The president of the MIT Alumni Association as of July 1, C.J. Whelan earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and management at MIT. After two decades in the telephony and teleconferencing industry, he recently sold his company, Conserto, and will be devoting much of his time to the Association. Whelan has been an active volunteer as a board and finance committee member, president of the Club of Colorado, and an educational counselor. In his hometown of Centennial, Colorado, he has served on the city council and on numerous local boards and recently ran for mayor; his wife, Holly, is a manager in the local library system. Whelan, a serious tinkerer, skier, and car enthusiast, owns 10 bicycles and has taken many long-distance bike trips, including a five-day, 450-mile solo trip from his front door to Mt. Rushmore.
What are you looking forward to most about your year serving as president of the Alumni Association?
I just love being at MIT and among MIT people. I get that opportunity in Colorado—we have a very vibrant alumni population—but it’s not Cambridge, and it’s not being at the Institute.
As far as the future growth of the Alumni Association, we are in a time of change. We had a change of leadership with Whitney Espich as our new CEO, and she’s doing a great job. The FY18 president of the Alumni Association, Hyun-A Park, has led a strategy-planning exercise, looking longer term. It’s been an effort that engaged the entire board. What falls on my shoulders is taking this revised vision and starting to implement it with the full board and with Whitney and the staff. It’s an exciting time.
What part of your MIT experience has been most useful?
In my professional career, two of the companies that I’ve started were cofounded with MIT alums. My time on the board of directors and also being president of the Club of Colorado was useful personally because leading a group of volunteers—especially very motivated, very smart people—is quite a challenge. I had success with that and took that experience into the political roles I’ve taken on.
How did your MIT studies in electrical engineering and management contribute to building your career?
Even though I have an electrical engineering degree, I have not designed a circuit since leaving MIT. Yet my brain is wired like an engineer’s. I look at the world through a problem-solving lens that was crafted at MIT. I did not have a career in finance, but that background of business and finance that I got as a student at the Sloan School allows me to become an entrepreneur and, in my role in government, to look at a budget and understand the flow of money.
Why is building and leading communities important to you?
Personally I found it very rewarding, and I know it’s a cliché, but you are either a part of improving your community or you are standing on the sidelines. When there is a group of like-minded folks and I think I can make a difference, I want to be part of it. It is a passion that I see among many of my fellow MIT alums.
I also have a strong passion for seeing more scientists, engineers, and technical people in politics, especially in elected office. I’d love to see more MIT alumni get involved.
How will your work cochairing the board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Data Analysis inform your year as president?
The focus is to look at what data the Association is gathering on alums and how to best utilize that. There are many volunteers in the MIT alumni community who feel like they could do more if they had better data. Let’s say you’re the leader of the Club of Chicago, and you have an event with an MIT professor coming to talk about climate change. You want to be able to promote that more [effectively] than just a blast e-mail to all alums in the area. If you know who has a passion for this topic, you can direct that marketing in a different way. We are analyzing our current capacity and looking at how we can improve.
Where will we find you when you are not on campus?
I love Toscanini’s ice cream—you can find me there whenever I’m in Cambridge.
The article originally appeared in July/August 2018 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.