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Marrying Humanities with Science and Technology

Editor’s Note: Bob Geolas was awarded the Humanities and Social Sciences Distinguished Alumnus award at NC State’s 2014 Evening of Stars gala.

Bob Geolas embodies the value that a humanities degree brings to the technology industry. He also demonstrates the myriad opportunities available to those who are well educated in the humanities and social sciences.

Today the Humanities and Social Sciences alumnus (Multidisciplinary Studies ’87) is president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation. How he got there is a story of hard work, competence, serendipity and passion.

Geolas didn’t start out at NC State. After graduating from Smithfield-Selma Senior High in 1983, he entered Appalachian State University. He wanted to be an art teacher. During his second year, a faculty member encouraged him to apply to NC State’s College of Design. Geolas was accepted and soon met the dean, Claude McKinney.

“He saw that I had a tremendous interest in speech and communications and politics,” says Geolas. “He recommended that I reach out to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and seek a multidisciplinary degree.”

In addition to McKinney, Geolas had allies in political science professor Abe Holtzman and speech communication professor Ray Camp.

“Abe Holtzman, Ray Camp and Claude McKinney really worked with me to craft what became the multidisciplinary degree that I got approved by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and allowed me to graduate on time,” says Geolas. “I wanted to get out so I could get involved in a political campaign.”

After graduation, Geolas began working on Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential bid, covering the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. He worked with political consultants Paul Begala and Donna Brazile, rallying university students around Gephardt.

When Gephardt didn’t win the bid, Geolas landed in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Children’s Defense Fund with Marian Wright Edelman. He also volunteered at the Democratic Leadership Council, where he met Bill and Hillary Clinton. Back in North Carolina a few years later, his NC State mentor Abe Holtzman introduced Geolas to state Rep. Joe Mavretic, then NC speaker of the house.

Geolas served as Mavretic’s legislative liaison and went on to work on Gov. Jim Hunt’s third campaign. He also served as Bill Clinton’s state director for the 1992 presidential campaign. When Hunt won a third term, Geolas joined the team.

“Along the way, I developed a tremendous passion for North Carolina and public service,” he says. “Ultimately, that passion grew into a real commitment to economic development.”

Geolas was always asking himself how politics and policy could translate into something that was truly meaningful in people’s lives. “Gov. Hunt really saw that passion in me,” says Geolas. “In 1994, he suggested that I consider going over and working with Claude McKinney on the development of Centennial Campus.”

Geolas took Hunt’s advice in 1995, working under McKinney and then taking his place as top manager when McKinney retired. In 2004, Clemson University hired Geolas as executive director for its International Center for Automotive Research, a project similar in scope to Centennial Campus.

The state of North Carolina got Geolas back in 2011 when the Research Triangle Foundation tapped him to focus on initiatives to ensure RTP remains at the forefront of technology and applied science.

“RTP is the largest research park in all of North America,” he says. “We’re about half the size of the island of Manhattan, and we have an amazing global brand. But it’s time to rethink the way the park works, the way it looks.

“We talk about bringing things into the park that don’t exist today. Nobody can live here today. No coffee shops, no sandwich shops, no retail. There’s very little for the broad general public to do in the park. It needs to be an environment where we can allow the most innovative and creative thinkers to come and get started with the things that will change our lives.”

Brooks Raiford met Geolas at NC State when they were both students. Raiford, president and CEO of the North Carolina Technology Association, chairs the CHASS Advisory Board. “Dean Braden and I knew Bob would be inundated with requests,” he says. “We approached him soon after he came back to North Carolina to ask him to join our board. We were so pleased he was willing to serve.”

“Bob has remarkable interpersonal skills and a nimble intellect that allow him to understand technical issues, but also to think about things in cultural, human and interpersonal contexts,” says Braden. “He moves between those frames of reference with great fluidity.”

“Bob has a strong ability to distill a lot of information and messages into clear, concise thoughts,” Raiford adds, “and that’s often the first critical step in persuading others.”

Now that he’s back home, Geolas is determined to bring science, technology and the humanities together to increase economic opportunities for North Carolina.

“More and more companies today are saying we don’t just need smart engineers, we need engineers who have context,” Geolas says. “What do they know about the history of the world? How do they communicate? How are they staying engaged? “I think NC State is poised to merge the humanities with technology to prepare the innovators of the future.”