Chen master

Jeff ChenFoster MBA alumnus and benefactor balances an eclectic curriculum vitae

1) Foster MBA who constructs crossword puzzles worthy of the Sunday New York Times.

Hmmm… Eight letters. Begins with J, ends with N. Let’s see. Has to be a bona fide polymath, well-read and widely experienced. Creative and analytical. A serious student of culture—both popular and passé—equally versed in history, commerce, literature, sport, art, film, science, architecture, medicine, warfare, language. A jack-of-all-topics.

Got it! Jeff Chen (MBA 2002).

And big-time crosswording is just a recent addition to the ever-expanding, endlessly fascinating curriculum vitae of this remarkable graduate of the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Chen is an entrepreneur, author, wealth manager, Big Brother, board member, game enthusiast, rock climber and world traveler.

He’s also a philanthropist who directed a major gift to the Foster School from his family foundation last year. His generosity inspired many fellow alums from his MBA class of 2002 to mark their 10th year reunion by contributing to a record-setting annual gift—a combined $468,000 to endow an MBA scholarship fund.

“I had a fantastic experience at Foster,” says Chen. “The education was great and the people were even better. I wanted to offer the same opportunity to others to experience what the MBA Program did for me.”

Gave as well as got

Chen earned two degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford and worked at a product design firm before enrolling in the Foster School’s MBA Program, as so many, to enhance his organizational impact.

The engineer proved a quick study of management. “Simply the best of the best of our MBAs,” assesses Ed Rice, an associate professor of finance and business economics who has seen plenty in his four decades at Foster.

What really distinguished Chen, Rice adds, was his generosity of intellect. When he saw some classmates struggling in Rice’s core finance course, Chen began offering free review and tutoring sessions. Pretty soon those classmates were sharing their own particular strengths with each other, creating a peer-to-peer dynamic that has since been institutionalized in the Student Support Network.

“This ethic has become engrained in the program,” says Dan Poston, associate dean for master’s programs. “It always existed, to some extent. But after Jeff established the model, it became the way it’s done at Foster.”

Acucelerate

Poston would argue that Chen’s exhaustive job search should also stand as a model. After interning at Immunex and working in technology commercialization through the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, he targeted early stage bioscience as his chosen field.

But rather than waiting for opportunity to find him, he created it. After conducting a comprehensive audit of potential firms, he connected with Dr. Ryo Kubota, a UW professor of ophthalmology who was developing a revolutionary treatment for blinding eye disease such as glaucoma and macular degeneration. Chen helped Kubota get Acucela off the ground, then headed business operations and helped raise more than $40 million in financing. After Acucela brokered a transformational partnership with a large Japanese pharmaceutical company in 2008, it was time for a new challenge.

“After the partnership deal, I felt like Acucela had outgrown what I could bring to the company,” Chen says. “It was time to step away.”

Cross worlds

Seven breakneck years with Acucela behind him, Chen decided to seek a modicum of balance, try his hand at a range of activities and “see what sticks.”

In a word, lots.

He has served on the boards of Big Brothers & Big Sisters and Passages Northwest, and on the finance committee of Treehouse. He manages the portfolios of friends and family. He has done field work with microfinance organizations Gambia Help and Global Partnerships. Alongside his brother and father, he manages the family’s Paramitas Foundation. He travels, climbs and plays games with perhaps a bit more brio than most. He recently got married.

It was Chen’s wife, Jill, who introduced him to the joys of crossword puzzles. Working together and solo, he has published upwards of 50 in major newspapers and has become a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. On November 25th and again on January 27th, he landed the most prestigious spot in all of puzzledom: the Times Sunday crossword.

Chen also just completed a book of 52 puzzles around a theme of bridge (the card game, another passion). “Doing crosswords about bridge is kind of the nexus of everything that’s good in the world,” he says, exaggerating just a bit.

Or, to put it another way, as he did when announcing the project on Facebook: “I’m officially 80 years old.”

The writing life (and living)

Constructing crossword puzzles is a hobby for Chen. Writing books, on the other hand, is becoming much more.

Since penning his first sentence of fiction in earnest just two years ago, he’s completed eight novels for middle-grade readers. Among them are tales of exceptional kids recruited to a remote island to construct monsters for the Greek gods, of flying pygmy elephants from Burma who plot the overthrow of Victorian-age Britain, and of an overworked Grim Reaper taking on a bumbling apprentice who screws up everything.

Fanciful plots, but will they sell? Chen has a few advantages in the notoriously difficult-to-crack publishing industry. For one, an agent as active as his imagination. For another, a preternatural ability to fuse right and left brain at once, to approach writing as both an art and a business.

Many principles of enterprise are evident in his literary method, including:

Work flow management – Chen writes 6 or 7 days a week, for 3 to 4 hours a day, aiming for 1,500 words each day, actually keeping a timecard to stay on task.

Research – He’s read, dissected and analyzed upwards of 300 middle-grade books in the past couple of years to discern what works (and what doesn’t).

Development – He wrote off his first five manuscripts as, essentially, practice.

Scaling – He’s outlining multiple book series from original tales, the overwhelming trend in kid lit today.

Outsourcing – He has assembled a network of fellow writers and truth-tellers to assess ideas and drafts.

Diversification – He keeps a running list of story ideas that currently numbers in the 300s.

And one last entrepreneurial trait: ambition.

“I don’t just want to get something published,” Chen says. “Ideally, I’d like to be one of the most successful authors of all time.”

Is he tempted to get back into business? “I get that inkling,” he admits. “But you know with the writing, it’s kind of like trying to get a startup off the ground.”

Could an entrepreneur see it any other way?