By Greg Lynch
When Jay H. Baker, W’56, arrived at Wharton, becoming a retail titan and one of the School’s biggest benefactors was perhaps beyond imagination.
Raised in New York, he helped out in his mother’s Queens millinery store before college. “My parents worked very hard to put me through,” he says.
Today, Dr. Baker’s resume includes 13 years as president and director of Kohl’s Department Stores (1986-1999), continuing membership on Kohl’s Board of Directors, and membership on Wharton’s Board of Overseers. When he and his partners bought Kohl’s, the Wisconsin-based department store had 39 stores and annual sales of $288 million. Today, Kohl’s has 450 stores and annual sales of $9 billion. He unabashedly credits Wharton for his success, saying: “Going to Wharton means having the opportunity to learn from the best professors in America and making friendships you never forget. I feel very lucky.”
To show his gratitude, Baker and his wife, Patty, have donated $21 million to the School and the University of Pennsylvania to date, including $10 million for the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative, which will expand curriculum and research in retailing and promote faculty and student interaction with industry experts. In 1999, they gave $11 million to support the construction of an undergraduate center in Wharton’s new facility, Jon M. Huntsman Hall. The Patty and Jay H. Baker Forum is the largest single space in the facility and can accommodate an entire undergraduate class of nearly 500 students. That $11-million gift also endowed The Baker Leadership Scholars Program, providing financial support to undergraduates throughout the University of Pennsylvania.
Baker’s voice lifts when he says that the most rewarding part has been giving scholarships.
“Patty and I wanted to do something for Penn and were both thrilled to be able to do this,” he says, speaking from his Florida home. “It’s all about giving back.”
And Baker gives more than money. As a member of the School’s Board of Overseers, he also offers pragmatic advice to students facing the nation’s tough economic times. “If you have confidence in your ability, work hard, and believe in yourself, good things will come your way,” he says. “And when you come out of a good school like Penn, doors will open for you. Just remember, there are very few geniuses in business. A better education, working a little harder, and having a great work ethic will get you to the finish line ahead of most people.”
Then he laughs, and with Patty in the background, reveals his real secret: Having a great life partner helps “more than anything else!”