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JumpStart was born of O’Sullivan’s humanitarian urge coupled with practical business sense and engineering know-how. “You might call JumpStart ‘Engineers without Borders,’ ” he says. “But we’re using all local engineers. We’re coming up with humanitarian solutions from a problem-solving perspective. If you create a better reality on the ground by improving the appearance of the city, you’re that much further along. And the people who are working for Jumpstart very much appreciate the chance to work. It’s terrible to sit at home and do nothing. They feel proud to work on rebuilding their country.”

JumpStart laborers are paid $4.80 a day, and a foreman makes $12.50 a day — about 20 percent above the going rate in Iraq these days. Operating with just more than $7 million in donations, JumpStart has made a significant contribution to rebuilding efforts in Baghdad and Fallujah, and has given thousands of Iraqis a concrete investment in their country’s future.

O’Sullivan’s commitment to working in a dangerous place has impressed JumpStart’s employees.

“He has a brave heart to be here,” Muthanna Harith Al Kenani, a site engineer and foreman, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March. “It is dirt and damage everywhere. When you see it clean you will have hope. He is helping us do something good for my country. It is the first step to rebuilding and rehabilitating Iraq.”

The Road to Baghdad
O’Sullivan did not leave Rensselaer, armed with a degree in electrical engineering, with the goal to become an international humanitarian. In fact, he’s best known in the business world as one of the founders of MapInfo, a global software company now headquartered in Rensselaer’s Technology Park. In the mid-1980s, O’Sullivan joined with fellow student-entrepreneurs Laszlo Bardos ’86, Andy Dressel ’84, and John Haller ’86 to launch what has become one of the most successful mapping and location intelligence software companies in the world. O’Sullivan served as president and chairman of the company for seven years before leaving in 1993 to start a rock band called Janet Speaks French. The band released two CDs, and O’Sullivan branched out to co-found Sonic Recording Studios in Philadelphia, which has been used by major recording artists including Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, and Boyz II Men.

But the software world still beckoned. In 1995, O’Sullivan started NetCentric, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that developed software for faster, more efficient Web communications, and for faxing over the Internet. While that company grew rapidly to about $6 million in revenues, it eventually became what O’Sullivan calls a “dot-bomb,” so he decided to enter the film school at University of Southern California to focus on documentary filmmaking. His studies for a master of fine arts, which he was awarded this year, took him to Iraq in the early days of the war last year. Making a documentary while the Saddam Hussein regime was still in power proved difficult, but O’Sullivan found work as a freelance journalist in the country, eventually returning to Los Angeles in May. There, with the memory of Iraq fresh in his mind, he conceived the idea of JumpStart based on the principle that helping people become self-sufficient is the long-term solution to global political and economic instability.

His first trip to Iraq left O’Sullivan with the impression of the Iraqis as “strong, independent and free-spirited people,” who were hoping for a better future. Building on this hope, he created JumpStart to spur employment and generate private businesses and public opportunity for the Iraqi people. “Many of them were already entrepreneurs, and thousands of businesses were already thriving in Baghdad,” he says.

O’Sullivan raised more than $2 million from colleagues in the software industry to kick off his efforts, which initially focused on clearing damaged buildings. He donates his labor, figuring he could give a year to the project. “I view it as a Peace Corps year. I’m a volunteer,” he says.

While the CPA reconstruction projects focused on rebuilding the infrastructure, O’Sullivan says he believed Iraqis needed to see tangible evidence of progress in their war-scarred country. “The Iraqis have noticed a big change in Baghdad in terms of the cleanup work that JumpStart has done — and it has made possible the reconstruction of government ministry campuses.”


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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
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