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A “Born Entrepreneur” Gives Back

Jack McDonnell ’61

Jack McDonnell ’61
Photo by Gary Gold

The son of Irish immigrants, Jack McDonnell ’61 fully recognized that all of his later accomplishments would not have been possible, he says, “without the education that was literally given to me.” A pioneer in the telecommunications industry, McDonnell — the 2002 William F. Glaser ’53 Entrepreneur of the Year — is the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of TNS Inc., an international data communications company specializing in point-of-sale transaction and e-commerce services.

“I was the recipient of someone else’s philanthropy — several times,” says McDonnell, beginning with his education at the all-scholarship Regis High School in New York City. McDonnell also received a full scholarship to attend Manhattan College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and a Link Foundation Fellowship that brought him to Rensselaer. Besides earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he recalls, “I actually made money at RPI. They gave me room and board to be an RA in the freshman dorms.”

In 1994, he and his wife, Jackie, established the McDonnell Charitable Foundation, whose sole purpose is to support education. “There is no question that we both feel the need to give back,” he says. “We have done everything from establishing scholarships and funding capital campaigns to sponsoring a chair in ethics at Marymount University in Virginia. One of our more recent and favorite projects is funding an integrated school in Ballycastle, County Antrim, Ireland.”

Their philanthropy now extends to Rensselaer, with their recent unrestricted gift commitment to support Renaissance at Rensselaer: The Campaign for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “I made it unrestricted because I have served, and still serve, on some charitable boards,” McDonnell says. “The hardest money to come by is unrestricted funds.”

“While I only spent a year at RPI,” McDonnell recalls, “there is no question it added a lot to my academic credentials and credibility.” Commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force after his graduation, McDonnell served as an engineer assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA). He returned to NSA as a contractor to build a variety of classified systems, with his final project the establishment of the first encrypted data link between NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency. His career in data communications was launched — McDonnell then became an entrepreneur with two partners, including Rensselaer alumnus Ed Etess ’59.

“I firmly believe that entrepreneurs — like athletes — are born, not made,” McDonnell avers. “While both can improve with training, each has at their core the self-confidence and optimism essential to success.” He has been involved in several ventures over the years — two of them unsuccessful, the rest successful to varying degrees and culminating with TNS Inc.

“I guess I saved the best for last,” he notes. “There is no question that my current venture has built on all of my previous ones — including the failures.”

“I view my donation to RPI, first and foremost, as a payback,” McDonnell says. “It was there that I was first exposed to computers. I built a special-purpose computer for my master’s thesis and never looked back.”

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