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After 52 years at Northeastern, professor Dan McCarthy retires

Daniel McCarthy first set foot on Northeastern’s campus in 1961, teaching part-time while finishing up his thesis. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“When he puts his mind to getting something done, nothing will stop him unless a machine is attached to it.” That’s how professor Joseph Giglio described professor Daniel McCarthy in his July 8 column for The Patriot Ledger, a 641-word tribute to his longtime friend and colleague who retired from Northeastern in June after 52 years of service to the university. “By any measure you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has so selflessly served the university and students as professor McCarthy,” Giglio wrote of the man whom he referred to as the “quintessential gentleman.” “All at the university have been rewarded with his efforts.”

To be sure, thousands of students, faculty, and staff have had to the opportunity to work with—and learn from—McCarthy. Many people have collaborated with him, conducting groundbreaking research or designing innovative programs. Others have benefited from the university-wide centers and networks he helped to create or marveled at their wide-ranging impact from afar. His longtime friends and colleagues simultaneously praise him for his academic acumen and down-to-earth demeanor, calling him a “broad thinker,” a “world-class scholar” and a “tremendous person of integrity who believes in quality before all else.”

McCarthy—University Distinguished Professor and Alan S. McKim and Richard A. D’Amore Distinguished Professor of Global Management and Innovation—is most widely known for helping to shape Northeastern’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Northeastern University Center for Entrepreneurship Education, which empowers students, faculty, and alumni from across the university to launch new companies and become leaders in the innovation economy. He is also the co-founder and co-director of the McCarthy(s) Venture Mentoring Network, a university-wide mentoring program, and a board member of IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator.

According to his colleagues, McCarthy has been a primary driver of Northeastern’s recent entrepreneurial success. He’s frequently supported the cause with his time and his money. In 2012, he and Jeff McCarthy, DMSB’77, jointly invested $1 million in the Venture Mentoring Network to build a master database to match student entrepreneurs with volunteer alumni or other industry professionals. Today the network features more than 100 mentors in real estate, healthcare, and other industries who volunteer their time and expertise to help dozens of Northeastern ventures grow and succeed. “A half dozen years ago, the entrepreneurial ecosystem was simply an idea. Today it is real and vibrant and internationally recognized,” said Marc Meyer, co-director of the Center for Entrepreneurship Education. “The courses, co-ops, the mentorship programs—Dan has been at the core of all of these.”

Meyer first met McCarthy in 1986, when the latter invited the former on a “little” group run around the Charles River. After running six miles, McCarthy suggested another six. Everyone else was tired, but they soldiered on to keep up. “That’s a good analogy for Dan’s career,” said Meyer. “Always going the extra mile and leading a team of people forward.”

McCarthy—a humble yet eloquent speaker with an affinity for Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”—is more self-effacing. Of the Venture Mentoring Network, he said: “I wanted to do something for the university, and Jeff and I thought this would be a good way to leverage and improve the university’s entrepreneurial innovation ecosystem.”

For the past five years, McCarthy has attended most of IDEA’s board meetings, listening intently and offering keen insight into how to expand the program. Since its inception in 2009, the student-run venture accelerator has launched more than 40 startups and helped ventures raise over $75 million in external funding. During the 2016-17 academic year, it counted more than 280 active ventures created by students, faculty, or alumni in all nine of Northeastern’s schools and colleges. As the CEO of IDEA from April 2016 to April 2017, Neel Desai had the opportunity to work directly with McCarthy, whom he called “one of the university’s biggest advocates of student-driven initiatives.” “Dan is unique in that he is a multiplier,” said Desai, SSH’17, who now sits on IDEA’s board. “His programs have enabled other change-makers and leaders.” As a first-year product manager at Price Intelligently, a Boston-based price optimization software company, Desai noted that McCarthy’s mentorship had changed his career outlook. “Rather than focus on what job I want,” he said, “I think about what impact I want to have and what change I want to drive in my community.”

‘I am a finisher’

McCarthy, 85, was born in 1932. He grew up in Malden, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children. He was the first member of his extended family to go to college, earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College in 1954, his MBA from Dartmouth in 1955, and his doctoral degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1963. He served in the Navy from 1956 to 1959, harnessing the power of his MBA to work for the majority of the time as the supply officer on a destroyer based in Newport, Rhode Island.

He first set foot on Northeastern’s campus in 1961, teaching part time while finishing up his thesis. “There were so many ‘All but dissertation’ doctoral students and that was not going to happen to me,” recalled McCarthy, referring to those who had completed their coursework and passed their exams but had yet to write and defend their doctoral thesis. “I am a finisher.”

After earning his doctorate, he took a job at Tufts University and then returned to Northeastern in 1964 as professor of management and director of the Graduate School of Business Administration. He held the position for five years, before leaving the university to found a high-tech startup called Computer Environments Corp. He came back to Northeastern three years later, leaving only to serve as visiting professor at colleges in England, Greece, Iran, and other far-flung countries around the world. The experience—which stretched from 1974 to 1999—proved to be especially useful in the classroom, where he’s primarily taught graduate students for the past 40 years. As McCarthy explained, “I used my international background to help identify with international students. Talking about business in other parts of the world also gave my domestic students a broader view of the field.”

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

McCarthy, who officially retired from teaching at the end of June, was a particularly well-revered professor. As he noted in his curriculum vitae, he “consistently received among the highest student evaluations for graduate school faculty.” He attributed his teaching prowess to his real-world experience and his high energy level. In addition to his three-year stint as president of Computer Environments Corp., he served on the board of directors of several big-name businesses and worked as a consultant for more than 30 companies, including General Electric Co., Beth Israel Hospital, and the U.S. Department of the Navy. “I had a lot of experience that I carried in the classroom, which added some real credibility,” said McCarthy. Of his seemingly never-ending supply of energy, he noted: “I was moving around all the time, keeping people on their toes all the time. My students always knew I might be looking for a response.”

During his career, McCarthy taught nearly two-dozen unique courses, including 11 that he developed on his own. In the 1980s, he created a course called “The CEO,” which Giglio runs today. It was his favorite class, not least because it helped to elevate Northeastern’s reputation in the business community. “My Idea was to have CEO’s exposed to Northeastern students and Northeastern students exposed to CEO’s,” McCarthy explained, noting that he invited roughly 50 different chief executives to speak with his students during the decade in which he led the course. Recalling the thinking behind the innovative class, he said: “Let’s bring Northeastern up a notch. Let’s get more lofty.”

‘A watershed moment’

When asked to name what he will miss most about teaching, McCarthy did not hesitate to cite his relationship with his students. He is particularly proud of two of his former pupils—Richard D’Amore, BA’76, and Alan McKim, MBA’88—who combined in 2012 to make a $60 million gift to rename the business school. But D’Amore and McKim, two successful entrepreneurs, might not have had the opportunity to alter Northeastern’s destiny if it hadn’t been for McCarthy, their mentor.

One midwinter day in 2005, D’Amore, McKim, and McCarthy got together for seafood and serious talk at Turner Fisheries in Boston’s Back Bay. McCarthy had arranged to introduce his two former students, who had never met each other but had separately expressed interested in doing something for him. McCarthy knew both men pretty well. From 1987 to 2016, he served as a board member of McKim’s company Clean Harbors, a global environmental-cleanup firm valued at more than $2.5 billion. In 1994, he advised D’Amore on his plan to create North Bridge Venture Partners, which has launched more than 170 companies and provided growth capital to countless others. “I brought up the idea of a professorship, which would help me do more of what I enjoy and would obviously help Northeastern,” McCarthy told Northeastern Magazine in 2012. “I said, ‘that’s my idea, so why don’t you two talk, and I’m going back to work.’” The duo agreed that day to endow a chair in global management and innovation, with McCarthy as the inaugural holder, and the lunch marked the start of their friendship. It culminated in fall 2012, in their joint $60 million gift, the largest philanthropic investment in the university’s 119-year history.

“Once they made their gift, it brought a sense of internal pride and external recognition that Northeastern had arrived on another front,” McCarthy explained, noting that their investment helped to attract top faculty to the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. “Their gift was a watershed moment for the business school and gave a real jolt to the university’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

A world-class publishing career

McCarthy is a prodigious writer and researcher—and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Since 1970, he’s published five books, 25 book chapters, and more than 60 journal articles. He’s delivered over 100 conference presentations. According to a Michigan State University study, he ranked in the top 5 percent of all authors worldwide who published in “leading international business journals” from 1996 to 2005.

“I have three Ivy League degrees, but I’d trade them all to be at Northeastern. I love this place.”

Daniel McCarthy

His primary subject is international business and entrepreneurship, with a particularly focus on Russia and other emerging markets. His interest in Russia can be attributed to the nation’s sheer complexity, which he’s long found “intriguing.” “When working in Russia,” he explained, “you have to deal with history, political science, and psychology in addition to business.”

McCarthy’s forthcoming book—The Soviet Diaspora in the U.S. Innovation Economy: Immigration, Innovation, Institutions, Imprinting, and Identity—will be published in the fall. He is writing it with Daniel Satinsky, L’79, and Sheila Puffer, University Distinguished Professor and Professor of International Business, his primary collaborator for the past 25 years. “We have a very complimentary research style,” Puffer explained. “Dan is the big-picture thinker—he’s always looking five steps ahead. I have the data-driven research skills and take comfort in getting into the details.”

Puffer initially met McCarthy in 1988, when she joined the faculty. But she didn’t partake in her first one-on-one conversation with him until 1989, when he invited her into his office to talk shop. She noticed a stack of books on his desk, the top one of which was his fourth edition of Business Policy and Strategy: Concepts and Readings. As a graduate student at the University of Ottawa, she had read that book. But she had no idea that her soon-to-be-collaborator had written it. “Oh my god,” she recalled telling McCarthy. “You’ve already been my teacher and now you’re inviting me to do research with you.”

Over the past 25 years, Puffer has come to see McCarthy as an “amazing mentor” to everyone from the 18-year-old undergraduate student to the middle-aged executive. As she put it, “He takes time to sit and really listen to people and figure out what it is they are good at and how he can provide some guidance.” According to Puffer, McCarthy has an amazing memory. It’s one of the things that “makes him so special.” When the duo first started doing research on Russia in the late 1980s, he took a few Russian lessons. They stuck. “He seems to have remembered every word he learned,” Puffer said. “To my amusement, from time to time he will insert them, appropriately, into our conversations.” For McCarthy, it’s par for the course. “I’ve always been ambitious,” he said of the drive to push himself to his intellectual limit. “I like to do new things, but they have to be challenging and meaningful.”

What’s next?

At his retirement party in mid-June, McCarthy received an unexpected gift: a framed Northeastern hockey jersey emblazoned with the number 52, symbolizing his tenure with the university. Men’s hockey coach Jim Madigan gifted the jersey to McCarthy, who played left wing for Dartmouth in the 1950s, racking up 32 goals and 26 assists in his senior year. “Jim noted that I still had one year of eligibility left since freshmen could not play varsity hockey in the ’50s,” McCarthy joked, “so he wanted me to suit up in the fall to make use of that year of eligibility and my scoring ability.”

McCarthy plans to hang the framed jersey at his home in Hamilton, Massachusetts, a small suburb in the northeastern part of the state. But perhaps he should put it on, lace up his skates, and take a spin around the rink. “I’m very healthy,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with me—so why back off now?” It’s a philosophy that will carry McCarthy into the next phase of his life, in which he fully expects to continue to play an active role in IDEA, the Venture Mentor Network, and the Northeastern University Center for Entrepreneurship Education. “I have three Ivy League degrees, but I’d trade them all to be at Northeastern,” he said. “I love this place.”