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Investing in Louisiana's Future

French House Focus: Jason El Koubi

One of our goals here at the Ogden Honors College is to grow future leaders that are passionate about improving the communities in which they live and work. As President and CEO of One Acadiana—a regional economic development organization serving the Lafayette area—Ogden Honors alumnus and advisory council member Jason El Koubi embodies this goal. After graduation, Jason worked as an environmental engineer, but he soon realized that his involvement in student leadership at LSU had grown into a passion for public policy. Since returning to his home state by way of London, Jason has been a leading voice in Louisiana public policy and economic development. We recently sat down with him to learn more about his lasting connection to the Ogden Honors College and how it prepared him for his current role as leader of One Acadiana.

Tell me a little bit about how you first got connected with LSU and the Ogden Honors College, as a prospective student.

I’m an Army brat. My family moved to Vernon Parish when I was eight years old, when my dad got posted to Fort Polk. I went to a public school called Pickering and did my final two years of high school at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. My peer group there was an extraordinary group of people—they were looking at university options across the United States, and many of them were considering LSU. So I went to LSU, not knowing about it from my personal background, because my family wasn’t from here, didn’t have a connection to Louisiana or to the university, but I had my friends from the Louisiana School who chose LSU. So that’s how I got to LSU. I had no idea then that LSU would play this very fundamental role in my life and my career.

So when I got to LSU, I knew that I would pursue engineering as a major. I had a vague sense that I might want to go to medical school, so I chose biological engineering. I took all kinds of Honors courses: Honors calculus courses, an Honors chemistry course. Within the Honors College—and this has changed somewhat over the years—but there, I pursued coursework focused on classical civilizations and interdisciplinary studies. As an engineering student, the Honors College was very instrumental in diversifying my intellectual and scholarly “diet.” It broadened my education and my exposure to the great books. There was a lot of material that I would not have attempted had it not been for the Honors College.

Both the Honors College and the Department of Biological Engineering provided a very small, nurturing community within the larger university, where you had a concentration of very bright, interesting students. So I found those environments very compatible. In fact, I believe I was the first student ever to complete College Honors in Biological Engineering.

Wow! So what was your Honors Thesis on?

I had gone to Guatemala the summer after my sophomore year to do an engineering internship with Del Monte. The community that I lived and worked in relied on a water supply with a fluoride concentration that was higher than the healthy limit. As a result of that, there was a high incidence of bone-related diseases in the community. So they were very interested in finding a way to reduce the fluoride levels in their water.  We investigated that issue, and ultimately produced an engineering design for improving the potable water supply of this community.

That project became the basis of my Honors Thesis, and my senior design project within biological engineering. The focus of my Honors Thesis was examining the role of international education and projects in the engineering curriculum. Engineers are more likely than graduates in most disciplines to have careers that involve work across international boundaries. So my thesis considered the role of international experience in an engineering curriculum.

So, how did you go from engineering projects in Guatemala, to where you are today, as President and CEO of One Acadiana in Lafayette?

I spent the first two years immediately after finishing LSU working as an environmental engineer, helping industrial operations comply with environmental regulations related to air quality. From that experience, I developed some of the nuts and bolts of things that are helpful to learn early in your career—project management, teamwork, attention to detail. But working as an engineer helped to me to realize that I was very passionate about public policy issues. As a student at LSU, I had been very involved in student leadership, student government in particular. I was the speaker of the LSU Student Senate, and I was very involved in regular conversations with the leadership on campus, spent time at the State Legislature, and had a rudimentary understanding of many of the issues that a major public research university, like LSU, has to deal with. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but in retrospect, it became clear to me how interested I was in those things and how much I wanted to re-engage in those types of issues. 

So, I recognized that I wanted to do graduate study, and that I wanted to use that graduate study as a sort of catalyst for a career transition. I applied for a scholarship through the Rotary Foundation to do graduate work overseas, to pursue a master’s in public policy at the London School of Economics. I went to the LSE, and I wasn’t sure about what I would do afterward, but it was clear to me that being in that environment would open doors, which it did. I had an extraordinary experience there. Now, my intention, long-term, had always been to come back to Louisiana. It’s where my family is, and I feel a sense responsibility for this place. I feel deeply attached to this state. I feel deeply committed to improving the state and contributing to its development. A lot of that comes from the way this state has invested in me, not least through LSU and the Ogden Honors College. But, by the time I finished LSE, I was really interested in exploring opportunities in major cities—London, New York, DC. I was single. I was in my mid-twenties.  I wanted to have some experiences in other places. So I came back from London, intending to spend a few months in Louisiana visiting with family and friends, and within a few months of coming home, met the woman who would become my wife, Allison. They say that life happens while you’re making other plans!

Of course it does! So it was Allison who motivated you to settle down in Louisiana more immediately?

Allison had moved to Baton Rouge with the Teach For America program, and she was very committed to her work in public schools in the Baton Rouge area. With Allison wanting to stay here, I was very motivated to make it work and figure it out. So I applied for a job in public policy analysis and research the Baton Rouge Area Chamber (BRAC) which was right up my alley. And I got the job, and my start date was August 29th, 2005, which was the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana. Thus began a very interesting and challenging and impactful chapter of my life, which took me from a place where I wasn’t very clear on how to live out my dreams and interests in Louisiana, to a place where those questions had total clarity, total focus, in terms of the answer. In the same way it was for people and communities across Louisiana, it was a focusing event in my life, and in my case, my career. Through my work at BRAC, I was very much involved in the response within the Baton Rouge area. I was involved in developing the first post-Katrina economic outlook for the Baton Rouge area, and that led to many longer-term initiatives for building economic development assets, infrastructure planning, improving LSU, and so on. I say that through that experience I sort of found my voice and purpose as a community leader and public servant.

That must have been an incredibly rewarding time for you, despite the fact that it was borne out of a tragedy.

Yes—when you look back on life, you realize that it’s not linear at all. You realize that there are periods where you’re growing rapidly and learning a lot, and for me the year or two immediately after Katrina was an extraordinary time of personal and professional growth, both because of the challenges and because of the opportunities.

I was at BRAC for three and a half years, and then followed my boss, Stephen Moret—who’s now head of the LSU Foundation—to the Louisiana Department of Economic Development. I ran a team there that played a significant role in improving Louisiana’s workforce development initiatives, improving our competitiveness from a tax and regulatory standpoint, and helped to tell the story of that transformation in a way that has helped reverse the previous long-standing trend of out-migration from Louisiana. So that was a pretty cool period of my life, too.

After about six years at the Department of Economic Development, I pursued this opportunity, and applied for the CEO position at what was then the Greater Lafayette Chamber, now One Acadiana. I had never lived in Lafayette before but I had spent a lot of time here, and I knew that it was a place full of great people and great culture. It’s one of the most interesting places of its size in the world. And I was very impressed with the passion and commitment of the business leadership to taking this community and this region to the next level. I started here in September 2013 and we developed a plan to transform the Greater Lafayette Chamber into One Acadiana, and to transform from a traditional Chamber of Commerce into a highly professional regional economic development organization. We’re creating a vehicle for business leadership that can manage and catalyze the economic growth of this nine-parish area, while also improving quality of life here in Acadiana.

How do you think your experiences as an Honors College student helped you to navigate your post-college path, and throughout the development of your career?

The Ogden Honors College experience was an extraordinarily important part of my development. Probably the most significant element of that was having access to a very intelligent, very engaged peer group. Many of my best life friends from my LSU days are people that I first met in the Honors College.

In addition to that, the care and interest that the Honors faculty members took in my education and overall development was very important in encouraging my interests and challenging me and ultimately supporting me when it came to career decisions, when it came to applying for scholarships to graduate school, when it came to considering my post-graduate life. That was extraordinarily important.

The Honors Thesis was part of a total package of experiences that I had in Honors that made me a much better writer, which has of course been very helpful from a career standpoint. I think that the peer group, the mentorship, and the intellectual breadth of the Honors College are three of the essential gifts of that experience that have enriched my life, and benefited my career.

Can you speak to why you choose to continue to support the Ogden Honors College, both as an alumnus, and as a member of our Honors College Advisory Council?

Part of the reason why I stay involved in Ogden Honors is to give back. The Honors College profoundly improved and enriched my life, both then and now. The things that I studied in the Honors College are directly relevant to many of the issues and debates that I’m engaged in right now; it continues, every day, to inform the work that I do. But I also do it because it’s incredibly important for the future of LSU, and for the future of our state. The Ogden Honors College is a preeminent leadership development and scholarship development asset for LSU and the state, and it plays a significant role in generating future leaders in all fields, not only for our state, but for our country.