Posted May 19th, 2014
Nicholas Donofrio, the now-retired Executive Vice President of Innovation and Technology at IBM, has a long list of honors to his credit. He is an IBM Fellow Emeritus, a Fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the U.K.-based Royal Academy of Engineering. Additionally, he holds a medal from the Industrial Research Institute, the Renaissance Engineer Award from the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Rodney D. Chipps Memorial Award from the Society of Women Engineers and the Excellence in Leadership Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he has been named among Business Week magazine’s 25 Top Innovation Champions.
On May 23, 2014, Donofrio will address the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering community at a commencement ceremony at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn.
Many commencement speakers give inspiring speeches, but even before he mounts the dais to address the gathering, Donofrio has provided inspiration: his life, career, and philanthropic activities all stand as testaments to the value of hard work, civic responsibility, and engineering education.
Donofrio’s personal journey mirrors that of many of the students we seek to serve. His mother and father were first-generation Americans whose own parents had emigrated from Southern Italy; his father worked as a prison guard, housepainter and watchman, sometimes juggling four jobs at one time, while his mother did piecework at home for a local hat shop. Donofrio himself spent much of his childhood delivering hundreds of newspapers six days a week.
Determined that Donofrio would not have to struggle as they did, his parents encouraged him to get a college education, and with the help of scholarships, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. He later received numerous honorary doctoral degrees, including one in 1999 from what was then known as Polytechnic University.
Grateful for the advantages his own education conferred, Donofrio has long shared the School of Engineering’s mission to advance education and career opportunities for underrepresented minorities and women. He served for years on the boards of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) and of INROADS, a nonprofit organization focused on the training and development of talented minority youth for professional careers in business and industry. In 2005 he was also appointed by the U.S. Department of Education to serve on the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, charged with developing a new national strategy for post-secondary education to meet the needs of America’s diverse population and address the economic and workforce requirements of the future.
Throughout his professional life, Donofrio has exemplified the School of Engineering ethos of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He joined IBM in 1964, while still in college, and worked on memory technology for the iconic IBM System/360 mainframe computing system. From 1997 until 2008, as executive vice president, he led the company’s innovation and technology strategies, becoming so beloved there that upon his retirement, employees wrote and performed a tribute song extolling his leadership and accomplishments.
And after a career so legendary that it inspired a song, inspiring an arena of graduating students will probably be easy.