Pictured above (left to right): IEEE-USA Communications Committee Chair John Johnson, 2018 IEEE-USA President Candy Robinson, IEEE-USA Entrepreneur Achievement Award recipient Jackie Adams, and 2018 IEEE-USA President-Elect Tom Coughlin.
Taking the road less traveled can lead you to exactly where you should be. Just ask IEEE Member Jackie Adams, who recently received the 2017 IEEE-USA Entrepreneur Achievement Award for Leadership in Entrepreneurial Spirit.
Since receiving her B.S. in Computer Engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2002, she has twice taken career detours. Each of them produced new insights that brought her closer to her true talents and purpose.
The first occurred in 2003. After realizing she wasn’t cut out for the programming job she’d accepted after graduation, Adams decided to serve her country — but in another culture. The Hicksville, Ohio native applied to the Peace Corps, and after passing the lengthy review process, she was accepted to teach high school math in Tanzania.
“I was supposed to conduct the classes in English,” she recalls, “but many of my 100 or so students weren’t doing well, because their main languages were either their tribal tongue, or Swahili, with English a distant third place. That’s where I learned my first lesson about teaching: To meet the goals of the program, you need to meet your students where they’re at.”
The young engineer-turned-math-instructor taught herself to speak Swahili in just a few months. “When you’re living in a remote village, with no electricity or running water, you find time to curl up with your Swahili book and a warm Coke,” she says with a smile.
Thanks to Adams’ resolve to meet the students where they were at, their math comprehension — along with their grades — soon began to improve.
In 2005, when she returned home from Tanzania, she realized her second lesson about teaching. In her words, “If you understand technical topics, you can apply it to almost any technical situation to teach others.”
Because she enjoyed both teaching and working with cutting-edge technologies, she spent the next decade as a trainer for several technology-based organizations in the Cleveland area. But she also started to recognize that teacher-focused, lecture-based training was “a daunting place for students.”
Adams saw that many people rightfully dread attending employee training — or, as she describes it, “Death by PowerPoint.” She observed that companies often put their best technicians behind a classroom lectern, and then expect them to share their knowledge with incoming technicians successfully. “But these technical experts are not known for conveying their knowledge in ways that audiences will readily understand and digest,” she says. “Moreover, all this in-person training comes at a very large financial expense to the employer.”
She determined employee training needed a fresh approach, especially for engineers and technicians — and she pushed hard for change. Eventually, however, the unyielding corporate structure frustrated her so much, that she quit her job. This time, she recharged and considered her next steps, while indulging in her passions for travel and the outdoors. Adams took a yearlong sabbatical, hiking through New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas; it provided new clarity.
When she returned home in 2016, Jackie Adams recognized her new, entrepreneurial direction; it came together when a client asked her to develop an in-house training program. She promptly moved to Denver, because of its nurturing environment for startups, as well as its proximity to outdoor activities. Once settled in, she launched Ristole, her own technical training company. The name is derived from “Aristotle,” whom she reveres for his creativity and thinking processes.
Ristole (pronounced rih-STOHL) uses a primarily web-based platform for both interactive training and mobile learning. Each client receives a customized training plan tailored to the company’s needs and goals. Regular validation checks ensure that each student is meeting the learning objectives. Besides being effective, the training is cost-efficient; Adams says a recent client reduced their expenses from $470,000 to $105,000 by switching from a two-week, instructor-led course with one week online and the second one led by an instructor.
The Ristole client roster includes well-known organizations in healthcare and technology.
Adams has taken advantage of the many free services available to local entrepreneurs. Consulting sessions at the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center introduced her to experts who helped her to create a business plan, develop content for the Ristole website, and market the company. The company was also accepted into several local programs that link promising startups with potential investors.
She’s active in the IEEE Denver Section, and is currently the social media officer, as well as the IEEE representative to the Colorado State Engineering & Science Fair.
IEEE Region 5 named Jackie Adams “Outstanding Engineering Educator” in 2016. In 2017, the Denver Business Journal recognized her as an “Outstanding Woman in Business,” in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction category.
The IEEE-USA Entrepreneur Achievement Award she received earlier this year cites her “passionate efforts protecting human dignity through empowerment and innovation.” In addition to building a training company that emphasizes meeting the needs of both clients and their employees, Adams’ achievements include launching a United States-based non-profit that protects and helps vulnerable young girls in Kenya. She is also the co-creator of a Case Western Reserve scholarship program designed to build confidence, and combat racial, gender and related micro-aggressions that marginalized groups face.
Douglas Walled, M.D., of Albany, New York, who was one of Adams’ endorsers for the IEEE-USA Award, has known her since he was her freshman orientation coordinator at CWRU. “Jackie considers me a mentor, but the mentor-mentee relationship is reciprocal,” he says. “She’s inspiring for her willingness to go outside the boundaries of her comfort zone, and has a level of selflessness that’s hard to find in others.”
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.