“JCU gave me the chance to learn how to lead before I had much experience as a leader; that gave me the confidence to willingly accept new opportunities throughout my career.”
Bill O’Rourke serves on the Board of Directors of John Carroll University and served as a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University, where he sits on the Ethics Advisory Board. He is the Chair of the Advisory Board at the Atkins Center for Ethics at Carlow University, and lectures on ethics at universities and businesses internationally. He is currently working to help reinforce character and integrity in the Special Operations Forces of the U.S. military.
O'Rourke retired from Alcoa after a 36-year career, serving as Corporate Patent Counsel, president of Alcoa Russia, vice president sustainability and environment, health & safety, vice president of global business services, Corporate Auditor, Vice President of Procurement, and the chief information officer (CIO). He went to Alcoa after serving as an Officer in the U.S. Army, then attending law school while working at U.S. Steel Corporation.
Q: Why did you attend JCU?
A: I decided to attend John Carroll University my junior year of high school. My aunt, Sister Brenda Marie Vines, was Treasurer of Villa Marie College and had attended classes at John Carroll. Although it was all-male at the time, the university welcomed nurses and nuns to attend. She really liked the atmosphere and recommended it, and my parents took me there and we all fell in love with it. My youngest sister Gracie also graduated from John Carroll.
Q: What story or experience best reflects your time at JCU?
A: I remember upperclassman would come to you and tell you “you should get involved in this.” John Glenn was running for Senator in Ohio, and an upperclassman said he was going to get involved in the campaign, and that he’d like me to get involved as well. And I did. This wasn’t uncommon. Student leaders on campus would invite you to do something significant and meaningful to your life. It was a highly respected senior at JCU who advised me to join the business fraternity – Alpha Kappa Psi. When I was a sophomore, I was asked by fellow student, Tom Kelly, to be his co-director of freshman orientation week and parents weekend at John Carroll. That was a really big job. I frankly didn’t know if I could do it. But John Carroll gives you these opportunities to discover you can handle something that may feel out of reach. Those experiences helped build my confidence and willingness to take risks throughout my career.
At Alcoa I started as a patent attorney and progressed in their Legal Department to Assistant General Counsel. Then, they asked me if I’d run procurement for the whole organization. I didn’t know about procurement, but I figured “I can do this.” Throughout my time at the company —VP of sustainability, CIO, Auditor, president of Alcoa-Russia—jumping into those jobs with a background as a patent attorney, you’d have to be a little nuts. John Carroll prepared me to say yes to opportunities like that when they were offered, then work to make a positive impact.
Q: What was the most valuable learning/lesson from JCU that shaped you personally or professionally?
A: Father Joseph Schell was the president when I was there, and periodically, he’d invite a handful of students to come to his office for a conversation. I got invited three times to meet with the president of the university. I remember being struck by the fact that, even at his level, he would take the time to reach out to students. He actually listened and implemented a couple of the ideas that we gave him. When I went to Alcoa, I adopted Fr. Schell’s practice of listening. I’d invite people at all levels to my office to find out what was going on, or walk around and talk to them. John Carroll had a culture of care throughout the university even before they called it that. I surprisingly sat in that same President’s office many years later when invited by Fr. Robert Niehoff, S.J. to discuss joining the John Carroll Board.
Listening is a powerful thing. After the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, they approached me about becoming the interim director. This was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, and I’m not of the faith. They said they didn’t care. They wanted somebody that could help them. They were looking for honesty, transparency, objectivity. So I accepted. I also convinced them to have a non-congregational membership, and I’m now a member of Tree of Life congregation. I find that people all over are the same. They want to be heard and treated fairly.
Q: How have you made a human impact in your career?
A: In the role I’m in now, I’m teaching ethics at about 25 universities across the country each year. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at six of the Jesuit universities. When I reflect back on how that happened, it came from my experiences at Alcoa, including Alcoa- Russia where I lived for three years, but a lot came from the liberal arts foundation at John Carroll. We had substantial requirements for philosophy and theology. I’m trying to teach fairness, openness and transparency to students around the country, and John Carroll played a role by modeling those qualities at a formative time in my life. And that has had an impact in my family, my church and my community – far beyond my career.
I’ve been involved in my Parish, Junior Achievement, Rotary Clubs. I’ve coached soccer, Little League and basketball. I’m on the Sustainable Pittsburgh board (past chairman). I mentor soldiers coming out of the military now. John Carroll graduates understand that you’ve been given a lot in life, so you’re expected to give back, whether it’s monetary or with your time, and a lot of us do. I enjoy doing that kind of work. I think “giving” is a key part of life during and after John Carroll.