Entrepreneur Paul Jennings ’85 (Marketing) can be described as a self-made man, as he founded Public Communications Services, Inc. and helped build it into a success in the telecommunications industry.
The drive to achieve and to build a business from scratch has roots in his Long Island, N.Y., upbringing and cannot be taught. As to what can be taught, Jennings owes a debt of gratitude for his success to the targeted education he received at California State University, Northridge.
“Every class I took at Northridge, I’ve used somewhere in some context over the last 30 years,” Jennings said. “Even classes that were out of my core or felt abstract at the time gave me a continuum of information that I was able to take back to the world.”
Yet his road to a college degree, like that of his rise to business success, was far from a direct line.
“As a child, I had fairly severe learning issues, and where I grew up, kids who didn’t take to academic work were put in vocational training,” he said.
That training led to work in the aviation industry right out of high school, and at age 19 he received a job offer in California to work for Lockheed. The allure of the West Coast was too strong, and Jennings was quick to start a new life in the land of endless summer.
He began to thrive immediately at Lockheed, and as he progressed it appeared likely that he would eventually go to college.
“From 3,000 miles away, my parents’ loving voice came through: ‘Paul, a college education would be good,’” he recalled.
Since he was working on development for a fighter jet, engineering school appeared to be in his future. He began to take general education classes at Valley College and later College of the Canyons while still working full time, a schedule that, because of his learning issues, seemed to work better for him. Despite being later laid off at Lockheed, Jennings plowed forward with college and found himself gravitating toward business classes.
By the time he matriculated to CSUN, his focus had shifted to marketing, as he liked the sales aspect of the discipline. Taking primarily night classes, he worked in sales for a long-distance carrier. Jennings became intrigued by the companies he worked with, often asking them as many questions about their businesses as they had about what he was selling. By the time he graduated with his degree in marketing, Jennings was ready to utilize the skills he learned at CSUN as well as his entrepreneurial spirit.
With phone calling cards gaining in popularity, Jennings decided to specialize in markets that relied heavily on collect calls. By the mid-1990s, he had applied his combined understanding of sales and marketing so effectively that Public Communications Services had outpaced the competition, providing reliable phone service to correctional facilities. Finding that niche market led to a very successful business venture.
Over time, Jennings developed a sense to give back, and looked at the opportunities that CSUN gave him and wanted to see how he might be able to help future generations of Matadors reach for their dreams.
“There’s a saying that, for those who are given a lot, a lot is expected of them. I don’t ever look at my business success as having been all me,” he said. “Yes, you have to seize opportunities when they present themselves, but not everyone gets the same opportunities.”
Jennings has helped create opportunities for CSUN students through his philanthropy. He said he believes strongly in giving opportunities to people who have a strong work ethic, like those at CSUN.
“Northridge is a serious environment,” he said. “Businesses want to hire Northridge grads because they’ve had to work hard to build an education and hold a job. They have grit.”
In April 2015, CSUN honored his service by honoring Jennings with CSUN’s Distinguished Alumni Award. At the time of the ceremony, Jennings looked back at the young man in New York who had the learning disabilities and went to vocational school. That young man has grown into an entrepreneurial success, yet he has not forgotten what it was like to be a student working hard to pay for his own college education. Now, Jennings said, it’s time to pay it forward to CSUN.
“It’s time to get involved and help the school become more independent of the state budget,” he said. “There’s no better way to connect back than to give to the schools that are the engine for future successful kids. I find it incredibly rewarding that my dollar payback is a return on investment for universities like CSUN.