Discover the Many Facets to VersAbility Board Member Jeff Tanner

Versability board member Jeff Tanner

Jeff Tanner values connections.

The retired Dean of the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University was less jazzed about research as an academician, gravitating to the practical tools students need to succeed when they graduate. Part of his legacy at ODU is securing an endowment for a sales school and building a teaching lab. He was also instrumental in creating the Institute for Women in Business, which promotes females in business, and the Hudgins Transformational Entrepreneurship Lab, which serves disadvantaged communities and veterans.

“All three of these programs are heavily involved in the community,” Tanner said. “I wanted our entrepreneurship program to be different and be in an area where we could have the greatest impact. That’s with traditionally underserved populations — refugees, women, and transitioning military.”

Tanner connected with Kasia Grzelkowski, President and CEO of VersAbility Resources when the two served on a commission examining regional leadership programs. The mission of the Hampton nonprofit — people with disabilities should lead full and productive lives of their choosing — resonated with him.

“I was so impressed by Kasia,” he said. “One of the issues that entrepreneurs face is scaling their manufacturing capacity. I saw the link between what VersAbility was doing as a contract manufacturer and the need for those kinds of services for entrepreneurs.”

VersAbility supports three contracts that are national in scope and is the prime contractor for loading food on ships for the Navy, which amounts to more than 300 jobs for people with disabilities. More than 200 individuals with disabilities fulfill the organization’s contracts at Naval Station Norfolk, Pearl Harbor and Naval Station San Diego. A contract with the U.S. Air Force provides the workforce to deliver official military mail at 42 bases nationwide.

“The work I did at ODU was really about social mobility and providing an education so people can realize their potential,” Tanner said. “VersAbility is the same way — giving people an opportunity to thrive no matter their level of ability.”

Tanner was also drawn to VersAbility’s Early Prevention and Intervention for Children program (EPIC), which takes a family-based approach to providing support and training for parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers experiencing developmental delays.

“My wife and I really like to support programs that support children,” he said.

A native Texan, Tanner was a young entrepreneur who earned cash selling Christmas cards door to door. He was 10 years old, motivated to earn enough to buy a tethered P-51 Mustang gas-powered model airplane. He liked sales but playing saxophone in the band was such a kick that he thought he might pursue that career path. As a senior in high school, Tanner was a substitute teacher for a beginning band class for seventh graders, gave private lessons, and conducted the high school band.

VersAbility is the same way — giving people an opportunity to thrive no matter their level of ability.

“That taught me that I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

Tanner originally studied music at West Texas State, where he changed his major seven times by the end of his freshman year. Law? No. Economics? Nah. Marketing? Yes, and he took a class in sales. He transferred to North Texas University to be closer to his girlfriend, Karen, today his wife of 44 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in marketing and followed that up with a master’s in business. In the master’s program, a professor noticed Tanner’s interest in teaching and research.

“Why don’t you get your PhD?” he suggested.

By then the Tanners had a second child and getting a doctorate was financially daunting. He worked in industry before seeking out programs in sales, which at the time wasn’t considered an academic field by most universities. But he found a fit at the University of Georgia, the alma mater of his grandfather.

“We moved to Athens, and I began studying for my PhD,” he said.

Doctorate in hand, Tanner spent 20 years at Baylor University, where he founded the Baylor Business Collaboratory and served as its Executive Director. His focus was securing funds and opportunities for collaborative research with area businesses. Tanner was Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and later, Associate Dean for Faculty Development. “One of the things I’m most proud of is how we successfully navigated that balance between teaching and research,” he said.

Tanner led the way in legitimizing sales as a field of study. When he initially searched for doctoral programs, he found only three. Today close to 40 schools offer sales-centered graduate degrees and he was integral in establishing sales programs at 16 HBCUs.

He’s also author or co-author of more than 80 scientific journal publications and 15 books.

It was another of Tanner’s interests, promotion of responsible behaviors by at-risk adolescents, that brought him to Hampton Roads to evaluate a grant opportunity for his side business, JK Tanner. The organization evaluates federally funded programs that promote healthy lifestyles. Tanner fell in love with coastal Virginia and was thrilled to accept the position as Dean of the Strome College of Business in May 2015.

Though Tanner retired from ODU in 2022, he is far from idle. In addition to serving on the volunteer VersAbility Board, he is an active consultant and a writer of fiction, something he never had the headspace for previously. He has loved horse racing most of his life and previously operated his own farm in Texas. Tanner recently was elected Vice Chair of the State Racing Commission and has partial ownership in the filly Girvinized. Tanner keeps two retired brood mares close to his home on the Eastern Shore and enjoys traveling with Karen to visit family that includes four children, three granddaughters and a new grandson.

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