James Cusumano, jack of many trades and master of them all, has followed his free-range curiosity on many eclectic pursuits. This year, his alma mater recognized his achievements with membership in the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.
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As a kid, James Cusumano had two passions: chemistry and rock and roll. The first struck him at age 8 when his parents, a postman and a homemaker, bought him a chemistry set, with which he made everything from cosmetics to ink and sold the products to neighbors. “I think they felt sorry for me, or thought I was cute,” says the New Jersey native. “But the idea of using technology and having somebody pay for it really stuck with me.”
Later, Cusumano RC’64, GSNB’68, the oldest of 10, was expected to find work and donate half his earnings to the family. Because his mother had a piano in the house, he took lessons and, at 14, formed a band, which played proms and bars. By the time he enrolled at Rutgers, on a full scholarship, he was a member of a rock and roll outfit called the Royal Teens, best known for the hit “Short Shorts.” “I recorded and performed with them for 12 years,” he says.
It was his love for chemistry, however, that blossomed at Rutgers. Armed with a research fellowship, he began the work that would carry him through his career. After earning a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, he worked as director of catalytic research for Exxon and later founded Catalytica Inc., a company that developed cleaner, more efficient means of production for the energy and pharmaceutical industries. It also made Cusumano and his partners very wealthy men.
But I never thought about making money. I thought about having fun building a company. The money came from something I really had a passion for.
That passion extends to his family. When Jane, his wife of 18 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, he founded a film company to bankroll What Matters Most, a film she wrote and directed while undergoing chemotherapy just months before she died. The film earned numerous film festival awards and was distributed worldwide.
Fast-forward a decade, and Cusumano is now married to Inéz Sipulova, a heritage-restoration entrepreneur from the Czech Republic with whom he turned a rundown 17th-century mansion outside Prague into an awarding-winning, eco-friendly hotel and spa, Chateau Mcely (pronounced mis-SHELL-ee). It’s a “launchpad” for several projects, including a line of natural cosmetics, used at the spa and sold online, and Leadership for Life, an organization operating under the premise that “many of the critical issues that we face globally—whether climate change, energy security, poverty—come down to ineffective leadership,” he says. The group’s debut event, a conference and workshop for CEOs, took place in June.
Even though he is physically far from Rutgers, Cusumano hasn’t forgotten it. He recalls fondly how the university instilled his interest in catalysis, and he remembers his first foray into the corporate world, where among Ivy League graduates, “I could really hold my own,” he says. “All those things I learned, in retrospect, were important in helping to craft the future that I created in my life.”
(This story is adapted from “Star Gazing” in the Spring 2011 issue of Rutgers Magazine.)