April 15, 2011

Since education was his golden ticket, Rosen '61 offers one to entire impoverished neighborhood

In 1974, Harris Rosen '61 did, in his words, "an incredibly stupid thing." After being fired by three employers, most recently at the Disney Co., Rosen spent his entire savings on a failing Quality Inn in Orlando. "That night, I walked into what was then my office -- and I cried," he said.

Delivering the keynote address at the Entrepreneurship@Cornell Celebration April 14 in Statler Auditorium, Rosen, this year's Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year 2011, said that he picked himself up and eventually became the founder and president of Rosen Hotels and Resorts Inc., the largest private hotel group in Florida. Michael Johnson, dean of the Hotel School, called him "the stuff of legends in the hotel industry"; Cornell President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III described him as a "great Cornellian, great entrepreneur and great philanthropist."

The Entrepreneurship@Cornell celebration was a two-day conference bringing together more than 900 students, alumni, faculty and staff. Among other events, it included symposia, two business idea contests, a technology showcase, and a gala banquet hosted by President David Skorton.

Growing up on the lower east side of Manhattan, Rosen recalled hearing a "very well-dressed lady" say as she stepped off a sight-seeing bus, "So, this is how they live." When Rosen asked his mother what the lady meant, she suggested that he "start studying now, because education will be the way out of this neighborhood."

"For about 20 years, I was obsessed with being successful," Rosen confessed. His company was growing rapidly, and sitting at his desk and dreaming about his seventh hotel, Rosen thought, "Enough is enough." He asked himself: "Are you forgetting all about the hard work? Are you forgetting about mom and dad, and their dedication to giving you the best education possible?"

So Rosen began to give back. He noted, "education has been really the theme of my philanthropy." He adopted the neighborhood of Tangelo Park, Fla, which he described as "ravaged by drugs and crime." With an education and a child-development expert, Rosen created the Tangelo Park Pilot Program, giving a preschool education to every 2-, 3- and 4-year old and paying for the college expenses of all the high school students in the neighborhood who went to vocational school, community college or college in Florida.

The program was a success: Crime in the neighborhood plummeted by 55 percent, and the graduation rate rose to 100 percent from 30-35 percent, Rosen said.

"I do believe that there is as much intellectual talent in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the U.S. as there is in the most affluent neighborhoods," he said. "My dream is that one day we'll have hundreds if not thousands of Tangelo Park programs throughout the United States."

Rosen also described his self-insurance initiative, which provides health care for his 4,500 employees and their dependents and includes an on-site medical center. The center, he said, is currently expanding to include a rehab unit and a fitness facility. Its emphasis, he said, is on "wellness and prevention."

"It's important for our culture to have a personal interest in our associates," he said, emphasizing his employees' happiness and "one of the lowest [turnover rates] in the industry."

His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: "Make a promise to yourself that the more successful you become, the more generous you become also." He added: "If you can keep that balance, that equilibrium, you'll have a wonderful life."

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.