Cornell University

March 29 2012

"The Cornell Way"

Tracy DolginAlpern winner Dolgin '81 talks about the power of people

From his Uncle Al's zipper factory in Manhattan's Garment District, Tracy Dolgin ventured into the world, pushing a delivery cart.  

He was 13 and ferrying zippers to manufacturers. He was thinking about the factory, where tension between labor and management was startling.

"It was my obsession back then," said Dolgin, a 1981 ILR graduate.

Tonight at The Pierre in New York City, he receives the school's Alpern Award in tribute to his career in media and sports business.

The annual award honors a graduate whose professional achievements have been outside the industrial and labor relations field.

As president and CEO of the YES Network, Dolgin sits at the head of the boardroom table next to a glass wall filled with a magnificent view of New York City's East River and Roosevelt Island, where Cornell's tech campus will be built.

YES has been the most-watched regional sports network since 2004, when Dolgin took the helm after serving as a top executive at the FOX Broadcasting Company, FOX Sports Net, FOX/Liberty Cable, HBO Video and other places.

Forty years ago, his focus was on the Manhattan zipper factory where workers and his Uncle Al "really didn’t get along well."

"I saw that as a huge problem. It was just fascinating to me," he said. "They had more in common than they knew."

As a result of his Garment District experience, Dolgin at 17 wanted to become a labor lawyer.

He also wanted to make his mother proud. Going to an Ivy League school would do that, he thought.

Dolgin considered the University of Pennsylvania, where his older sister was a student.

But, he was intrigued by Cornell's gorges, pre-law possibilities and an intense intellectual atmosphere that bespoke the American dream.

He felt comfortable at ILR, where everyone seemed happily hellbent on success and content with self-selected pressure.

"I loved it," he said in an interview.

At ILR, Dolgin learned to also love reading, to read "really fast" and to make it a part of his daily routine.

"Reading has helped me in my life more than anything else," he said.  

An internship and a post-graduation summer ghostwriting at a law firm convinced Dolgin to drop the idea of law school and, instead, study business at Stanford University.

The career that followed "was a lot of hard work and an extraordinary amount of luck," Dolgin said.

When students ask him how to get into the media business, he responds, "There is no plan to get from anywhere to what I do."

There's no prescribed path, Dolgin said. Rather, it's about passion, intensity and the power of people -- what Dolgin calls "the Cornell way."

Inspired by Professor David Lipsky to follow the Cornell way, Dolgin urges media hopefuls to plot their futures with people-centric notions, not lockstep career moves.  

"Take my way, not my path," he advises.

"Hire people who are better than you. That's how I got here," said Dolgin, whose philosophy was showcased this month in The New York Times' "Corner Office" column.

Judy Dolgin, his wife, and he have three children -- Jack, 14; Isabel, a freshman in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, and Hannah, a junior in the university's Dyson School.

Through his daughters, Dolgin reconnected with Cornell and ILR.

Tonight, 500 ILR alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends will gather in a huge room at The Pierre.

They will honor Groat Award winner Eva Sage-Gavin '80, executive vice president of Gap Inc., and Dolgin, who credits the people in his life with powering him to a spot at the top.  

"I didn't get ahead by people telling me I was right. I hire good people. That's how I've gotten here."