Jerry Rawls, co-founder and director of the Finisar Corporation, recently spoke about his journey from Texas Tech University to successful business leader with students in Chancellor Emeritus Kent Hance's seminar class "Professional & Personal Leadership: Practical Tools for Success."
The audience included students from the Rawls Business Leadership Program (RBLP), the Dean's Student Council and Texas Tech's Phi Gamma Delta fraternity chapter.
Journey to Lubbock
Rawls was born in Houston and moved to San Antonio after his father, a successful fighter pilot, was injured. Rawls attended elementary and middle school in San Antonio, and after his father's health improved, the family moved back to Houston where he graduated from Bellaire High School.
Rawls was a basketball player and received numerous awards and honors during his time at Bellaire. He hoped to continue his basketball career in college and received several full-ride scholarship offers from junior colleges and a partial scholarship offer from Texas A&M. While Texas Tech did not offer Rawls a basketball scholarship, they did offer the chance to join the team as a preferred walk-on.
Rawls, who wanted to become an engineer, knew several Bellaire students who had attended Texas Tech and spoke highly of the university.
"With a good engineering school, I thought Texas Tech had a great combination of stuff for me," Rawls said.
During his time at Texas Tech, Rawls was selected to two engineering honoraries, played freshman basketball, was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and Saddle Tramps, served as a member of the Student Senate and Interfraternity Council and was elected Business Manager of the Texas Tech Student Body.
Rawls joked with students that he did not sleep while he was at Texas Tech, but said his involvement on campus ultimately taught him a lot about time management and priorities.
"I learned that if I wanted to be an engineer, I wasn't going to be a basketball player, and if I wanted to be a basketball player, then I didn't think I was going to be an engineer, or I would be in school for 6 or 7 years," Rawls said.
He recalled a specific engineering professor, the late Jack Powers, who stood out
among the faculty from whom he learned.
"He was one of those professors who was tough, but he was fair," said Rawls.
Rawls described Powers as always prepared. Powers also stood out in the mind of Rawls because he genuinely seemed to care about students on a personal level and he knew what was going on throughout campus.
Rawls earned a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas Tech in 1967 and knew he wanted to earn a master's in Business Administration. At that time, there were only two universities in the country that offered degrees related to industrial management or industrial administration: Carnegie Mellon University and Purdue University.
With a strong resume in hand, Rawls reached out to the admissions department at Purdue. Impressed by Rawls' resume, Purdue's admissions team connected him directly to the dean, who took note of Rawls' accomplishments and recruited him.
Rawls earned a master's degree in Industrial Administration from Purdue's Krannert Graduate School of Management.
Rawls' early career began at Raychem Corporation, a materials science and engineering company headquartered in California. He held various management positions, including Manager of Product Marketing, National Sales Manager, General Manager of the Aerospace Products Division and General Manager of the Interconnection Systems Division.
Rawls told Texas Tech students that Finisar was not founded in a similar manner to most companies. While most companies are started with an idea, Rawls said that the idea for Finisar came out of frustration with the way business was conducted by his employer at the time.
In 1988 Rawls and Frank Levinson formed Finisar Corporation to conduct fiber-optic research. With a limited budget and relying on their own money to start the operation, Finisar's proposal was originally viewed as technically impossible by conventional wisdom.
"People said 'You guys are dreaming the impossible dream,'" Rawls said.
Four years later, Finisar revolutionized the industry standards for gigabit fiber-optic communication between computing devices.
Rawls told students that as a CEO of Finisar, one of his duties was to establish the culture of the organization, which included establishing a positive work environment and taking care of Finisar customers.
"No. 1, we had a passion for customers," Rawls said. "We are going to take care of our customers. We are going to make sure that we make them successful."
Rawls stressed the importance of taking care of employees to his audience.
"Taking care of each other says a lot," Rawls said. "It says we are going to treat each other with respect and dignity. We didn't cuss in meetings, we didn't beat on tables and we didn't interrupt someone when they were talking."
Rawls also described the unusual employee handbook that Finisar utilized. Like traditional handbooks, it outlined goals and procedures for the company, but what made it unusual was the "Guidelines for successful behavior" section.
"Successful behavior started with No. 1: Smile," Rawls said.
Successful behavior also involved never criticizing others in public, but instead praising them in public.
Rawls told the students how Finisar encouraged employees to never use the word "I," instead emphasizing that at Finisar, everyone was a part of the team.
Rawls said he believes employees appreciated him following the same core values, and as a result, the turnover rate at Finisar was a fraction of what it was at other companies in Silicon Valley.
As part of his dedication to customers and employees, Rawls often found himself working late hours to make sure Finisar was successful.
"Success doesn't come easy," Rawls said.
In 1999 Finisar went public. By the close of trading on the first day, Finisar stock rose 373%, making Finisar the seventh largest first-day gainer in the history of Wall Street at that time.
Finisar Corporation continues to be a technology leader for fiber-optic subsystems and network performance test systems. The Sunnyvale, California-based company is built on a foundation of over 14,000 employees around the globe, including operations in Malaysia, Singapore, Shanghai, Munich, Denmark, Korea and Sydney, Australia.
In 2000, Forbes listed Finisar as one of the Top 500 companies, and Business Week pegged it as one of the 100 Hot Growth Companies.
In December of 2000, Rawls announced a record-breaking $25 million gift to the Texas Tech College of Business that has fueled many of the ongoing initiatives in the college.
Rawls told the students the donation was made as a token of his gratitude.
"I thought Texas Tech did a terrific job for me," he said. "I grew up here. I came
here as an 18-year-old and left as a 22-year-old, but I learned a lot and I matured
Rawls said he believes his involvement with the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, student government and other student organizations contributed to his positive experience at Texas Tech and encourages students to get involved on campus.
Rawls told the students that it feels good to be able to give back, and he plans to continue philanthropic giving.
After Rawls wrapped up his presentation, students formed a line to take photos with
the prestigious business leader and thanked him for his contributions to the college.
Learn more about Rawls and his contributions to the Rawls College of Business.