In respectful memory of Robert D. Kern, philanthropist and business leader, who passed away at 96-years-old on November 8, 2022.

By: Dr. David Dimmett, PLTW President and CEO

Philanthropy is a hallmark of American society. The word literally means “love of mankind.” Over the nearly 250-year history of our country, we have benefited greatly from our nation’s philanthropists. During the last decade, I was fortunate to meet and work with one such individual, Bob Kern, and his family foundation. Mr. Kern, as he was known, founded Generac Power Systems in a Wisconsin garage in 1959 and worked with his wife, Pat, to build their business and establish their philanthropic mission at the Kern Family Foundation.  

Over the years, the Kern Family Foundation has supported a range of initiatives including medical education, entrepreneurial mindset, engineering education, and a range of higher education efforts. Project Lead The Way (PLTW) has also benefited significantly from Mr. and Mrs. Kern’s generosity and mission of “empowering the rising generation of Americans to lead flourishing lives.”  

As a member of the PLTW leadership team, I had several opportunities to visit with Mr. Kern at Stone Manor, the restored farmhouse the Foundation uses to host grantees and those seeking support from the Kerns. Here are a couple of key takeaways and lessons learned from my time with Mr. Kern.

1. Follow your product into the field – This is a near quote from Mr. Kern during at least one of our visits with him at Stone Manor. Mr. Kern talked about the importance of seeing your product in the field, talking to customers, and understanding how it was working. To this day, during every school visit I make, I hear his words and continue learning from the educators and students we serve at PLTW. Seeing students working with PLTW in the classroom and talking with elementary, middle, and high school educators helps us improve and strengthen our work in ways that I know Mr. Kern would support.

2. Expect results – In business, and in philanthropy, a focus on results is essential. Mr. Kern was both a successful business leader and philanthropist. He knew how to prioritize time and other resources to drive meaningful performance. During our meetings, he always wanted to understand how each investment he made would lead to better outcomes for more students and educators. That emphasis on results is part of our culture at PLTW today and something we continue to stress as we expand our effort to support more PreK-12 students and educators across the country.

3. Be generous – The Kerns regularly hosted our team and leaders from other organizations at their Foundation in Waukesha. Mr. Kern always had time for our team when we visited, and he and Mrs. Kern often had lunch with us during our leadership retreats. During these sessions, Mr. Kern asked direct questions and often challenged our approach, but he never hesitated to offer his time and other foundation resources to help us further our mission. He was generous with his time and understood the importance of investing in our team and overarching mission to empower students across the U.S.

This year, PLTW celebrates our 25th Anniversary as a national nonprofit serving students and educators across the U.S., and there is no doubt our work has benefited significantly from Mr. and Mrs. Kern and the Kern Family Foundation. We recently released a video highlighting our first 25 years of work, including an important highlight of Mr. Kern and the Kern Family Foundation effort to help us expand our support to more students and teachers across the country. Watch the video to get an idea of the deep impact Mr. Kern had on PLTW.