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Retired Qualcomm CEO shares career reflections with students

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On Thursday, Qualcomm Inc. founder Dr. Irwin Jacobs gave business students a perspective they don't always get: hindsight.

Jacobs has retired as both the chief executive officer and board chairman of the wireless giant he founded in 1985, and though he still serves as the board director, he says he is intentionally "hands off." He now has the luxury of being able to reflect on his career.

He told a class of California State University, San Marcos business students that he is proud of the influence that Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) has had, and the fact that he overcame some skeptics in his lifetime. He also said that adjusting to retirement has been strange for someone so used to being hands on.

"The part that has been hardest to kind of get over is the sense of time urgency, that something still needs to get done," he said of his retirement. "I still follow a lot of the e-mails that go on. I generally follow the industry and stay involved in that sense. I give a lot of talks still, (and) meet with people. But I stay completely out of the day-to-day activities."

Aside from making components that led to the 4.5 billion cell phones in use worldwide, Jacobs said he also is proud that Qualcomm has gone on to spawn more than 150 companies, and that the company's entrepreneurial culture has been adopted by many other companies.

Asked about his "greatest hits" from both Qualcomm and the company he founded prior to that, Linkabit, he said he was most proud of the company's microprocessors, and some satellite work it had done. Most of all, though, he was proud of the work Qualcomm did that helped make cell phones as pervasive, inexpensive and capable as they are now.

With all his success, students were surprised to learn that Jacobs had been discouraged from going into a career in science and technology since he was a high school student. The son of a New Bedford, Mass., restaurant owner who hadn't been to college, Jacobs was told by high school guidance counselors that he shouldn't study math and science in college because there was no future in it.

"There's always some people that say we've done everything that can be done and (suggest) something more ordinary," he said with a laugh.

In college at Cornell University, Jacobs started in the school's hospitality program, but found his favorite part of it was accounting. His roommate was studying engineering, but told Jacobs he probably couldn't get good grades in it.

As usual, Jacobs proved him wrong.

These early examples of proving people wrong about the limits of science and his own abilities were good training, Jacobs said. When Qualcomm first began talking about the possibilities of cell phones, a lot of investors weren't convinced that what Jacob and his team were talking about was possible.

When he was Qualcomm's CEO, Jacobs was known for his quiet, calm style, which he told the students was partially the result of having to convince people that what he was doing could work. He said young businessmen and women should keep that in mind.

"If you're trying to do innovations, come up with new ways of doing things; people will always find a reason why that doesn't make sense for them, because they're already doing something one way, (and) they don't want to make a change," he said. "You're often urging or talking, and you have to do that in a calm fashion."


* Interview with Dr. Irwin M. Jacobs

* Effective corporate leadership: Dr. Irwin Jacobs

Send your comments to Elizabeth.Malloy@sddt.com.

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alex 6:37am April 9, 2010

great interview from one of sd's finest businessmen.