When Jim McKelvey Jr., AB ’87, BS ’87, enrolled at Washington University, he planned to study economics. Soon, his education took a more multidisciplinary path.
“I discovered my passion for engineering sophomore year and spent most of my senior year in the art school,” says Mr. McKelvey, who went on to earn a degree in economics from Arts & Sciences and a degree in computer science from the engineering school. “Although all three schools had a profound effect on my life, I consider myself an engineer first and foremost.”
After graduating, Mr. McKelvey parlayed his broad-based education into a successful career as a serial entrepreneur celebrated for his ability to solve complex problems and lead teams that transform organizations and industries. A member of the university’s Board of Trustees, he is known for co-founding Square, a revolutionary mobile payment company that has empowered businesses around the globe.
Now, he and his wife, Anna, have made a significant gift to transform engineering at Washington University for the benefit of students and the world. In recognition of their unprecedented commitment—the largest in the history of the School of Engineering & Applied Science—the school was renamed the James McKelvey School of Engineering during a ceremony on January 31.
“This tremendous gift will help us advance the McKelvey School of Engineering into the next tier of top engineering programs in this country and the world,” says Aaron Bobick, the James M. McKelvey Professor and dean of the school. “It will create new opportunities for our students and faculty, make a premier engineering education more accessible, and enable the school to be a catalyst for economic development in the St. Louis region and beyond.”
An Enduring Investment
The McKelveys’ gift establishes an endowment that will generate continued support for engineering education and research at Washington University for generations to come. Annual income from the endowment will fund scholarships and professorships and provide unrestricted resources that will allow Dean Bobick and future engineering deans to launch critical initiatives and respond to urgent needs.
“This investment comes at the perfect time, as we begin executing our strategic plan to strengthen every aspect of the school,” Dean Bobick says. “We all associate Jim with passion, innovation, and impact, and now more than ever, as we look to the future, those will be the hallmarks of the school.”
The commitment also establishes a $30 million challenge to inspire additional support from alumni, parents, friends, and faculty and staff members. The McKelvey Engineering Challenge will match all contributions to the engineering school, in some cases providing $3 for every dollar donated.
In addition, the challenge offers matching funds for gifts to establish professorships for faculty members whose work connects computing with disciplines outside of the school. Known as Computing + X, this initiative recognizes the increasingly critical role of computer science in research and scholarship throughout the university.
“Computing touches almost every field in some way,” Mr. McKelvey says. “The Computing + X component of the challenge emphasizes cross-disciplinary opportunities that can benefit the university as a whole and spark exciting new ideas and pursuits.”
A Remarkable Legacy
The McKelvey family has been actively engaged in the Washington University community for more than 70 years. Mr. McKelvey’s father, James McKelvey Sr., MS ’47, PhD ’50, earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the engineering school and went on to serve as its dean for 27 years. During his tenure, Dean McKelvey helped build and grow the school, elevating it from a regional program to a nationally recognized institution. He greatly expanded the school’s enrollment, faculty, and endowment and launched new academic and research programs.
In 2016, Jim Jr. recognized his father’s many accomplishments by making a $15 million commitment to name a new engineering building at the university in his honor. Slated to open in 2021, James M. McKelvey, Sr. Hall will be a hub for the university’s growing programs in computing and data science. His past giving also includes support for engineering scholarships and unrestricted purposes.
Like his father, Mr. McKelvey is a visionary leader. In addition to Square, he started LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization that helps recruit and train workers for technology careers; Third Degree Glass Factory, one of the most successful glass-blowing schools in the world; and several other ventures. He currently serves as an independent director of the St. Louis Federal Reserve and CEO of Invisibly, a micropayments company that aims to introduce an improved model for digital content and engagement.
“We are extremely grateful to Jim and Anna for their exceptional generosity and to the entire McKelvey family for their unwavering dedication,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin says. “This is a great time for our engineering school. We are embarking on an exciting new era of innovation that will harness the tremendous potential of our talented students and faculty to address society’s greatest challenges. The possibilities are limitless.”
In addition to strengthening the engineering school, Mr. McKelvey’s gift will expand opportunities for students pursuing other disciplines to follow his path into the field. “Engineering education is becoming more and more important in the world, and we need to put the engineering skill set in the hands and heads of more people,” he says. “I am so proud to open the doors of the engineering school wider for students at Washington University and for those who aspire to learn and grow there.”
— by Tricia Hendricks
Learn more about the McKelvey Engineering Challenge.