Jim Thomas: Futurist, Florida Tech DNA

By Stephanie Bacon

The true measure of a university’s greatness can be found in the achievements of its alumni. Florida Institute of Technology has established a worldwide reputation for developing leaders and innovators across diverse fields, from academia to private industry to government. In that stratum of “the best of the best,” FIT alumni have gained their unique distinction through successes in their professions, service to the university and contribution to their communities.

The Jerome P. Keuper Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes an alumnus whose career accomplishments honor the university’s legacy of excellence.

How many people have heard of MapQuest? Everyone. The magnitude of this answer makes our next Jerome P. Keuper Distinguished Alumni Award Winner speechless.

Jim Thomas ’72 is an operations and finance executive guru whose proven leadership has led two IPOs, including MapQuest. Working on the early stages of the computer game and internet industries and now being on the leading edge of another transformation in the automotive industry as the vice president of corporate development for Rivian, it can be said that Thomas is our futurist.

Thomas is known for visualizing and understanding how changes in innovation can create new or reinvent industries. What didn’t seem possible just a few years ago is mainstream today. Thomas understands why Florida Tech is ranked one of the top entrepreneurial colleges in the U.S. according to Forbes magazine. He believes it was a natural evolution of our initial founding to educate the pioneers of the space industry.

Thomas says, “it’s the Florida Tech DNA. FIT continues the entrepreneurial drive as evidenced by creating one of the first online education programs, the innovative approaches to treat autism and involving students in real hands-on research.”

He believes college is a place for total personal growth—educational, social and spiritual. It is a place to try new things and fail. Learning from failures and how to bounce back can enhance personal fortitude more than success. Both the Florida Tech leadership and faculty strive for succcess and accept failure as part of the learning experience.

“For me the on-campus experience was like the R&D lab for my future life,” shares Thomas.

Florida Tech can thank Thomas and his friends for the first Homecoming in 1972. Being vice president of the student government, he experienced firsthand how group collaboration for innovative ideas can be born.

Thomas deems the basis for developing your lifetime network begins in college. He joined Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity his freshman year. He touts six of his dearest friends who share not only a brotherhood but a propensity to be entrepreneurs. Joe Caruso ’73, ’75 M.S., owns a minor league baseball team, Dave Force ’73 guided SeaWorld zoological operations for over 34 years, Dave Beall ’72, ’75 MBA, implemented nuclear energy across the U.S., Chip Heflich ’73 pioneered the infrastructure of the internet and streaming video, and Roger Ryall ’72 launched and grew a retirement community. Clearly, they all participated in the R&D lab of personal growth at Florida Tech.

Whether in the classroom or as part of a student activity, Thomas credits Florida Tech with learning the value of team work. He equates his proudest moments at MapQuest as the team working tirelessly with monumental effort to their goal of mapping to an entirely new medium accessible by multiple devices.

Each year after the launch of MapQuest, Thomas presented at several conferences. He started each talk asking the question, “How many people have heard of MapQuest?” In the first couple of years, about 20 percent raised their hands. By the third year, at a travel convention with more than 1,000 people in the audience, every hand shot straight in the air. The power of the internet launched an emergent company into a household name. These events are nothing less than shocking for Thomas.

For Thomas, being a Panther means a great education, lifelong friendships and learning to strive for worthwhile initiatives in life. He challenges students and alumni alike to create highly motivated, intelligent, creative and forward-thinking teams. These are the components Thomas has witnessed that make successful organizations.

“Jim Thomas is a testimonial to Jerome P. Keuper’s entrepreneurial spirit and represents the best of the best,” said Bino Campanini, vice president for alumni affairs. “We are proud to be presenting him this award at the Homecoming Gala.”

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