Our Stories

Watching His Dream Take Flight

Delta CFO Paul Jacobson went where he had hoped with his MBA

Paul Jacobson
Chief Financial Officer, Delta Airlines

Vanderbilt MBA 1997

Paul Jacobson had dreamed of flying ever since he was a boy. When childhood asthma grounded that goal early on, the goal of working for an airline took its place. But after he earned a degree in aviation management, the closest aviation job Paul could find was with McDonnell-Douglas in St. Louis. He decided that “getting an MBA would open some doors.”

Vanderbilt did just that.

“I learned a lot about finance and accounting, but most important, how to think critically,” he says. “On the softer side, with such a small class and collaborative culture, I learned a lot about working in teams. That’s not a skill everyone has.”

He jokes that he brought down the average starting salary for his MBA class, landing a $40,000-a-year job as a financial analyst with Delta. But by age 33 he was the company’s treasurer — and its CFO at 40.

His rise, he says, came in part because he followed a passion for capital markets, learning enough to make himself invaluable and a natural for the post. “I like to say they promoted me by default,” he says.

As a lifelong overcomer, Paul is grateful for the bad as well as the good the job has offered. “It’s not about achieving perfection,” he says. “It’s about getting things done and steadily improving. I spend a lot of time with new MBAs at Delta each year. I try to instill patience into them. Everyone is looking for rapid advancement. I try to tell them that it is the experience you are getting that is going to get you ahead in the long term, and to stay focused on that.”

That long-term focus also has helped Paul deal with immediate challenges. “The stakes were never higher,” he says, “than when we were taking the company through the bankruptcy process. I was fortunate to be part of a laser-focused team with a clear strategy for turning the company around. I came out of the process with a much deeper sense of capital stewardship, and it has helped fuel our desire to change the industry of this company and the industry it is in.”

Looking back on his experience at Owen, he reflects, “I graduated first in my class for getting exactly what I wanted out of a Vanderbilt degree. There’s just something about following your passion that will always lead you to happiness.”

“It’s not about achieving perfection. It’s about getting things done and steadily improving.”