Richard Liebich is perhaps best known as a pioneering educator.
He founded Project
Lead the Way, a high-quality pre-college engineering curriculum
used throughout the country. But the Project, and his decades of
success as an engineer and businessman, all spring from the same
“I like building things,” the forthright 63-year-old says. Even before he graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with a B.Sc. in civil engineering, Liebich put into practice the theory he had absorbed at Albany Frosted Foods, the upstate New York company his father owned.
“In the summer of my junior year, my dad said, ‘You’ve had three years of training, so you should be able to build a warehouse. So go and build one.’” Liebich junior did precisely that—then built another one the following summer, working closely with architects and contractors to get the specs right. “All of a sudden, all of this stuff you sort of listened to during the lectures made a whole lot of sense.”
While he was at WPI, Liebich also realized he was good at business. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in entrepreneurship. After completing his undergraduate degree, he earned an MBA from Michigan State—not a common combination back in the 1960s but one that made him popular with employers. “I got a lot of job offers,” Liebich recalls. “I didn’t take any of them, but I got a lot of offers.”
One offer he didn’t refuse was from the Seabees. When Liebich volunteered for military service, the United States Navy figured they had a perfect job for him: a tour of duty in Danang, Vietnam. There he supervised the maintenance and repair of vehicles, ranging from forklifts to tractor-trailers. “It wasn’t exactly what I imagined, but you go where the military sends you.”
After his Navy service, Liebich joined Sysco Foods Inc., a multibillion-dollar food service provider co-founded by his father. He spent 10 years with the firm, and served as president of the Syracuse, New York, division before deciding that a publicly traded company, with its concern for quarterly profits, wasn’t for him. So in 1979 he started his own company, Transport National Development Corporation, an industrial cutting tool manufacturer in Orchard Park, New York.
As Liebich built his company from the ground up—“I began with zero sales, zero employees, zero everything”— he heard a depressingly common refrain from his customers: They could never find enough engineers and engineering technicians for their businesses. Liebich found the situation frustrating: “None of us were going to do well if we couldn’t do anything about it, but I told them I didn’t have an idea about how to solve it.”
Just as Liebich was hearing these laments from his clients, his son Adam was beginning a technology course at middle school. Liebich decided to donate computers to replace the school’s aged Apple models, and the program’s director, Dick Blais, invited him to come by and learn more.
What Liebich found at Gowana Middle School in Clifton Park, New York, in 1995, was a pre-engineering program so ambitious that it drew a steady stream of interested visitors from other schools. Impressed, he joined the advisory board. Yet when he asked Blais how many other schools had added pre-engineering education to their curricula, Liebich was flabbergasted at the answer: None. “As a businessman and an engineer, the obvious question was, ‘What the hell was wrong?’”
He learned that the problems were myriad, ranging from funding to teacher training to implementation of a basic program. “It was all too overwhelming” for schools, Liebich says. Then there was the question of generating a standardized curriculum. Blais had operated the Gowana program for 10 years with help from Hudson Valley Junior College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and General Electric. But he still hadn’t been able to raise funds to create a system that could be shared with other schools. And the material was scattered: “All the activities were sitting in teachers’ filing cabinets,” Blais recalls.
Liebich attacked the challenge head-on. He obtained $10 million from two foundations launched by his father. Then he hired Blais, who, in turn, recruited “the smartest people I could find” and began meeting with college professionals, designing a curriculum and training teachers.
Thus was born Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a standardized set of courses designed to provide secondary school students the preparation in math, science, technology and language arts they need to succeed in college-level engineering.
From the outset, Liebich drew upon his business expertise to develop firm guiding principles for PLTW. He determined that the program had to be rigorous and standardized, yet easily adaptable for schools across the country. Today, 11 years after the program’s inception, all participating instructors must undergo a skills assessment, then attend a two-week training program before they start teaching. It was also important that the program be financially sustainable. “A lot of great projects have gone by the wayside because funding has dried up,” Liebich explains. “It doesn’t make a difference how good it is. If it doesn’t have long-term funding, it won’t survive.”
PLTW generates 90 percent of its revenue by leasing software and being the sole supplier to schools of certain equipment and materials. The organization says that by leveraging its size, it is able to offer schools the lowest prices available. The remaining 10 percent comes from grants from public and private sources. These grants are earmarked for specific activities, such as curriculum development or teacher professional development.
Blais recalls the early aspirations for what the non-profit PLTW would achieve. When the founders asked themselves how they would judge its success, “we all agreed that if we were in 35 high schools in upstate New York 10 years later, we would have met the goals of the foundation.” A decade later, they had reached this goal. “But we were also in 2,300 schools in 49 states, with 250,000 students.” The one holdout, North Dakota, may join this year.
According to Blais, much of the program’s success can be attributed to Liebich’s business smarts. “Richard does not think like an educator or a bureaucrat. He has the end in mind and he has quality in mind. He knows how to organize resources to achieve the best results.” Liebich was adamant, for example, that schools sign an agreement about the quality, standards and practices required to implement the program. They would also be held accountable for sustaining quality. Blais doubted that schools would agree, but Liebich was convinced. “He said, ‘Oh yes they will. We’re going to give them something that is so good we are going to change their culture.’ And he did,” Blais recalls.
Not a Slam Dunk
Hermann Viets, president of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, one of 33 colleges of engineering involved with teacher training and consulting for PLTW, also praises Liebich’s pragmatism. “To succeed in business you need to be a realist. Realists decide what is possible and what isn’t, and they only pursue the possible.” He adds, “Just because the approach behind the Project was sound doesn’t mean that its success was a slam dunk. You still have to have good leadership, and Richard certainly provided it.”
As PLTW gathered adherents across the country, word of its success and rigorous, comprehensive standards eventually spread beyond America’s borders. Liebich has fielded requests from China, Germany, Great Britain and Taiwan, but remains focused on U.S. schools. “Everyone has the same problem and they are all struggling to find out ways to fix it,” he says.
At a time when many educators worry whether students can succeed as engineers, Liebich, WPI’s first recipient of the Humanitarian Leadership Award in 2006, remains stoutly optimistic. “Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They can do very high quality work at a young age.” He adds, “We just have to make sure that we are doing everything we can and doing it right. And if we do, it’s extraordinary what they can achieve. We’ve got three or four kids in our capstone course who came up with patentable ideas. Did I know anyone of that caliber when I was a senior? Never!”
Nonetheless, he also cautions, “We’re going to lose them unless we get them excited [and] give them problems to solve and get them excited about the world they live in. It doesn’t have so much to do with them as to do with the way we teach them. They’re going to go one of two ways. That’s the huge opportunity—and the huge danger—and quite frankly that’s one of the things that fires me up. If we can succeed, life will be great. If we don’t, life will be really bad, not just for engineers but all of us.”
In the meantime, Liebich has no plans to retire. “I tell my employees they can’t retire until I die, so they get kind of nervous,” Liebich says, laughing. “I’m convinced you’re a lot healthier if you keep working and learning. Like an engineer.”
Despite his successes, Liebich has both feet planted firmly on the ground. “He doesn’t like to get up and accept awards,” notes Frank Zaffino, a former senior vice-president of Eastman Kodak and a PLTW board member. “He’s embarrassed by that. You have to chase him around to get a picture of him. He’s a very selfless person.” He compares Liebich to billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and Tom Golisano. He’s not on the same scale, “but certainly of the same ilk. These guys have that very rare balance between the ability to make money and the desire to put that money to good use for mankind.”
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.