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Former Apple Exec Advises Students on Careers, Life

Ratcliffe Shares Experiences from High-Tech Finance

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Alumni Ken Ratcliffe, who was the featured guest of the Robert J. Manning Speaker Series, conducts a mock job interview with a business student, asking him to rank love, power, money and respect.

By Jill Gambon

Love. Power. Money. Respect. How would you rank them? 

That’s a question Ken Ratcliffe, a 1971 University alumnus posed to students during a talk at the Manning School of Business. Ratcliffe, a former financial executive with Apple, often asked that question of job candidates to gauge how deftly they could think on their feet. Their responses, he said, were revealing.

“I had candidates for executive positions go sideways on that question,” he said. 

Students should prepare now for those types of queries from potential employers, he advised.

“Do some role-playing and practice how to interview,” he said. 

Ratcliffe shared stories from a career that spanned executive finance positions at Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Digital Equipment Corp. and Data General to an Internet startup during the dot-com bubble. He returned to campus for the first time in 40 years as the featured guest of the Robert J. Manning Speaker Series.

In a lively talk during which he quoted Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Wayne Gretsky and Sam Kinison, Ratcliffe offered advice on life and careers.  A key to success in all ventures, he said, is self-awareness.

“If you’re a rabbit, go for it. If you are a turtle, be the most competent turtle in the pond,” he said.

He told students to be disciplined, to take risks and build confidence through achievement. A key to long-term success, he stressed, is having the resiliency to rebound from the inevitable setbacks that occur in every career.

“You have to have the ability to bounce back,” he said. 

He described his own professional “troughs,” including his tenure as CEO of an internet start-up when the dot-com bubble burst. After the company’s value plummeted from $100 million to zero in a week, he had to lay off all employees and shutter the firm. The experience was “devastating” but he used it as the inspiration for a novel called “Manhook” about a tech start-up’s CEO wild ride through Silicon Valley during the internet boom.

Ratcliffe urged students to be uncompromising in matters of integrity and to take care protecting their “personal brands,” which can be destroyed in an instant, especially through carelessness with social media.

“If you’re on Facebook, go through it tonight and scrub it. If there is something you wouldn’t want your mother to see, delete it,” he said.

He encouraged students to follow industry trends for career opportunities and to seek a balance between their work and personal lives.  Responding to a students’ question, he described Steve Jobs’ harsh treatment of Apple employees.

Ratcliffe grew up in Dracut and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Lowell Technological Institute, a predecessor institution of UMass Lowell. He got an MBA from Babson College and is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s advanced management program. He and his wife now live on Cape Cod.