Jesse Tyson

Calling it one of his “a-ha” moments as a graduate student at Ohio State,Jesse Tyson remembers standing in the middle of The Oval in 1974, soaking in the buildings and the people.

“I was amazed at the surroundings. I knew I had been positioned to do something special,” he said. “It was on me at that point. In my mind, the ball was now in my court.”

Tyson brought with him to Ohio State the expectations of his family—namely his grandmother—who raised him in rural Jackson, Tennessee, as well as those of the late Dr. Frank Hale. The former vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion and professor, Hale was a persuasive voice in convincing Tyson to choose Ohio State over Penn State.

Now, 40 years after taking Hale’s advice, Tyson made the familiar journey back to Columbus to deliver the keynote at Fisher’s 2016 Pre-Commencement Ceremony on May 7.

“Serving as Pre-Commencement speaker is truly an honor and an opportunity to demonstrate what a career of hard work and dedication can lead to,” said Tyson, who spent 35 years as a leader at Exxon Mobil and now serves as CEO of the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA).

“I hope someone can see something in my story and use it as motivation to make the most out of whatever opportunity they’re given.”

Long before a career as a Global Aviation leader with Exxon Mobil and a leader at the NBMBAA, Tyson grew up a sharecropper—one of seven people living in a four-room house in Tennessee. The family had no indoor plumbing or air conditioning, and a wood-burning stove doubled as a cooking and heat source.

His grandmother, Lena Taylor, inspired him to pursue an education, first at West High School and then at Lane College in Jackson. As an undergrad, Tyson traveled to Senegal, West Africa, as part of a U.S. Department of State internship program. That, he said, was a watershed moment in his life.

“Typically what was next for people who grew up where I did was to stay home, get a job at the local factory and stay there forever,” he said. “I wanted more. When I began looking at grad schools, I talked with Dr. Hale and loved his enthusiasm for attracting more African Americans to Ohio State. His pitch was that if schools sent their best and brightest students to Ohio State, he’d make something out of them that the world would be proud of.

“I took him up on that offer.”

Tyson fondly remembers faculty members at Ohio State helping him adapt to life at a university with roughly the same population as his hometown. The transition, however, wasn’t completely seamless.

“There was no question I was different,” he said. “That was the time we were in. But being in the Midwest made things easier. Some of my interaction with whites from the Midwest actually helped the transition to school here. As we talked, we realized we had more in common than was different.”

Tyson graduated in 1976 and began his career at Exxon Mobil. The start of his professional career also jumpstarted another passion—philanthropy. Since earning his MBA, Tyson has remained engaged with his alma mater. He visits regularly, speaks to students and serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council.

He has been honored with the Fisher College of Business Global Diversity Award as well as the Pace Setter Executive Award—two of the highest honors at the college.

“My Fisher education has had an incredible impact in my life,” Tyson said. “While at Ohio State, I studied alongside some of the brightest minds I had encountered in life. They were very competitive, and my interactions with them in and out of the classroom prepared me for what was to come at Exxon. Fisher also reinforced some fundamental beliefs about the value of preparation and the duty to give back.”

Tyson has long supported students at Lane and Fisher through a number of scholarships, in honor of his grandmother and Dr. Hale.

“Financial aid was mission critical for me—I wouldn’t have gone to Lane or Ohio State without it,” he said. “So many students have a desire for an education but lack the resources for it. The fruits are obvious. It helps develop the next generation of leaders.

“Someone before me made it possible for me to come to Fisher. Knowing I have achieved so much because of that support only reinforces my commitment to helping that next generation succeed.”