Not Business as Usual

Jack Derby, recently named to the Cummings Family Professorship in Entrepreneurship, gets students consulting for companies
Jack Derby at Tufts
“Teaching for me doesn’t just happen in class,” said Jack Derby. “If we can’t provide our students with connections to alumni, and help walk them through the process of starting a career, then we’re doing three-quarters of the job.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 16, 2018

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Jack Derby, long-time professor of the practice in entrepreneurial marketing and sales, understands what makes some businesses tick with the precision of a Swiss watch and why even the most earnest startups often fail. As the former CEO of multiple companies, including several startups, he has forty-plus years’ experience running businesses and honing management strategies.

For a decade now, that know-how and Derby’s visible love of teaching has drawn students to his courses in the Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies Program at the Gordon Institute. (He was recently appointed director of the program.) In his classes, student teams are expected to deliver marketing and sales plans for real-world clients, which have ranged from big-league medical device and chemical manufacturers to granola and medical device start-ups. Derby notes that “the diversity of companies, markets and size is critically important to the entrepreneurial learning process.”

When these semester-long projects are delivered, “the clients provide 50 percent of the grade, and I provide the other 50 percent,” said Derby. “Tufts uses the word ‘student-athlete’—I use the word ‘student-consultant.’” 

Now Derby is looking ahead to even more opportunities to work with students as the new holder of the Cummings Family Professorship in Entrepreneurship at the School of Engineering.

Mark Ranalli, associate dean and executive director of the Gordon Institute, said Derby brings not only a deep knowledge of the business world but also a passion for teaching—students voted him the “best engineering teacher of the year” in 2015 with the Henry & Madeline Fischer Award.

“Jack was recruited for a reason,” Ranalli said. “Our objective is to create something more exciting here at Tufts. Jack has an indefatigable passion for students and student outcomes and one of the best marketing minds that I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

William S. Cummings, A52, H06, J97P, M97P, trustee emeritus and founder of Cummings Properties, said, “Given Professor Derby’s history, we anticipate that he will be able to offer students practical lessons drawn from his own entrepreneurial ventures. This type of coursework built on real-world experience will be invaluable for Tufts’ aspiring entrepreneurs.”

“Jack has an indefatigable passion for students and student outcomes and one of the best marketing minds that I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” said Mark Ranalli. Photo: Alonso NicholsA native of Chicago, Derby grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts, and went to Boston College. After graduating, he was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Moshi, Tanzania, where he taught secondary school English. “Moshi is the Swahili word for ‘smoke,’ and refers to the smoke rising from the now-dormant volcano inside Kilimanjaro,” said Derby. “Every landscape in the town was dominated by Kili, and I ended up as the secretary of the Kilimanjaro climbing club. Teaching there and the experience in general was phenomenal and changed my life forever in terms of education, life and death, and money.”

Back in the States, he followed his interest in business management, rising consistently through the ranks to leadership roles in various companies: CEO of Mayer Electronics, president of CB Sports, president of Litton Industries Medical Systems, CEO of Datamedix Corporation, and executive vice president of Becton Dickinson Medical Systems. In 1970 he founded Derby Management, providing strategic planning and sales and marketing consultation.

For his work in the entrepreneurial community, he was named to Mass High Tech’s All Star Team. He has won the Pro Bono Publico Award from the Smaller Business Association of New England, the Meritorious Service Award from the Association for Corporate Growth, and the Vincent Fulmer Distinguished Service Award from the MIT Enterprise Forum.

He serves on several company boards, including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Aviant Hospice, Brainshark Corporation, Chase Corporation, Loci Controls, and Rome Snowboards. He has been a lecturer at MIT, where for the past twenty years he has taught classes in business planning and marketing to students in the mechanical engineering department.

Derby’s appointment to the endowed chair comes as student enrollment in the Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies Program has grown rapidly; the ELS minor is now the largest at the university. Derby said that he is optimistic that the thriving entrepreneurial culture at Tufts can grow even more. He sees first-hand how important it is to students that they not only do well in his courses, but also land good jobs. One wall of his office is crowded with pinned up thank-you notes, many from seniors facing job hunting with high hopes and some trepidation. Derby, tapping his vast network of Tufts alumni, has opened doors to informational interviews with many companies.

“Teaching for me doesn’t just happen in class,” he said. “If we can’t provide our students with connections to alumni, and help walk them through the process of starting a career, then we’re doing three-quarters of the job.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.