After spending decades in the private sector, building corporations and becoming hugely successful in the process, many executives are leaving the boardroom for the classroom. At Cal State San Marcos, several captains of industry have recently joined the faculty. Unlike many traditional academics, whose career path begin with teaching these executives-turned professors are uniquely able to bring experiences from their own successful corporate careers into the classroom.

“Experience is a terrible thing to waste,” says Al Kern, who helped develop Roundup, the most widely used weed killer in the world. After leaving The Monsanto Company, Kern went on to build several biotech companies. Kern is now the recently appointed director of biotechnology programs at CSUSM. Now, he says it’s “payback time.”

For executives like Kern, teaching is an opportunity to give back and share personal insights with students – a valuable reward in and of itself. “I’ve been lucky and successful, and I think it’s time to give back something if I can,” Kern says. “I sincerely believe I am where I am today because of one teacher (a high school biology teacher). If I can have that kind of impact on just one student, the effort would beworth it.”

He’s not alone. Jim Hamerly, the founder of DigitalStyle Corporation (a company that created Internet software) echoed Kern’s sentiment, saying he’d like “to provide opportunities to others.

“To me, education was always a key to understanding, fulfillment and, ultimately, to success in life,” says Hamerly, director of business community relations for the College of Business Administration (CoBA). “Second only to the influence of others, it can be the next most significant enabler in life.”

For Bruce Nichols, an adjunct professor for CoBA, the decisive moment to turn educator arrived while in his forties. “The date was March 31, 1998,” he recalls. “It was one of the biggest days of my life – on that day I signed the documents transferring the shares of my company (Formulabs, Inc.) to the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. The following morning I peered into the bathroom mirror and asked myself a profound question: ‘So, now what?’. What I did not want to do, and fortunately did not have to do, was go right back into a high stress, 60-hour-a-week job. Why should I?”

For Nichols, the decision to leave corporate America was lifesaving. Still fresh in his memory is how his 47-year-old partner died of a massive heart attack several years earlier. With time on his side, Nichols proceeded to write up a list of all the things he wanted to do, a list that included things like learning to play golf, taking classes, getting back into shape, spending more time with the family, and traveling. In less than six months, though, he had run through the list “and [he] realized there was something missing.”

Fortunately, Nichols had done some “well received lecturing” for CoBA, and that turned into an opportunity to join the faculty as an adjunct professor. “I am now one of the lucky executives that have been able to make the transition from intense corporate life to one of joy and balance,” says Nichols. Nowadays, the Annapolis graduate and former naval officer devotes his time to teaching, business consulting and leisure time with family and friends.

For Al Kern, shifting gears from corporate life to university life was practically second nature. He, like many others in the biotech field, spent considerable time at the university level earning advanced degrees. (Kern himself has a Ph.D. from Michigan State University with emphasis in plant physiology and biochemistry.)

“Most of us have attended universities nine or ten years,” he says. “And most of us like it. It’s not foreign to us. There’s a certain comfort level. ”Like Nichols, he no longer relished the idea of long work weeks and constant travel required by corporate life. “I wasn’t going to climb back on that saddle,” he says.

Although he still serves on a number of boards, Kern now prefers to spend most of his time at home with the family, including two grand kids. “I don’t like being more than 20 minutes from home or my golf course,” he says.

Ditto for Jim Hamerly, whose company was eventually acquired by Netscape, which was subsequently purchased by AOL Time-Warner. “Startups typically require 80-100 hour weeks for the first 3-5 years and often a lot of travel as well,” he says. “I routinely did 100 flights per year, but I am not poised to do that right now with all the other projects I have going.”

Hamerly, who has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, including a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University, continues to be involved in start-up companies, but only in an advisory role, he says.

“I sit on several boards and assist wherever I can with student started businesses.” Teaching, however, has always been an avocation, says Hamerly. He especially enjoys working with students at Cal State San Marcos.

“CSUSM has a much higher percentage of first generation college students than most colleges, and a high percentage of our students also need to work while going through school,” says Hamerly. “The better students must have significant perseverance to excel academically while working. As a first generation college student myself, I empathize with those students.”

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Picture of David Bennett

David Bennett:

“It is not about the money...”

“For me, it is not the money, obviously, but the satisfaction I get by sharing my experiences and knowledge with students,” says David Bennett, another successful corporate executive who’s made the switch from business to business education. An adjunct professor of management and leadership since 2000 and Director of Outreach for the College of Business (CoBA) at Cal State San Marcos, Bennett brings more than 25 years experience in the private sector that includes senior level positions with Pepsico, Marriott and Mail Boxes, Etc.

Bennett says his interest in teaching was sparked while lecturing at major U.S. universities early in his career with Pepsico. “I liked the experience so much that I knew when I retired, I would teach. If I can touch just a few minds and blend the reality of the corporate world with some academic practices and theories, I will consider myself successful.”

His years of experience are worth volumes in the classroom. “I have a very sincere passion to teach what I have learned and in so doing, know that in 10 years or so, I may read about one of my students in Business Week or Fortune and feel that I have, in some small way, helped him [or] her get to where they are. “What a rush!”

Bennett did his graduate work at the Harvard School of Business and has been an honorary faculty member at both Michigan State and Washington State universities. He is the founding member of CSUSM’s Center for Leadership Innovation and Mentorship Building (CLIMB) and co-founder of CoBA’s popular “In the Executive Chair” class.