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Follow the leader: Solso continuous champion of education

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Education always has been important to former Cummins CEO Tim Solso.

So, it’s no surprise that when he received the inaugural Mitch Daniels Leadership Prize, he put the prize money into boosting learning in Indiana.

Solso chose Earl Martin Phalen, the CEO and founder of the recently launched charter school George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies in Indianapolis, as recipient of the $50,000 Daniels Prize Grant.

Solso accepted the award Thursday at the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis in front of an audience of about 500, which included former Gov. Daniels, former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard and current and former Cummins CEOs including Tom Linebarger and Jim Henderson.

The prize recognizes “individuals whose achievements have lifted the arc of the state in ways that will have an enduring and positive impact on Indiana’s economic and social well-being.”

Solso told The Republic just before the banquet he was surprised to receive the award because he did not know about the Mitch Daniels Leadership Foundation or the prize.

He also said he was honored when he heard about the members of the jury, which included Shepard; Patricia R. Miller, co-founder of Vera Bradley Designs; and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton.

“It’s a humbling experience,” Solso said.

The former Cummins CEO also said that the prize reflects not only on him, but on Cummins leaders who came before him and those who helped along the way.

As the Columbus-based engine maker’s chief executive from 2000 through 2011, Solso led the company through a tumultuous period with two recessions, tough emissions hurdles and money problems. By the end of his tenure, the company had generated record profits in seven of the prior eight years.

In early 2010, financial magazine Barron’s named Solso one of the nation’s 30 best CEOs.

And in December 2010, MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., named Solso one of the five best CEOs of the decade, along with Jeff Bezos of; Howard Schultz of Starbucks; Eric Schmidt of Google; and Steve Jobs of Apple.

Childhood lessons about prejudice, coupled with the experience of coming of age in a decade marked by the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, indelibly shaped Solso’s worldview and led to decisions that continue to reverberate at Cummins Inc. and in the wider Columbus community.

His tenure at Cummins saw the company increase its corporate social responsibility efforts: In early 2000, despite vociferous opposition in Columbus, the company extended health benefits to employees’ domestic partners. The company began leveraging its employees’ expertise to effect long-term improvements in communities across the globe.

And it continued to adhere to former Chairman J.I. Miller’s philosophy on diversity, which held that to attain global success, Cummins must attract the best talent, which can come from anywhere across the globe.

Solso’s passion for learning — from psychology to fly fishing and the culture of gift giving in Japan — has led him to champion lifelong learning.

“Fundamentally, education changes people’s lives,” Solso told The Republic shortly after he retired from Cummins. “Not only does it enrich it, it gives them opportunities they won’t have if they’re not educated. And that’s true in developed countries as well as developing countries.

“An uneducated world, an uneducated society is more susceptible to poverty, to terrorism, to things that are not good in the world,” he said.

Cummins found some unorthodox ways to support education during Solso’s tenure as the company’s chief executive. Company leaders for years have said local education initiatives play a critical role in the global fortunes of companies based here.

When Cummins announced it would create 600 professional jobs in Columbus in summer 2011, it persuaded the city to invest $1 million in local education initiatives.

Cummins also was a major force behind IUPUC’s decision to offer a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and behind the Busy Bees Academy, a local early childhood education effort.

Solso was instrumental in Cummins’ decision in the early 1990s to create the Cummins College of Engineering for Women in Pune, India.

And Solso and his wife, Denny Solso, a former teacher at ABC Stewart school, gave a donation to their alma mater, DePauw, for the construction of a 3,800-square-foot laboratory in a nature park and for years have supported Bharat Vidyalay primary school near Bai in west-central India.

As he accepted Daniels Leadership Prize, Solso said Cummins has a long-standing commitment to its communities, which helps explain why many people join the company and stay for their entire careers.

“Cummins people do not shy from tackling new challenges,” Solso said. “That’s what makes working there so much fun.”

Solso said that for a system to function successfully, it must focus on social justice, economic development with an emphasis on helping those in need and that everything is done to achieve a cleaner and healthier environment.

To make those things possible, Solso said, one must focus on education, especially for the underprivileged.

Guiding students into the future

Here is more information about the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies

Location: 2323 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis

Students: 156

Grades: K-2

Opened: Aug. 19

Plans: 10 academies within 12 years to accommodate nearly 10,000 children annually, ultimately in grades K-8

Number of school days per year: 200 (vs. 180 for public schools), plus an additional 25 days over the summer

School hours per day: 8 (vs. 6.5 typically for public schools)

Application: The school is open to all students in Indiana; applicants are chosen by lottery

More information: 317-333-6980 or

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