When John Kilcullen graduated from Fordham in 1981, a leading New York ad agency where he interned wanted to hire him as a media planner. Instead, he took a job as a traveling textbook salesman for Prentice-Hall, which offered $3,000 more per year, plus a company car. “I needed to earn and save every penny,” said Kilcullen, a Bronx native who commuted to Fordham. “I was one of eight children and on a journey that wasn’t going to be underwritten by my parents.”

So he spent the next two years cold-calling professors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. And he worked his way up in positions of increasing responsibility in the publishing field while nurturing ideas for an innovative series of self-help books.

At first, traditional publishers weren’t buying into his ideas, but he found a home with IDG as a founding member of its new book division. Before his 10th Fordham reunion, he was living in Silicon Valley and working as the CEO of IDG Books Worldwide, the startup publisher of the popular “For Dummies” book series that he created.

“My premise was that dummies are smart but are made to feel dumb by the techno, financial, and pervasive ‘babble’ across a wide variety of topics,” he explained. “There was no limit to topics that my team and I believed could help improve the quality of people’s lives and enrich their careers.”

Perseverance Pays Off

Since the release of the first book, DOS for Dummies, 30 years ago, IDG and Wiley (the series’ publisher since 2001) have put out more than 2,000 titles and sold 250 million copies. The series has generated $2 billion in retail sales.

John Kilcullen with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, author of the book "Sex for Dummies," one of many titles in the "For Dummies" book series Kilcullen created
Kilcullen with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, author of “Sex for Dummies,” circa 1996. “She initially refused to collaborate,” he said. “‘I don’t write for dummies,’ she boldly stated. Upon reflection a week later, she explained why she changed her mind: She said in her unique voice, ‘John, in the Talmud there is a timeless truth: a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained. I understand what you are doing. I will do it.’ We remain friends decades later. She is my all-time favorite author.” Photo courtesy of John Kilcullen

“I can safely say I used every bit of the knowledge gleaned from my four years at Fordham throughout my career,” Kilcullen said, adding that the icon for the series was inspired by an advertising class he took at Fordham that covered mnemonics. “It’s about creating a character, a device, or a geometric shape that’s instantly recognizable and memorable. That Dummies caricature was literally me with a spiky haircut. It translated well in the packaging, and having this androgynous icon would speak to the dummy in all of us.”

When it comes to growing businesses, Kilcullen is certainly no dummy. After taking IDG Books public in the late 1990s, he held several leadership roles in book and magazine publishing, including president and publisher of Billboard magazine and The Hollywood Reporter. Today, he’s a consultant for startup CEOs, guest lectures on innovation and entrepreneurship at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and treasures family time with his wife, Jessica, and their four sons.

Coming Home to Fordham

Last fall, Kilcullen returned to his alma mater to deliver the keynote speech at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the Fordham Foundry, the University’s hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. His messages were humble and inspiring: “Be intellectually curious.” “Spot gaps in the market and take the road less traveled to separate yourself from the pack.” “Carpe diem!”

John Kilcullen stands in front of a maroon Fordham banner at the University's Lincoln Center campus in October 2022
Kilcullen at the Fordham Foundry’s 10th anniversary celebration on October 27, 2022. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Above all, he encouraged entrepreneurs in the Fordham community—alumni included—to take advantage of the support available at the Foundry, which “can help you realize your startup dream,” he said. “I wish it was available to me when I was here. It is Fordham’s best-kept secret.”

Although his connection to the Foundry is fairly recent, he looks forward to deepening it while enhancing Fordham’s growing presence in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is already planning an event he’ll host at his vineyard later this year.

“I am so stoked about the Fordham Foundry and its mission to support innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the entire Fordham ecosystem,” he said. “Their small team of entrepreneurs and mentors have accomplished so much in 10 years. I have no doubt the best is yet to come.”

—Claire Curry

Fordham Five (Plus One)

What are you most passionate about?
My family. My wife, Jessica, and my four sons are my world. I am also one of eight [siblings] and live in California, but most of my family live back East, so I love organizing family reunions and fun get-togethers. Fordham has been home to some of those gatherings in part because two of my six sisters attended Fordham, and my nephew is a Fordham Law graduate. On one of those occasions, I remember charging our home court at Rose Hill with my young son Conor on my shoulders at the conclusion of a riveting, upset victory. Conor was mesmerized and excited by all the students flooding the court. On the professional front, I am passionate about helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was asked by a former colleague who sat on the Amazon board to meet with Jeff Bezos in Seattle during Amazon’s first year. I asked Jeff about his plans to create Amazon’s culture. He enthusiastically replied with a story about how he and his dad built desks for each member of his team using wooden doors (instead of purchasing desks). His message to his employees was simple: leaders lead by example. Employees notice when founders and senior executives do the small things instead of delegating. Jeff’s story reinforced my own view that when there is a trade show to attend, for example, get there early and help the team assemble the booth. Get in the field and make sales calls. Lead from the front, not from the corner office.

What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
It depends. When I need to pray for a loved one, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is my sanctuary. Central Park has a special place in my heart, as that is where I completed the New York City Marathon. I also enjoy working with the V Foundation, which affords me the opportunity to shoot hoops at the Garden before the annual V Classic. Madison Square Garden has been the venue for so many memorable concerts and basketball battles throughout my life.

I love returning to my mom’s home county of Mayo, Ireland, to visit my aunt and cousins. No trip to Mayo is complete without a visit to the Ashford Castle. Maui is my happy place for relaxing beach time and collecting art. The north and south islands of New Zealand are epic for food, wine, and hikes—and Whistler, B.C., is amazing for family skiing.

Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
I spent most of my career in publishing, so there are so many books I enjoyed reading and working on. The Power of Positive Thinking spoke to my entrepreneurial soul. I also loved Lee Iacocca’s book, Iacocca: An Autobiography. Lee joined me for lunch with key retail clients in Chicago and shared an incredible story about reinventing Chrysler. I identified with Lee’s zeal in battling established industry giants and championing the underdog. I created the unconventional “For Dummies” series and an innovative company culture emulating Lee’s esprit de corps. I am proud that the “For Dummies” book series and brand has helped tens of millions of people around the world and continues serving that mission 30 years later. Remaining positive during the early years and establishing a contrarian, underdog culture was influential in scaling the company from startup to IPO.

Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
My favorite professor was Dr. Maurice O’Connell, who taught Irish history and was the great-great-grandson of the legendary Irish Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. The Fordham icon I admire most is easy: Father Joseph O’Hare. I have fond memories of sitting next to Father O’Hare at football and basketball games, sharing laughs and cheers. His quick wit, insightful stories, radiant smile, and love of alma mater were always evident. He was a Fordham president who was a man of the people and a true friend. I dedicated a study room in the [Walsh Family Library] to honor our shared love of books.

What are you optimistic about?
My wife’s nickname for me is Captain Optimistic. I see the world as a glass half full. And every day I wake up optimistic as it’s a new day. Embrace it, enjoy it, and be a lifelong learner—and give back. I firmly believe in the resilience of the human spirit to triumph over adversity, persevere against all odds, and see the good in everyone.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Claire Curry.

Watch John Kilcullen’s keynote address at the Fordham Foundry’s 10th anniversary celebration: