When Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson, BA Urban Studies ’95, BS Eng ’95 got his start at Rutgers, the Bloustein School had just been founded. With a passion for science and a desire to impact cities, he embarked on the difficult dual major process of civil engineering and urban studies.
“I took my first class in urban planning in my freshman year with now-retired Professor Frank Popper and learned all kinds of things that I had no idea about, all these ideas about urban studies. And I knew that as a double major, then I could have some influence on what was going to happen,” he said. Dr. Robinson is the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor at Rutgers University–Newark and the Prudential Chair in Business and Professor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick.
As he explained to the audience at the Bloustein School’s Second Annual Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker’s Forum, it took a lot of hard work and five years to complete both majors. What followed was a few more years of finding his way — completing a master’s in civil engineering at Georgia Tech, then working in the engineering field.
“And I was like, well you know, this is a nice place to work. But it’s just not fulfilling for me. I feel like I want to do more and different things. I knew there was something else I wanted to do but I wasn’t sure what it was.”
His father provided the inspiration for his next step. An electrician, he became a member of the National Society of Black Engineers. “Had his life and path gone a different way, he would have been an engineer—he was a brilliant man,” Dr. Robinson said. “But he didn’t have the opportunities I did. And one day he found some information in the magazine about something called The PhD Project and said, you should think about this.”
“And it came at the time when I was saying to myself, there’s something more than I’m supposed to be doing.”
The PhD Project, which began in 1994, is an initiative that seeks to diversify the business world through the creation of business PhDs from historically underrepresented groups.
Going to Columbia Business School helped Dr. Robinson pull together the threads of his interests – urban studies, economic development, and equity and social justice. He completed a dissertation on the Empowerment Zone in Harlem and its impact on small business development and entrepreneurship and found his passions aligned. “I knew I wanted to do things that would be influential in terms of how we develop cities and develop businesses in real life.” As he completed his PhD he got a call from former Rutgers Business School (Newark) Professor dt ogilvie about a center they were starting, in an area he may be interested in—and so began his path to help Rutgers become a force in the area of urban entrepreneurship.
“Dr. Robinson has been a leader in social entrepreneurship, helping individuals and communities, both domestic and international, connect their entrepreneurial aspirations to uplift to create, change, and solve community problems through their businesses,” said Christina Torian, a personal friend and mentee of Dr. Robinson and Bloustein School Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education, in her introduction. “In addition to his work and presence in higher education, he has tirelessly served his local community, helping countless people such as myself understand the marketplace and create enterprises that target the gross inequity present in our nation.”
His work has mainly focused on small businesses – not just how to start them, but to grow and expand them – as well as social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs are the people, he says, who don’t just think about financial returns, but also the social returns – what they can give back to society. Dr. Robinson has sought to pull together themes around urban areas and challenges facing urban innovation to better understand what is happening in cities. This includes integrating technology and creating place-oriented solutions and asset-based community development to address the challenges for entrepreneurs—especially entrepreneurs of color.
This led him to co-author his most recent book with longtime friend and former college roommate Dr. Randall Pinkett, Black Faces in High Places: 10 Strategic Actions for Black Professionals to Reach the Top and Stay There. Working in the area of urban innovation, he looks at the intersections of policy and entrepreneurship. “And part of my challenge,” he says, “was trying to find these innovative people, especially those who are diverse.”
Drawing on the published stories of Black entrepreneurs and leaders such as Oprah and President Barack Obama, as well as interviews with Senator Cory Booker, Geoffrey Canada, Kevin Frazier, and many others, Dr. Robinson and Dr. Pinkett were able to find some of the patterns that allowed these entrepreneurs to not only excel to the high levels they achieved but also to stay there.
“What we found in all those we profiled in the book, and what reflected our own experiences, was that building a strong network and not being afraid to maximize mentoring through those contacts and connections, is what is most important.” This, he says, is what changes the trajectory of organizations and universities and communities, and eventually cities, states, and nations.
“And this idea of being an intrapreneur, for those in government or in public service, nonprofits and corporations of being innovative inside of those organizations, becomes the key to not only making some significant change but to do things that distinguish you from what other people are doing. Which is what all these people did on their way to the top.”
While not discussed in the book, Dr. Robinson wrapped up his discussion by looking at the history of urban planners in the development of cities. He took note that historically many of the U.S.’s largest cities, and those involved in decisions of highway and transportation, were not community conscious, often dividing diverse neighborhoods.
“It’s great to see that as the Bloustein School celebrates its 30th anniversary, it is thinking about that. As are the students being put out there, the people who take on the responsibility to make a difference inside of their career paths, in planning and policy and public health,” he concluded. He reminded those working in these fields and current students hoping to make a difference that they are not alone in nudging the big players to take action and make room at the table for those who have diverging views and diverse perspectives.
The Bloustein School’s mission is to create socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and healthy local, national, and global communities. “One cannot proceed without thinking about the diverse nature of these communities, and how to ensure that equity is achieved within and across them,” said Interim Dean Stuart Shapiro in his opening statement. “Inclusivity and social justice have always been central to the thinking at the Bloustein School.”
Dr. Patti O’Brien Richardson, Associate Teaching Professor and Chief Officer of the Bloustein School Diversity Committee also noted the school’s commitment to diversity. “We unequivocally share the university’s core pillars related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives,” she said. “The school is exploring ways to advance inclusion and diversity across the curriculum and include it in our curriculum design. But also, we aim to implement pedagogical approaches as we look at our global world and how it is changing so much each and every day, in many different ways. But we’re also working to remove barriers in areas of recruitment and retention, not just in faculty but also in staff and among our diverse body of students. And we’re very proud of that.”