This story appeared in the RBJ’s commemorative 30th Anniversary section. See more content related to the RBJ’s anniversary here.
Rochester has a history of iconic leaders, people whose accomplishments are so legendary that they became larger than life. Yet before they became iconic leaders, they were new leaders. This gives them something in common with many local organizational leaders right now.
Over the last few years, there has been significant turnover in many of Rochester’s important companies and organizations. From local universities installing new presidents to new CEOs taking over staple companies in the area, there has been great change.
With changing leaders come fresh ideas and innovative plans of action. This can be said of all the new local frontrunners, and with this modern leadership guiding the economic and social welfare, Rochester’s horizon is bright.
Rochester has a plethora of colleges in the region offering extensive higher education options for local students. Recently, a number of these universities have appointed new presidents who will navigate the future success of the schools. Rochester Institute of Technology, St. John Fisher College and SUNY Geneseo all have undergone a shift in their presidency within the last two years.
It’s no secret that higher education plays a fundamental role in the local economy. By sending well-educated individuals into society with groundbreaking ideas who will go on to make higher lifetime earnings, boost industries and diversify the economy, local universities are crucial to Rochester’s future success.
David Munson Jr., president of RIT, said that he feels that it is higher education’s duty to produce individuals who will be able to successfully continue the diversification and growth of the economy.
“Over the years the economy has been expanding and there have been lots of new start-ups and different things that, over time, will take the place of the former Big Three,” says Munson. “I think that a university, especially one that has a pretty big focus on technology like RIT, has a disproportionate share of the responsibility to help create those start-up companies and work with other partners in this area to improve the economy.”
But Munson visualizes more for the future of Rochester’s higher education than economic vitality. He said he dreams of Rochester having a handful of the country’s leading universities.
“Together with colleges like the University of Rochester, we have the same power and capability as the very best of the big universities that exist in the country,” he says. “It will take some collaboration and cooperation between RIT and other local colleges for us to leverage one another to make each other better institutions.”
Gerard Rooney, president of St. John Fisher College, agrees that partnerships are vital to students’ success. Rooney acknowledges that partnering with local key players, whether it’s businesses or initiatives, allows more avenues of access for students.
“I think educating our students about their civic and community responsibilities helps demonstrate how they can have an impact on some of the challenges they see in the community,” says Rooney.
Munson comes from a background of working at public colleges like the University of Michigan and the University of Delaware, but transitioning into the presidency at a private college has instilled in him a budding passion for private schooling. The Rochester area has both public and private universities, yet Munson sees private schools as a dominant force of higher education in this area of the country.
“As you get a little further west in the United States to the Midwest and even out to California, most of the strongest schools are public schools,” says Munson. “When I say strongest I mean best in terms of academic quality and the best at attracting the top students. But on the East Coast, private schools play a really important role, and without those remaining strong, higher education on the East Coast wouldn’t be anything close to what it is.”
Private schools do play a pivotal role on the East Coast and in areas like Rochester, but public schools like SUNY Geneseo have a lot to offer as well. Geneseo remains a top liberal arts school in the country for its size, and the liberal arts niche has become a trademark of the school. In fact, Geneseo is the only school in New York State that is a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.
“A lot of what we aspire to do at Geneseo is to capitalize on our distinctiveness in the state as an exemplary public liberal arts college,” says President Denise Battles. “We’re really looking to build on our strengths, and we’ve just completed the development of a strategic plan that provides us our road map for how we will do that through our sesquicentennial in 2021.”
Fisher, like Geneseo, is a liberal arts college at its core. Rooney said that having this core in all aspects of learning “helps our students develop critical-thinking skills, problem-solving abilities and an openness to different ways of thinking.”
As for the future of local higher education institutes, Rooney, Battles and Munson all insist on remaining nimble and open to change, as well as expanding on opportunities for applied and experimental learning.
“I think for our students and the future students we will serve, it’s important to continue to provide the best education in whatever program they’re engaged with and to provide opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom that will enrich their learning,” says Rooney. “We want students to have a community-minded spirit as they leave the college.”
A few companies tend to come to mind when you think about Rochester’s leading employers. The University of Rochester, Wegmans and Xerox may be your initial thoughts, and all are valid.
The University of Rochester sits at the top of the list of Rochester’s top employers for 2017, according to Greater Rochester Enterprise. Second is Rochester Regional Health, third is Wegmans Food Markets Inc. and fourth is Xerox Corp.
Since its inception in 1850, UR has grown to employ nearly 29,000 people in the Rochester region. The UR umbrella covers a nationally ranked university, a nationally ranked hospital and a leader in research. Since 2005, Joel Seligman has served as UR’s president and CEO. Since his inauguration, he has led myriad development projects for the campus, as well as fostering a billion-dollar initiative, The Meliora Challenge. Suffice it to say, the University of Rochester plays a central role in the local economy.
Rochester Regional Health, formed by a merger between Rochester General and Unity in 2014, has quickly risen to become the second-largest employer in Rochester with over 15,000 employees. Eric Bieber M.D., president and CEO of Rochester Regional Health, says he is proud of the amount of jobs that RRH has created, but their main priority right now is on building the best possible health care for the community.
“Because we’re a relatively nascent organization, we’ve spent the better part of the last three years figuring out how to build the collective foundation for the health system,” says Bieber.
“Our vision is, ‘How do we make it really easy for people to get what they need?’ This includes wellness care, preventative care and management of chronic diseases as much as it’s about having a hospital for when you need an emergency room.”
Bieber says that RRH is implementing this vision as patiently and thoughtfully as possible. RRH has already experienced major leaps forward in the last three years, including getting four of the five hospitals on the same medical record system, which Bieber estimates covers over 90 percent of their patients.
For Bieber and RRH, settling is not an option. There is always room for improvements and areas to grow.
“We plan to keep making investments in our infrastructure and our people and being flexible because, certainly in the world of health care, things seem to be quite volatile,” says Bieber.
RRH is living up its mission and investments are already being made in infrastructure with the development of the Sands Constellation Critical Care Center and in people with their emphasis on growing the Isabella Graham Hart School of Practical Nursing.
Third on the list of local employers is Wegmans with over 13,000 employees. The supermarket celebrated its centennial just last year, and in March 2017, Colleen Wegman took over the role of CEO of the company from her father, Danny Wegman. With over 92 stores across six states, 17 of them in Rochester, Wegmans has been a strong force in the local economy for decades.
The company has been around for 100 years, but it continues to evolve with the changing market. Wegmans recently announced a partnership with Instacart, which will allow for home delivery. In addition to this service, Instacart brings more job opportunities to Rochester.
Colleen Wegman recalls advice from her father to “lead with your heart, do what you believe is right, and things will work out,” which she said in her keynote address to the St. John Fisher class of 2017. “The culture of our company continues to be: Begin with a belief and a passion for something, apply high standards, and then take measured risk to bring it to fruition.”
Finally, Xerox comes in as the fourth top employer in Rochester. Once part of “the Big Three” in Rochester, Xerox remains a vital player in Rochester’s local economy, employing over 6,000 individuals in the area.
“While Xerox and others were once the largest employers in Rochester, that role has shifted to health care and education and a growing number of small, but vital entrepreneurs,” says Jeff Jacobson, who took over as Xerox CEO at the beginning of this year. “Building on the expertise of local universities like RIT and the University of Rochester, partnerships are developing like the REMADE Institute and the National Photonics Manufacturing Institute. These initiatives will grow and bring new high tech jobs to the local economy.”
Jacobson assures that Xerox is “playing to win” and that they’re working tirelessly to create more opportunities in the Rochester area.
With three of the top employers in Rochester gaining new leaders within the last year, Rochester can expect innovative initiatives that will aim to rev up the local economy and keep Rochester on the map.
“I think we’re fortunate to be in a place where there are other businesses like Wegmans and places like RIT where there are a lot of great things going on,” says Bieber. “I think the culture in this community is part of what will allow us to be ever-more successful, and the community leaders have really stacked hands in a non-partisan way and want to see all of Rochester flourish and prosper.”
There are other facets of Rochester that contribute to the community not only economically, but socially as well.
The Rochester Rhinos were purchased in 2016 by David and Wendy Dworkin of LLD Enterprises, a property management group in Rochester. The pair has been in the real estate business since the mid-1990s, but saw great hope in the Rhinos. The professional soccer team could have been moved out of Rochester, and the Dworkins were concerned that if the team left then the hundreds of people that work for the stadium would be jobless, harming the local economy.
Wendy Dworkin asserts that the Rhinos, like any other minor sports team in the area, need a healthy economy in order to thrive.
“Companies need to expand in Rochester, providing jobs at decent wages so people have disposable income to come to your games,” says Wendy Dworkin. “You need companies that see the value of sponsorship and supporting these local teams because they do provide jobs and a lot of opportunity for local nonprofits.”
Moving forward, the Dworkins are working to keep the Rochester Rhinos “relevant on and off the field,” says David Dworkin. The Dworkins have begun initiatives to make the stadium and the team a valuable resource, especially for the at-risk and underprivileged class.
“We certainly don’t have a lot of dollars to throw around, but we’ve found a lot of different ways of giving back and giving value to the community,” says Wendy Dworkin.
Certainly sports teams are more than an integral part of the economy, they also bring communities together.
“A sports team is a community asset,” says David Dworkin. “It’s such a part of the fabric of a community.”
Like athletics, the arts are also a woven fabric in a vibrant community. Ward Stare, the newest music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, took his position in 2014 and has been witnessing great growth in the local music and arts community.
“It wasn’t until I moved away then came back that I was able to appreciate how rich our cultural atmosphere is here in Rochester,” says Stare. “I think a lot of people don’t even realize it, but the vibrant arts and culture scene in Rochester is key to people growing up and living in a rich, stimulating environment.”
Having a vivacious arts scene—as with sports teams—brings people together, notes Stare.
Stare sees room to grow for the RPO and is working to keep the orchestra on the cutting edge.
“Looking to the future, the most exciting things for me are all of the possibilities which exist through modern technology,” says Stare. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we can use them to reach out to our community in new ways, and to harness modern technology to maximize our impact on school children in the educational realm.”
Leonard Brock, director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, joins the Dworkins and Stare in working to better the Rochester community. Inspired by his own experiences growing up in local, struggling neighborhoods, Brock has become a face of the fight against local poverty.
But Brock and the RMAPI keep their goals realistic and tangible.
“I certainly see poverty being reduced, however, that is not the only goal, and I don’t necessarily see that as a sustainable goal,” says Brock. “What I would love to see is more equity in power distribution. I would like to see a diverse mix of individuals who have access to power and opportunities that they currently do not have.”
Brock and RMAPI are working hard to implement initiatives that will help de-concentrate poverty in Rochester as well as collaborating with local businesses to create job opportunities and boost living wages.
“Poverty reduction is not a linear process; it ebbs and flows,” says Brock. “I think my life’s journey is not about giving people handouts, but giving people opportunity.”
Opportunity is a motif that has been repeated by each of these local leaders. Each of them recognizes the need in Rochester for more accessibility, whether it’s in terms of jobs, higher education or culture. These leaders are dedicated to keeping Rochester relevant, and all are working diligently to create accessible opportunities for Rochester citizens in order to maintain a thriving economy and society.