Kenneth Jaconetty: An investment in the system
Kenneth Jaconetty (BS ‘82) was drawn to the high reputation and low in-state tuition at the University of Illinois. A first-generation college student, Jaconetty turned to his guidance counselor Randy Rayborn to help choose his major: chemical engineering.
“You’ll always get a job,” Rayborn said.
Four and half years later, in 1982, Jaconetty graduated from the department in the midst of a massive economic recession. The petrochemical industry— like most industries—wasn’t hiring.
Jaconetty briefly considered graduate school until longtime chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Thomas Hanratty asked him, “Do you think it would be fun?”
Hanratty’s advice: If you don’t think you’ll enjoy it, don’t do it.
Jaconetty moved back home to the Chicago suburbs and started sending out his resume. It would take him almost one year to get the response that his high school counselor promised: the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offered him a position as a patent examiner—sight unseen.
His new degree, apparently, spoke for itself. The USPTO was hiring recent graduates in scientific fields to speed up the patent application review process.
There, Jaconetty had the opportunity to work on the latest technology that incorporated some elements of chemistry and engineering: cassette tapes.
But reviewing patents wasn’t what he wanted to do forever. If you don’t think you’ll enjoy it, don’t do it.
“Examining patent applications was my entrée to becoming a patent attorney,” Jaconetty said. “The U.S. Patent Office was very generous with giving financial support for patent examiners who wanted to go to law school.”
It was an investment in their future whether employees stayed or moved on to file better patents in private practice, Jaconetty said. “The system works best when you've got good attorneys who know what they're doing and know how the Patent Office works.”
Jaconetty soon moved on to clerk for a law firm that would pay for him to pursue his law degree in an evening program. He graduated debt-free from George Washington University (GW) with his Juris Doctor.
Today he is helping students graduate with less debt through two new endowments at his alma maters, Illinois and GW.
Much like the USPTO’s investment in higher education to create a better patent system, Jaconetty is investing in higher education to combat institutional racism and create a more inclusive system.
“The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that society works best when people from diverse backgrounds are empowered to lead and to contribute to it,” Jaconetty said. “This is one small way that I could help address some longstanding issues in this country.”
In 2020, he committed $2.25 million through estate-planning to establish the Kenneth E. Jaconetty Scholarship Fund that specifically supports students who identify as BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The income of this endowment could cover the tuition of five students each year.
“Being able to provide our chemical engineering education to a diverse student body is crucial for our state, nation, and industry,” said department head Paul Kenis, the Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair. “Endowments like the Jaconetty Scholarship Fund help us achieve this goal by supporting BIPOC students who might not otherwise be able to attend Illinois.”
Jaconetty also made a planned gift of $2 million to create another endowed scholarship that provides need-based funding for second- and third-year GW Law students who are active members of the Black Law Students Association or enrolled members of a Native American tribe with an interest in intellectual property law.
2020 was a confluence of events that prompted him to make these gifts. The pandemic was a stark reminder that he was guilty of not having a will. A shoemaker’s children wear no shoes.
“It's similar for lawyers, and I certainly was living up to the reputation,” Jaconetty said. “You don't want to leave your descendants in a bind—that's the worst. I knew I needed to do it.”
When he began to consider his options, the social justice movement and murder of George Floyd helped him realize how he wanted to allocate his wealth, but still, there were a lot of worthy charities to consider. Jaconetty found himself at a loss.
A trusted friend (whom he met at Illinois) asked him what enabled him to achieve the financial success to make such a gift? “Clearly it was my two degrees,” he said.
To Jaconetty, creating a will is like any big undertaking that you've never done before—in the beginning, it is intimidating. He hired a good estate attorney (of course) and worked with the University of Illinois Foundation, which organized the paperwork and streamlined the process for him.
“When you know how much money you need to make it to the end of your life, and where it's going to come from, you see a lot of latitude on what you can give away even now,” Jaconetty said. “It's a huge relief—it's like another degree of freedom to carry out your charitable intentions.”
The immediate payoff for Jaconetty was unexpected: really inspiring conversations.
He’s met with department heads, deans, and even the president of GW—all of whom have reinforced the real need for endowments like his. His advice to others is don’t wait to give because it’s actually a pretty fun, not to mention rewarding, experience.
But for Jaconetty giving back extends beyond finances. He says people “who have lived life and learned a thing or two” should become mentors and give their time and wisdom to help guide the next generation. He has been a volunteer with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“One of the best resources young people can have is someone to talk to,” he said.
In a way, Jaconetty’s endowment originated from conversations with his own mentors, including his guidance counselor Randy Rayborn and ChBE professor Thomas Hanratty.
If you don’t think you’ll enjoy it, don’t do it.
Now generations of students will benefit from his generosity, a selfless act of giving that Jaconetty has discovered is something he truly enjoys.