On April 26, the Baker Scholars—high-achieving students in FIT’s School of Business and Technology who receive an annual scholarship to cover a portion of tuition costs—gathered for their annual reception with Jay and Patty Baker. Jay Baker had a powerhouse career in retail, culminating in the presidency of Kohl’s Department Stores. Patty Baker studied theater arts and art history at Hunter College; with FIT she has a fulfilling connection to a renowned cultural institution and the creative talent it nurtures.
As part of the evening’s events, the students were given an opportunity to ask the Bakers direct questions. What follows are excerpts from that Q&A.
What are your favorite things about mentoring and charity?
Jay: When I retired …
Patty: He didn’t retire. [Laughs]
Jay: Well, we’re busy still, but when I did retire, it was in 2000. I stayed on the Kohl’s board for about seven years. [I talked with] my two partners, and we said, you know, it’s very hard to build another Kohl’s so we’re not going to do that. We used to work eight days a week, and we don’t want to do that anymore. So I looked at Patty, and we both came to the same conclusion: We want to give back. We’ve been incredibly fortunate, so this is our chance to do something for other people. So that was our mission, and we’ve been involved not just giving back, but giving of our time.
We come to [Baker Scholar events] every year a couple of times, we’re on many charitable boards, and we move off some and go on others, but that’s what we decided to do. Patty was a drama queen in college [laughs]. She majored in drama and art, so I said when we got married, I love shows and I love art, so we started there and we did things in the art world and schools and drama.
Then we moved on and we said schools would be great, and we’ve become very involved, certainly here at FIT, and at the Wharton School where I went, and Hunter College where Patty went. We were just there recently, dedicated a building to the drama school, so that was very exciting. At Wharton we have a retail center that I’m proud to say is the biggest retail center, I think, in the country, and we have scholars there too which is nice.
And then we decided health is important, so we got involved in hospitals—two of them in New York, Hospital for Special Surgery and Mount Sinai—and we’re very involved with a hospital in Naples [Florida], the Naples Community Hospital, which is named for us, which is an honor. I’ve gone back on the board again there. We’ve done many other things helping underprivileged kids. I’ve been on the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation Board around 18 years, and they help underprivileged kids. They serve well over a million kids a year, building ballfields for them and other things, so we’ve done a lot.
Patty: To answer your question about mentoring, we do it for those “a-ha” moments when people get it. When you’re helping someone with a problem or a situation and all of a sudden it dawns on him or her, “I can do this,” or, “I understand, I can get this,” it just keeps us going, it keeps us youthful. We’re getting older, too, but we did work very hard to get where we are and we’re thrilled to be able to give it back.
As Jay said, the Cal Ripken, Sr. board that he serves on has created tons of ballfields around the country, and they have a special program called [Badges for Baseball] to get children off the street and to trust police if they feel threatened or unsafe. They can go to a police officer and get help instead of fearing that they will get in bigger trouble. So there are lots of programs available and we really want to help where there’s a niche for us. We’ve been very lucky and we believe in giving back, and we like to lay eggs where we nest. We nest in Naples, Florida, and we nest here.
What were your favorite parts of your careers?
Jay: For me, I’ve been in retailing my whole life, but to get a chance to be on the ground floor and to buy a company in a leveraged buyout—Kohl’s Department Store—in 1986, a company that had 39 stores, $285 million. I remember losing money … I had two of the greatest partners in the world. They were like my brothers, and financial partners, but with leveraged buyouts, probably about a third, maybe 25% of them work, so you really got your fingers crossed. You work eight days a week. You work very hard, and you’ve got to love it. But to see it become a $20 billion company and to see it have 1,100 stores … You know, we started in ’86, it’s 2022, so it’s lasted a long time. So that’s been my biggest thrill is to take something from nothing and with partners and many great people. You know you’re just one person, but to see that happen. Today [Kohl’s is] going through some tough times. People are looking at possibly buying them. Certainly, I hope they continue under their own management because you always work better when you don’t work under somebody else. And so that was my greatest thrill.
Patty: My greatest thrill was becoming more closely involved with Broadway. I’ve been doing things in other towns, and in schools of course, but becoming an administrator and a producer on Broadway and agonizing over whether [something is] going to make it or not. You don’t go in it for the money [laughs]. But meeting the people involved—behind-the-scenes people, the makeup people, the costume people, and the actors—sometimes you form friendships. And I think one of the most gratifying plays I’ve ever been on was Memphis, which won a Tony, my first Tony, back in 2010. It’s been a series of ups and downs. The pandemic wreaked havoc and is still wreaking havoc. Shows are canceling because of COVID. Daniel Craig had it so Macbeth was canceled for a few nights, and the other night Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo had it, so the stand-in played. It’s bound to happen, if you have a vaccine or not.
What advice would you give to your younger selves?
Jay: I think I would still be interested in retailing; it’s what I love. And I would do it, except I think there are so many different opportunities now. I think it’s an incredible time to want to go into the business. When I went in there were department stores, and I started a training program, which I think someone is doing, which is still great, but I think at one time there were, like, 30 department stores; there are, like, six now. Specialty stores changed dramatically. The big giants—Target, Walmart, etc.—are still doing well, but a lot of smaller chains have gone out. But what I see is you have one person, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, who changed the whole business, which in a way has offered so many more opportunities for people because now everything doesn’t have to be a store, it can be online. It’s a tremendous part of the business and it’s never going away. Stores aren’t going away, but the combination is terrific.
Also, years ago you never thought of people starting their own business. It was too much money, it was too impossible, there was no cash to get it, so very few people started their own businesses. They worked for somebody. Today, entrepreneurship, I know it’s here [at FIT] very much, I know at Wharton it’s the third biggest major and it didn’t exist 10 years ago. So, I mean, it’s amazing how young people can go with other people and start their own business. And that really wasn’t something I could even consider in those days. Would I consider it today? Yes, I would consider it today. So I think there’s more opportunity now than ever. It’s more diverse. So I think you really should be looking at it and make a decision that’s best for you—what you really feel good about.
Patty: My advice would be to be honest with yourself, because it all starts there. Don’t be something someone else wants you to be. Don’t do something someone else wants you to do unless you’re all in on it. I went to nursing school because my parents thought I would be a great nurse—I was very compassionate with animals. Still am. Not a nurse. I flunked out after my first year and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. [Laughs]. Do I regret that? No, it was a great learning experience, and the things I learned then I can still use. When [Jay] comes down with something I can pretty well tell what to do, and he’s still alive. [Laughs]
Take it all in, learn what you can, but be honest with yourself and what you want to do and what you want to accomplish. Don’t be too hard on yourself as far as how long it takes you. And if you need help, ask for it, because there’s nothing wrong with that, and if you can help somebody else, you can help yourself.
Jay: Do what you really believe in. Your success comes from your passion, and your passion is what you really want to do. And that is probably the most important thing.