JEVS Board member and 2016 Strictly Business Honoree Burton (Bob) Cohen has been a longtime friend of JEVS; his investments in the youth in our region have resulted in hundreds of students receiving educational opportunities they otherwise may not have had. A big believer in the power of providing pathways to self-sufficiency, Bob’s commitment to Making Hope Happen is a testament to the power of simple kindness and selfless giving – with a business-oriented focus on results. We recently sat down to talk with him about philanthropy, his business philosophy and student success.
Q. How did you first become involved with JEVS?
A. I was introduced to JEVS through my boyhood friend Ned Kaplan. We’d been friends at that time for about 40 years, and he said, I think you should come to this board meeting with me. He thought I would enjoy it, particularly because he felt that JEVS was so professionally run – like a business, with a solid structure and organization – in managing this critical mission that is so important for so many.
Q. How long did it take you to become a member of the JEVS Board?
A. It happened very quickly! I really liked the activities and the opportunities; I wanted to impact the community around me, and I truly believe in the old adage about “Give a man a fish, he eats for the night, but teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, teaching and helping assist personal responsibility are all things that I’m a great believer in.
Q. What are the critical needs that you see in the region?
A. Sometimes we see dysfunction, drug use, breakdowns in the family, abuse…it’s rough. It’s almost impossible for some kids to get a chance. This is why I like to focus on issues facing our youth.
Q. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
A. Sure. I grew up in West Oak Lane, and went to Central High School, then Penn State. I graduated with a degree in History, and wanted to be a teacher. My father had an 8th grade education, but was insistent that I go to college. He died early, though, so we picked up the pieces of the business (Acme Corrugated Box Company, Inc.), and our family had the cohesion to stay together. We were a middle class family, and I think about that – we were able to absorb the stress, and there are so many families that just don’t have the financial wherewithal or the stability to fix things when life goes astray. That can be a real distraction to obtaining an education, and that’s part of what led me back to Central High School.
Q. Tell us about the Dorothy M. Cohen College Prep Program.
A. I wanted to do something for the students at Central High School, as the demographics had changed so radically in 50 years. So five years ago, some of my former classmates and I went to meet with students at the time. We asked the students, “In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen here, what would benefit you?” They told us that they knew some of their fellow students couldn’t afford SAT materials, to prepare for the exam and for college. I asked Katie Shinholster (JEVS Director of Corporate and Foundation Giving) if we could create a program at JEVS that would address this need; we did it, and that first semester we had 17 students. In fact, under Sue Bilsky (JEVS Educational Consultant) and the Youth Services team, it’s morphed into more than SAT training. The program now includes counseling for jobs, guidance with the college decision-making process and college essay assistance. The families are even able to have their needs – employment assistance and so on – addressed by JEVS.
I really enjoy the fact that each year, I get to go back to Central with my former classmates. We introduce ourselves, give a brief talk about our different career paths, and then ask the students about their hopes and dreams: what do they want to go to school for, what would they want to study. It’s motivating, and helps give shape to the students’ goals, as they think about what is the “best, right” school (and curriculum) for them.
Q. What is your favorite JEVS success story, then?
A. There are so many; the stories at Strictly Business are always filled with emotion. It’s usually people who have been able to grab that avenue, that pathway to success that JEVS has provided. Someone like Daniel, who improved his SAT score by 250 points and is now on a full scholarship to Drexel University. One man from Central High School wanted to be a nurse, and never thought he’d get into the University of Pennsylvania, but through the efforts of Sue Bilsky and JEVS he’s now there. A few years ago, Strictly Business honored a young mother who was a refugee from Sierra Leone, who took three buses to get to her job; another woman whose entire family was on drugs –a completely dysfunctional setting – decided there had to be something better, and through JEVS found gainful, meaningful employment and a new start. Just last week, I met a young man who had been bullied at school, so he dropped out – now, after being in Project WOW, he earned his GED and is obtaining his driver’s license to go into a vocation of his choice. His choice. It shows what is possible. It really strikes a human chord.
Q. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in business?
A. Life teaches you many lessons, among them humility and being able to put yourself in other’s shoes. If you work for something it doesn’t mean that your life should solely revolve around what you can get for yourself. You have to look around and see what you can do to uplift other people.
Q. What’s your business philosophy?
A. I like to think of it as competency autonomy. Hire carefully – hire the right people, build them and give them the tools to succeed, and let them lead the way. It’s not very different than what we try to do with the Central program. The same way that businesses leverage peoples’ capabilities, people can leverage their own innate talents to be personally successful – sometimes we all just need a pathway to success. In my business, my staff and their ability to grow as individuals make my business career meaningful. I feel very indebted to those staff members who work so hard to make our company a success. By calling on JEVS, those participating in the programs show that they are willing to work to make their lives better.
Q. How is JEVS prepared to meet changing times?
A. I think we’ve moved from a rural society to an urban society, and in a lot of ways, that rural self-help and communal networking isn’t always evident today. We have lost an element of self-reliance. There are grassroots attempts, and we all know that the government can’t fix all the social problems, so JEVS and organizations like it exist to deliver those services – with better results – through their partnerships and flexible organizational structure. I also think that JEVS, an organization based on long established Jewish Values, has morphed into a significant system to assist all minority communities. It would be great if JEVS was recognized for the key role it plays in our region in that regard.
Q. Final thoughts?
A. I feel very privileged to be involved. A charitable focus is very fulfilling to me. I look at the Strictly Business honor as a way to help spread the message and raise needed revenue for our important mission. Sometimes I will say to my wife “Do you realize how lucky we are?” In the final analysis I know I can’t save the world, but what I can do in my small way, is have an impact on one person at a time. I think we – society – would all be a lot more successful if we thought about fixing the world one person at a time.