Nothing much scared Jack Roseman — he overcame childhood poverty, anti-Semitism, survived a massive heart attack at age 42, counseled countless startup companies and was a chaired professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University.
It wasn’t until he was asked to meet with a group of gifted seventh-graders at a local elementary school that he became nervous. “What am I supposed to talk with them about?” he had asked his family.
As it turns out, he had nothing to worry about — the kids challenged him and proved that they were every bit as savvy as the college students and businessmen that he had taught over the years.
Known as the Tech Whisperer because of his intricate understanding of startup companies and principles of entrepreneurship, Roseman died on Sept. 30, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, at the age of 88.
“Yonkil” Roseman was born in 1931 in Lynn, Massachusetts, to Ukrainian immigrants. His parents spoke Yiddish exclusively, and Roseman was often left behind in school due to his lack of English knowledge. His father was a tailor who refused to work for less money than he thought he was worth, often plunging the family deeply into poverty. Roseman had a brother, Hyman; an older sister, Lena, arrived alone in America at the age of 13 when Roseman was 3. He never met his older brother, Leibel, who perished in the Holocaust along with his wife and children.
“The fact that he grew up in poverty affected his whole life,” said Judy Roseman, his wife of almost 60 years. “To get out and become something, that was very important to him, to make something of the Roseman name.”
Determined to never experience poverty again, Roseman put himself through both college and graduate school, majoring in math. He met his wife when she was a student in a math class he was teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. With a determined entrepreneurial spirit that defined the rest of his life and career, Roseman became immersed in the business world, having worked for such large companies as GE and Ceir and was involved with several software startups, such as Heliodyne Corp. and Actronics.
In 1970, he and his young family moved to Pittsburgh, where he had an opportunity to work with On-Line Systems, one of the first computer companies (eventually bought out by Sprint). “He was a pioneer in the computer industry, way back when,” said his daughter, Laura Kalchthaler. In fact, one of his prized possessions was a vacuum tube from an original Whirlwind II computer, one of the first computers. “He always said it was priceless and belongs in a museum,” she added.
Although he had never taken a business course, Roseman taught entrepreneurial management for 20 years at CMU. “His students loved him. Every holiday at the dining room table, he’d boast about his students like they were his kids,” said Kalchthaler.
CMU is where Roseman met Saras Sarasvathy. A Ph.D. student in the 1990s, she was his assistant when he taught the entrepreneurial management program. The two formed a decades-long friendship.
“It’s that one-on-one attention he gives you outside of class that is just amazing. He literally looks into your soul and shakes you into becoming a better human being but also a better entrepreneur; that was his most important characteristic,” said Sarasvathy, now a professor at Darden School of Business at University of Virginia.
Kalchthaler echoed this. “He would push people to be their best, think their best, to push beyond what their comfort zone would be,” she said.
Although never experiencing poverty again was a driving force in his life, he was also motivated by helping people. His goal, said Judy, was “to help others and to provide jobs and build something that didn’t exist, find a niche and do what you can for the people working for you.”
After years of working for, creating and advising companies, he established and became director of the Roseman Institute, a consulting firm for businesses, specifically startups and tech companies.
A major event that shaped his life was the heart attack he suffered at 42; he was not expected to live through the night. Even when it was apparent he would survive, he did not expect to live past 50. Kalchthaler said that for years, her father would set his watch alarm to ring at midnight, marking another day of life that he was given, and greeting that day with gratitude.
Always one to enthusiastically share both business and life lessons, Roseman wrote two books. The first, “Outrageous Optimism: Wisdom for the Entrepreneurial Journey,” was published in 2004 and provides a compilation of business advice. It has been translated into different languages and is used in college classrooms.
His most recent book, written with Pittsburgh-based reporter Evan Pattak in 2017, is more personal. Entitled “Jump! How I Rose from Poverty and Anti-Semitism to Become a Tech Sector Pioneer and a Mensch,” Judy said that the book was intended to be his legacy to his three children and five grandchildren.
Roseman’s passion for being an entrepreneur and helping coach other entrepreneurs was one of several driving forces in his life. Besides his family, the other was his Jewish heritage. As a child in Massachusetts, he was exposed to a great deal of anti-Semitism.
“He had lots of stories of anti-Semitism growing up, kids burning cigarette butts on his hand, beating him up, just for being Jewish. He always reminded us where he came from; he never lost sight of his Jewishness,” said Kalchthaler.
When the Rosemans arrived in Pittsburgh in 1970, they moved to the North Hills. At the time, there were few Jewish families in the area but they connected with a small group of people who started what would become Temple Ohav Shalom, based in Allison Park.
After the synagogue moved into its current space about 20 years ago, Roseman commissioned a bronze sculpture to honor Leibel, the brother he never got a chance to meet, as well as the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. The family worked with local sculptor and temple member Michael Kraus to help design the piece for Temple Ohav Shalom’s Holocaust Memorial Garden. His challenge to Kraus was to “create something that people will go out of their way to see; create something that will hit them in the heart.” The end result was a man praying, covered in a tallis, face invisible from all sides, with the fringes of the tallit barbed wire to represent the concentration camps.
Though his health began to decline last year, he never abandoned his “outrageous optimism.”
“He would want to be remembered for giving back; that was his main goal. He wanted to make the world a better place than he found it, and he hoped that the next generation would continue to make it even better,” said Judy. pjc
Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.