The Jewish Community of Louisville’s Blanche B. Ottenheimer Award is given annually to a leader who has made a real difference – improving the quality of life in Louisville, in Kentucky and beyond. There is no doubt that the 2014 Ottenheimer Award recipient, David A. Jones Jr. merits this honor.
“I am thrilled and humbled to receive this award,” Jones said, adding that it feels premature. Only a year and a half into his term on the Jefferson County Board of Education, he views it an encouragement for what is yet to be accomplished.
Jones is passionate about his business, his community service, health – both in the community and his own – and his family, and he invests a tremendous amount of energy and commitment into each.
In the community service realm, education is Jones’ primary focus. His official biography says, “For more than a decade, David has worked with JCPS through civic and business groups (including Every1Reads, Greater Louisville Project, Business Leaders for Education and 55,000 Degrees) to improve student achievement in our community. In 2012, he followed his lifelong passion for education into election to the board of Jefferson County Public Schools.
“David began his career in the classroom as a teacher and he continues to teach today at U of L. He is also a parent who had two children in JCPS (one was a valedictorian at Manual High School), and he attended the old Louisville Public School system,” according to the official biography.
In conversation with Community, however, Jones explained that his dedication to education really begins with his grandmothers, Lillias Hutchins Ashbury and Elsie Thurman Jones, both of whom were dedicated educators.
He viewed Ashbury as a “calming grandmother,” a teacher of Latin and math at Eastern High School who was a strong influence in helping him gain the confidence that he could learn. He described Jones as “smart and quick” – an individual who pushed her children hard to get an education and use the library. Although, Jones said, she didn’t push her grandchildren as hard, she still laid out clear expectations and provided strong support.
Their values were reinforced by the success of Jones’ parents due to their education and their expectations of him.
Another major influence that fueled Jones’ passion for education was the two years he spent teaching English in China following graduation from Yale University. Jones taught at a Chinese medical school in the early 1980’s, just a few years after the end of the populist uprising known as the Cultural Revolution that shut down the universities.
“The classroom building where I taught was marked by bullets,” he said, recalling that China had been anti-intellectual. It had shut down its universities and sent its educated individuals into the country. Jones’ students were poor 16 and 17 year olds in a medical program, who had almost no access to other information or resources.
When China’s “public policy quit being so horrible … people could take advantage of education.” Today, learning is blossoming in China, and its people are sometimes perceived as being genetically inclined toward education – a false perception. The focus on education was a choice.
Those students Jones taught are now physicians, working all around the world, and they serve as a reminder to him about what education can do.
These experiences played into Jones’ decision to run for the Jefferson County School Board. “In the modern era, the United States created universal free public education,” he noted, “and Kentucky has the right to a public education enshrined in its constitution.”
This right to an education has enabled generations of immigrants who came to this country with nothing to create a path to success for their families.
Today, however, Jones believes we have taken public education for granted and we don’t pay attention to it, so “it atrophies and freezes up and doesn’t modernize.” He compared it to the situation we had with health insurance until Obamacare forced change on the system, and hopes that his experience with healthcare and industries facing “big, gnarly issues” can help move the schools forward.
“There is nothing more important to a community than the education of its young,” he continued. “Every human institution needs to be reinvigorated,” and he believes he can provide a push public education in Louisville needs.
Jones believes that many public schools work pretty well; however “they don’t work very well at all for parents who lack the education or the motivation to push to get their kids into one of our better schools. And if you leave 40 percent of the kids out of a modern education, the community suffers.”
Jones sees this as in the community’s interest: just as it is important to keep people healthy so we don’t make each other sick, it is important to educate people so we can all benefit from each other’s work.
Professionally, Jones is a venture capitalist. His firm, Chrysalis, founded 20 years ago, has provided the financial resources for many creative people to realize their dreams. This passion was informed by his upbringing.
Jones was born in New Haven, CT, in 1958 and came to Louisville when his parents, David and Betty Jones, decided to return to the city in 1960. His father started what is now Humana as a nursing home company in 1961, but continued to practice law until 1968, when the company went public. It wasn’t until the late 70’s, Jones explained, “that the company became large enough to be visible.”
“What I saw, around the breakfast table, was my Dad as an aspiring entrepreneur and my Mom as a worrying, supportive partner,” he said. They and his father’s partners, Wendell Cherry and David Grissom, made smart business decisions, but they also took significant risks in building the business. Jones has tremendous respect for his parents and the path they chose.
Jones earned a B.A. from Yale University and a J.D. from Yale University Law School. In addition to his time in China, he worked for the State Department from 1988-92 before returning to Louisville.
By that time, he observed, “the world was becoming a much more competitive place … and it was clear that little Louisville needed to run faster if it was even going to stay in place.” Cities all around were growing and adapting to change much more quickly.
“I also thought that if Humana could start here and if China could change, location no longer limits what you can accomplish. You can do most things in Louisville that you can do elsewhere in the world.”
He noted that in other communities, particularly in California’s Silicon Valley, financial entrepreneurs had established the infrastructure to nurture business startups. Learning from them, Jones partnered with Doug Cobb to start a venture capital firm where people would bring their good ideas to them and they would choose the ones they wanted to work with, raising money for them and investing some of their own resources.
They started small and had some great mentors, including David Grissom, and built a good business. He also believes in what he is doing because by investing in the right kinds of projects, he believes, over time, he can help transform a city or an economy.
Among Chrysalis’ Louisville-based successes, Jones counts Appriss, started by Mike Davis and Yung Nguyen, which now employs around 550 people; as well as Genscape and High Speed Access Corp.
Jones has also served on the board of Humana since 1993, including as chair from 2005-10. “The fact that Humana has been able to stay here and prosper,” Jones said, “has been very satisfying for me.” He believes it has been good for his family and the community.
“I hope [Louisville’s] economy is somewhat livelier because of my work,” he said, adding that there is still a lot of work to do. Among the challenges he sees for the city are not having the state government based in Louisville and some tax structures that don’t work; but “we also have a wonderful community that works pretty well.”
Another issue Jones cares about is public health. With more Americans having insurance, insurance companies, including Humana, will now be responsible for health care costs for those who are unhealthy. One of the things they and the community now need to focus on is the obesity epidemic, which is causing an increase in chronic illnesses, particularly among the poor.
“Better educated people are eating better,” he said. “The health challenges for poor people and uneducated people can be more easily overcome when a big, powerful institution is on their side when they confront fast food and mass advertising and the low cost of unhealthy calories.”
For Jones, “turning around the obesity epidemic is a huge national and global priority.” The creation of modern agriculture that provides enough clean, safe food was a huge step forward in its day, but it has a down side, too.
People eat too much and children are too sedentary. This has led to increase chronic illnesses like diabetes. It has even affected our military preparedness, he explained. Today, the biggest causes for disqualification from service are obesity and poor education, which leaves a smaller pool of people eligible to serve.
Jones enjoys the arts, particularly live theater and the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre. He also loves to read and is an avid cyclist.
He and his wife, Mary Gwen Wheeler, married in 1986. They have two children, Nate, 25, who is a graduate of Hampshire College, and Becky, 22, who is about to graduate from Oberlin College.