By Chris McCoy ’93
“There have been many iterations of me,” says Ira Jackson ’87. “I’m like Ira 6.0 at this point. I came in as a 5.25–inch floppy, but you can download me from the cloud now.”
Jackson’s metaphor for his life is quite apropos. For the last 24 years, he has been the owner and operator of Perfect Image, a commercial printing company in his hometown of Atlanta, GA. Not only has his industry seen an incredible technological shift, but so, too, has Jackson shifted through some dramatically different cultural times and changes.
“I just turned 50,” he says. “Being at this intersection of life compels me to think about where I came from. The Civil Rights Act, which gave my people the right to vote and seek injunctive relief from discrimination, was passed four months before I was born. My life has been significantly shaped by race, specifically black and white, different from what might be considered contemporary diversity.”
Jackson’s father, Ira Sr., was a Korean War veteran who met his wife, Annie Shumate, while they were both attending Clark College in Atlanta. Ira Sr. was an entrepreneur who parlayed a neighborhood gas station into a chain, and from there moved into numerous other businesses—from the construction industry to real estate to home health care. “He even sponsored a race car at one time,” Jackson recalls. “I had an opportunity to watch him make a million, lose a million, and make it back again. His success ultimately led to politics, where he served for over three decades.” His mother, whom he calls “the toughest dude I ever met in my life,” was a school teacher and social worker. “My perseverance absolutely comes from my mom.”
He says he feels fortunate for growing up in Atlanta, which billed itself as “The city too busy to hate.” “My mother’s admonition that I was no better or worse than anyone else, and that I could be and do anything I wanted to be and do, didn’t just serve me well—it resonated with me,” he says. “I’m a guy shaped by the Old and New South, but overwhelmingly by some really positive role models.”
Inspired by fellow Atlantans such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Hank Aaron, Andrew Young, and John Lewis, Jackson was a driven student. Asked for a quote for his high school senior yearbook, he chose “Amidst the spectrum’s brightest hues, consider the darkest color. A vivid gesture against routine, strikingly different. Consider its demur defiance.”
“Years later I read that and said, ‘Oh wow. I was kind of angry.
When it came time for college, Jackson knew he wanted to leave Atlanta. “I didn’t know much about Southwestern (now Rhodes) at all, but I went to a great prep school,” he says. “Unbeknownst to me, my college counselor and my mom, who both knew me pretty well, decided I would do better in a smaller environment. They arranged a prospective student’s visit, which I did with a couple of my buddies. I remember the first time we went to Memphis. After being in the car for three hours, I was like, ‘Where the heck are we going? It only takes a couple of hours to get to Tennessee!’ Of course, that was Chattanooga. Seven hours later, we get to Memphis. It was a terrific visit. The campus was gorgeous. I loved it. And, ultimately, they decided to take a chance on me.”
But on the inside, he was not as confident as he appeared outwardly. “I remember when my dad was pulling away. I was staying in Stewart dorm. He was pulling off University onto North Parkway, and I was looking at the back of his car, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. What am I doing here?’ ”
Jackson’s time in college was one of transition. “I came in to Southwestern, but graduated from Rhodes,” he says. “Rhodes was not the most ethnically diverse place when I was there. But there was a diversity of ideas, a diversity of thinking, a diversity of activity. I was involved in student government; I was in the Black Student Association; I was the welfare commissioner; I was president of the honor council; I ran track for three years. I was a decent student. There was a diversity of activities that I was able to engage in.”
Jackson says his worldview was forever changed by what he experienced on North Parkway. “There was a guy in my class at Rhodes, David Oxley. I have not seen Dave since 1987. He was a staunch conservative Republican. He and I would have some of the most impassioned debates about politics. I would leave those conversations so much better, and I hope he would, too. They weren’t attacks or fights. They were political, philosophical debates about, you name it—a spectrum of things. But it was collegial. I have not seen that guy in over a quarter century, and I still have the most positive feelings about him.” It is a commitment to honest debate and mutual respect that Jackson finds lacking in contemporary politics. “When people say that we can put aside our differences and find a better way to do things, I know that’s right. From a leadership perspective, we should expect more. Because there is more. I saw it at Rhodes.”
He remembers Rhodes as the most intellectually challenging time of his life. “They weren’t just handing out diplomas,” he says. “We were putting in the work. You were going to come out knowing something, or you wouldn’t be coming out. The Rhodes education is solid. It wasn’t easy for me to get into Rhodes, but those kids today are just a whole other level.”
Upon graduation, Jackson returned to Atlanta and got a job selling the then-new mid-range computers for Digital Equipment. “I had a Ford Taurus and a Diner’s Club card. I was doing fine,” he recalls. “But having come from an entrepreneurial background, I knew there was more than just the corporate life.”
After a few years, he decided he wanted to go into manufacturing. “I’m sure my dad planted that seed in my head.” So in 1991, he took over leadership of Perfect Image Printing. He says the biggest lesson he has learned from more than two decades of business leadership is adaptability to change. “I’ve watched the business change from manual typesetting, to prepress, to digital imaging. From a film-based environment to computer-to-plate, from camera-ready art to FTPs (File Transfer Protocol) and now to Dropbox. Who would have thought that by jumping into Gutenberg’s printing industry that I would be a guy who could tell you about the challenges of change and how to reinvent yourself, but I have had the privilege of doing just that. Our tag line is ‘More than a printer,’ evidencing our services beyond print, like integrated, cross-media solutions and marketing support aimed at serving client needs, which extend well beyond ‘ink on paper.’ For at least two decades, Fortune 500 companies were our target clients, but in the last five years, we’ve evolved to include a lot more schools and select nonprofits, from private and public secondaries to colleges and universities, and cause-driven organizations. I think it’s so cool that I can take all of these great things I have learned from my corporate experience, from supporting some of the biggest national brands, and bring that into colleges and universities and nonprofits. Organizations that don’t usually get—but absolutely deserve—that kind of high-end service and quality.”
Now, Jackson has a family with two college-age children of his own. His oldest is following in her father’s liberal arts footsteps by attending Oglethorpe, while his younger daughter is currently fielding offers from great colleges and universities. “Professionally, I love what I do. When I think about my Rhodes experience and some of the people who taught me, I could tell that they loved what they did, too. I was once driven by a need to be the biggest. But today, I am driven by this ‘True North’ position of being the best I can possibly be, of striving for excellence—or, as we like to say at my company, being ‘more than.’”