At age 21, fresh after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from Columbia University, Jim Scapa headed to Michigan in 1978 for a stint in the prestigious Ford College Graduate Program. However, he figured out pretty quickly he wasn’t going to be a company man. As a young “nerdy kid from New York” with entrepreneurial instincts, he often made waves in the corporate culture of the 1970s — so much so that he once got a memorable dressing down by an ex-Marine who worked in HR who told Scapa his style was “not the way they did things at Ford Motor Company.” That was pretty much the beginning of the end of his time at Ford. Scapa took advantage of an educational leave of absence to enroll in a University of Michigan MBA program that was being taught on the Dearborn campus in the evenings. Soon after, he scored a job at a local startup that was making early inroads into simulation, an emerging technology space that Scapa would pursue when he started his own company two years later. “I basically learned everything you shouldn’t do when running a business from the guy who ran that company,” Scapa says. “I still remember when they came to repossess his computers and he stood in front of the door to stop them. It was really unbelievable, like something from a movie. One of these days I should really try to write a book.”
If Scapa gets around to doing that, the chapter on how he started his company Altair would have a real Bill-Gates-starting-Microsoft-in-his-garage flavor. Scapa launched Altair with two partners when he was 25, two years out of his MBA program, with $1,500 in his pocket. He scored free rent and free use of the copy machine from his landlord. He negotiated a handshake, no-money-up-front deal to buy computers. Initially, Altair worked mainly with automotive, aerospace and rail companies. But as computing power began to improve, Scapa pivoted into data and data analytics, a move that allowed Altair to explosively broaden its customer base. In all, Scapa estimates they’ve acquired more than 50 small, founder-led technology companies over the years in dozens of different countries. Today, Altair is known as a global leader in data analytics, cloud computing, simulation-driven design, internet of things and artificial intelligence. Scapa jokes they operate in so many spaces, their main challenge is “communicating to customers what exactly it is we do.”
Through all that evolution, one thing that’s been a constant is Altair’s commitment to diversity. Scapa says diversity “in a broad sense” has been one of the core values of the company since its founding 38 years ago, long before it was common to add DEI language to company mission statements. One of the most recent manifestations of that is a new scholarship for UM-Dearborn students. The Altair #OnlyForward Scholarship, which launched this year, awards nine $25,000 scholarships to students pursuing a four-year degree in computer science or engineering. It’s open to students who are members of the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or Society of Women Engineers.
Scapa, who works with many top-tier universities across the country, says he sees UM-Dearborn as the “real deal” when it comes to creating opportunities for students who come from less-advantaged backgrounds. “To me, UM-Dearborn just seems so connected to its mission of helping really, really smart kids who just may not have the financial resources or the connections to go to a Georgia Tech or a Columbia,” he says. “The university really takes this effort to heart, and it makes us really happy to be a part of it.”
Story by Lou Blouin