Bold & creative leadership

Seeking change is a way of life for entrepreneurial philanthropist Cash Nickerson.

As a youngster, Cash Nickerson, JD ’85, MBA ’93, spent hours watching Perry Mason prove his clients’ innocence in the courtroom. The fictional TV defense attorney was a role model for Nickerson, who decided he wanted to be a lawyer, despite his father’s disapproval.

Nickerson’s father was an engineer and ­computer scientist with an entrepreneurial streak. Jobs in the business and academic worlds took him and his family across the country, which left a lasting impression on his son.

“I learned that change is OK and that stability is not something you cling to,” says Nickerson, president and chief financial officer of PDS Tech Inc., an award-winning specialty recruiting ­company based in Irving, Texas.

The influence of both Perry Mason and his ­father are reflected in Nickerson’s career, which has taken some unconventional turns. His résumé includes time as a corporate attorney, associate and partner with one of the largest law firms in Chicago, and founder and chairman of two business outsourcing companies.

A big factor in his success, Nickerson says, is the education he received at Washington ­University. “The university really put me in a different world. My two degrees gave me the ­versatility to take advantage of many opportunities and see issues from more than one angle.”

Nickerson came to Washington University School of Law from Carleton College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English. His early law course work — particularly a class in criminal law — reinforced his desire to become a prosecutor. “That first year is such a special time. It’s stressful, exciting, challenging, mind-boggling and disruptive. It’s like a yearlong boot camp for your brain.”

His plans began to shift in his second year. “I found the rules of evidence to be ­confining, and I didn’t completely agree with them,” ­Nickerson says. He spent the following summer as a legal ­intern with Bryan Cave in St. Louis, which ­pointed him in a new direction. “I learned what law could do for business, which intrigued me,” he says. “Working with clients, I thought, ‘I’m more like them.’ So I jumped into the ­business school at Washington University.”

Before he finished his MBA, Nickerson earned his law degree and accepted a position with the Union Pacific Railroad as an attorney focused on mergers and acquisitions. The company quickly moved him into business positions, including running Union Pacific ExpressAir in St. Louis, where he continued taking courses at the Olin Business School.

In 1990, Nickerson joined Jenner & Block in Chicago as an associate. He made partner in 1993 — the same year he earned his MBA — and ­soon began thinking about another career move. “Many people didn’t understand why I wanted to make a change after I made partner,” he says. “But I couldn’t imagine staying. I was like, what’s next?”

His answer involved founding a series of companies that provided specialized business services. He sold his first entrepreneurial venture, human resources outsourcing startup Workforce Strategies, for $8.5 million in 1995. “That will addict you to entrepreneurship,” he says. He took the online business portal company Mucho.com public through a reverse merger in 2000.

Nickerson joined PDS Tech in 2003. During his 12 years with the company, one of the nation’s largest temporary staffing firms, he has satisfied his urge to start new things by nurturing outside interests. He has written five books of essays, three of them focused on employment and the workplace. After the first book, he created his own publishing company to maximize profits.

In 2008, he established the David H. Nickerson Foundation in memory of his father, who died of prostate cancer in 1996. The foundation hosts an annual golf tournament and other events to raise awareness about the disease and funds for ­research. To date, the organization has contributed about $200,000 to the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

Nickerson supports his alma mater in many other ways. He is a member of the Board of Trustees and the School of Law National Council. And he serves as chair of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Cabinet and the North and Central Texas Region for Leading Together: The Campaign for Washington University. His efforts have boosted excitement and attendance at regional events.

“Cash is a leader who inspires those around him to think creatively and act boldly,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “The university is fortunate to benefit from his dedication and guidance.”

At the School of Law, Nickerson and his wife, Evie, provided a grant to launch the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative in the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute. Nickerson has enjoyed ­participating in the multiyear project to draft a new global treaty on crimes against humanity.

“The initiative is an example of the many ways Washington University is working to change the world,” says Nickerson, who ­received a global philanthropy award from the university for his support of the project. “I am confident we can achieve a breakthrough in my lifetime.”

The Nickersons also have made substantial gifts for law school scholarships, most recently committing more than $500,000 to support ­students. “The scholarships I received made it possible for me to go to law school,” ­Nickerson says. “I knew there were generous people ­behind my education, and I feel fortunate that I can do the same thing for today’s students.”

Washington University Law Dean Nancy Staudt says Nickerson is one of her school’s most enthusiastic advocates. “Cash is passionate about everything he does, and that includes ­supporting the university. His involvement ­extends beyond his financial contributions. He truly embraces our students, our faculty, and our educational and scholarly missions.”

Following in their father’s footsteps, ­Nickerson’s three children have earned ­degrees from Washington University: Kate, BS ’07; ­Stephanie, AB ’09, JD ’13; and Andrew, AB ’13. Kate’s husband, Daniel O’Connell, BS ’07, also is an alumnus. “I’m going to have my wife take classes so she doesn’t feel left out,” ­Nickerson says.

Beyond his family, Nickerson has a powerful motive for continuing his philanthropy and service at Washington University. “The university is a force for change, and it’s at the forefront of creating tomorrow’s leaders,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to invest in that?”

Mary Lee is a senior writer in Development ­Communications. For a related video featuring Cash Nickerson, visit together.wustl.edu/circle.

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