Photo of awardee

James D. Gibbons

President and CEO of Goodwill Industries International Inc.
BSIE '85

In recognition of his outstanding success in the face of adversity, his distinguished career, and the inspiring example he sets of the Boilermaker spirit

The familiar quote from Vince Lombardi was one Jim Gibbons heard from his father, Tom Gibbons, who was once a Purdue engineering student himself. The quote was a theme for Gibbons' life as he faced hurdles that are known to defeat others.

Gibbons was in third grade when he first started to lose his eyesight. A little over 10 years later, during his years at Purdue, it left him entirely, due to a degenerative condition similar to retinitis pigmentosa. Recalling those undergraduate years, he doesn't mention the difficulties he faced. Instead, he talks admiringly about the helpful people who surrounded him.

"Purdue was extraordinary in their support of a young, blind engineering student," he says from his office at Goodwill Industries in Rockville, MD. "I had this valuable group of personal readers and I learned quickly to surround myself with smart people. When you work with the best of the best, it allows you to raise your game.

"Betty Nelson, the dean of students at the time, was one of my early role models and mentors. Without her, I don't believe I would have found the successes that I have found. At Goodwill we do a lot of work providing wrap-around services for people with disabilities — people for whom life 'gets in the way.' Betty was the person who provided me with navigating skills."

An appreciation for smart and generous people combined with an affinity for engineering made industrial engineering a logical choice, he says.

"Industrial engineering offers the power of integrating people with systems and technology. I connect with the people side of things pretty well, but also with systems. That drove me down the industrial path."

That path led him to become the first blind person to obtain a master's degree in business administration from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. After that he held various leadership positions with AT&T. He then became president and CEO of Campus Wide Access Solutions, an AT&T subsidiary. And before taking his current position with Goodwill, he was president and CEO of National Industries for the Blind (NIB).

His work at NIB to facilitate employment for blind people is what he believes is his greatest accomplishment to date. "Working with people with challenges and barriers to employment, and being a catalyst for the on-the-ground work to take place is really what I'm most proud of."

As a facilitator of employment for people with disabilities at NIB and now at Goodwill, Gibbons draws on lessons from Betty Nelson and from Carol Barrett, a placement office staff member he says was very instrumental in helping him find employment.

"AT&T and IBM offers came through right after I graduated. I've been employed my entire career, and seven out of 10 blind people are not working today."

Career Highlights

2008-present President and Chief Executive Officer of Goodwill Industries International Inc.
1998–2008 President and Chief Executive Officer of National Industries for the Blind
1997–1998 President and Chief Executive Officer of AT&T CampusWide Access Solutions
1996–1997 Competitive Strategy and Analysis Director of AT&T Consumer Markets Division
1994–1996 Senior Manager, Mergers and Acquisitions, AT&T
1990–1993 Product Planning Manager, AT&T Business Markets Division
1985–1990 Operations Supervisor, AT&T Network Systems Division
1985 BSIE, Purdue University