from the School of Engineering & Applied Science to the James McKelvey School of Engineering.
McKelvey declined to say just how much he donated.
“That puts the focus on the wrong things, then people just want to talk about numbers,” he told St. Louis Public Radio. “What we want to talk about is the quality of education, the goals that this institution has, and the potential.”
It’s not McKelvey’s first major contribution to Wash U. He gave $15 million in 2016 to construct a computer science building in honor of his father, who served as Wash U’s engineering school dean for 27 years. The James M. McKelvey, Sr. Hall is expected to open in late 2020 or early 2021.
“I watched countless graduates come out and do great things. My father was involved in this school for 50 years. So I’ve seen it all of my life,” McKelvey said. “It’s a fantastic thing to be able to work with an organization that’s this strong, but shows potential to get even stronger.”
McKelvey said he hopes for Wash U’s engineering program to one day reach the “absolute top-tier of engineering schools.” In 2018, the U.S. News & World Report ranked Wash U as having the 50th best engineering school in the country.
McKelvey and Bobick, the engineering school’s dean, both agree that connecting engineering to other disciplines in the university is key to increasing the program’s prestige.
Bobick said among more than a thousand students studying computer science, few are majoring in engineering. So the university is creating more interdisciplinary degrees between engineering and other subjects.
“This all reflects [...] the essential nature of having engineering background in whatever it is you go and do,” he said. “So this investment will enable us to accelerate and expand those types of programs.”
McKelvey, a serial entrepreneur, also founded a non-profit apprenticeship program called LaunchCode, and he said university graduates equipped with engineering skills are in high-demand in St. Louis.
The same goes for tech hubs around the country and globe.
“It’s just the way the world is going. If you look at the people who are in demand in Silicon Valley and the other tech centers around the world, it’s the engineers,” he said. “Here in St. Louis, it’s the engineers; in Singapore, they have a shortage of engineers. It’s the area that our economy needs the most.”
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