Ex-Detroiter killed in train crash a passionate booster

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Rachel Jacobs sent a text message to her husband Tuesday night telling him she was boarding a train from her Philadelphia office to their home in New York City.

The former Metro Detroiter never made it. Less than an hour later, Jacobs, leader of an Internet startup and fervid Detroit booster, was among seven people killed when the Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia. Her family confirmed the death in a statement Wednesday.

"This is an unthinkable tragedy," the statement said. "Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend. She was devoted to her family, her community and the pursuit of social justice. We cannot imagine life without her. We respectfully ask for privacy so that we can begin the process of grieving."

The 39-year-old Huntington Woods native was mother to a 2-year-old son and CEO of Philadelphia-based ApprenNet, an educational software company, a job she had just started in March.

Although the daughter of former Michigan Democratic state senator Gilda Z. Jacobs had moved away from the region, earning a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia in 1997 and an MBA from Columbia University in 2002, Jacobs was an enthusiastic cheerleader for Detroit, colleagues said.

In 2010, she founded Detroit Nation, a nonprofit "dedicated to supporting the Detroit region by directing the money, skills and energy of native Detroiters now living elsewhere to people and organizations engaged in economic development, cultural innovation and job creation in Southeastern Michigan," the group's website says.

"She was at a point where there was a lot of negative attention being brought on Detroit," said Perry Teicher, president of the volunteer-led group. "With a few friends, she saw it as an opportunity to bring together people to … have a network to support the things going on in the city." Rachel was passionate about the revitalization of Detroit."

Jacobs, who also was a board chair for the group, demonstrated her talent whether in brainstorming sessions or pursuing presentations at the Columbia Business School for an effort connecting professionals with local social entrepreneurs, he said.

"She always brought new ideas to the table. She dedicated a substantial amount of time and was a key part of making it special," Teicher said, adding that Jacobs was a "thoughtful, warmhearted, kind, passionate, strategic thinker and overall a wonderful person — someone you want to spend time with and be friends with.

"It's just a tragic loss for everyone and for all the community that she's worked with."

Jacobs described what sparked her expat effort in a 2011 interview with Repair the World, a group working to boost volunteerism among American Jews.

"…When you think about what really gets people excited these days, it's Detroit the city. Detroit is starting to have its own gravitas, its own brand," she said in the article posted on the group's website. "There's so much going on in the city now that wasn't there 5 years ago, and certainly not 10 years ago. For the people involved with our work, and for the people moving back — Detroit as a city really captures their imagination."

According to Jacobs' LinkedIn page, Detroit Nation's accomplishments included hosting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2013 during the orchestra's first concert at Carnegie Hall in 17 years and providing pro bono consulting projects for grassroots entrepreneurs. Her LinkedIn account said there were more than 7,000 current or former Detroiters with Detroit Nation.

"I would love to see a thriving organization with chapters in all the major cities in the US and also the not-so major cities," she told Repair the World. "I would like the organization to be able to provide a suite of services to organizations back in Detroit — including industry introductions, assistance with fundraising, and technology instruction. I'd like Detroit Nation to become a conduit for the organizations in Detroit to become as strong as possible, and for our membership to keep building new relationships with the city — to see it as both past and future."

Last year, she was among more than 100 expatriates who returned for the Detroit Homecoming. Business leaders and philanthropists spearheaded the event to offer former Detroiters a chance to reconnect and reinvest as the city seeks revitalization while emerging from bankruptcy.

"Detroit doesn't need ideas. It has phenomenal ideas. It needs doers," Jacobs told The Detroit News in 2014. "My challenge to expats is who will raise their hand and be a doer in Detroit?"

Jacobs was a perfect ambassador for Detroit, associates said.

"She was an incredibly heartfelt, sincere person," said Karen Dybis, a Metro Detroit freelance writer who first met Jacobs in 2010 when she wrote about her in a Time magazine blog. "It was never a selfish motivation in her desire to see Detroit's survival come to it's fullest potential.

"She was soft spoken and kind, but she carried a lot of weight."

Jacobs was previously vice president of strategy and business development for Kansas-based Ascend Learning.

Before that, she "launched new businesses at the McGraw-Hill Companies, where she led expansion into career solutions in China, India and the Middle East," according to an article on the ApprenNet website.

Jacobs was last heard from Tuesday evening, said Stacey Range Messina, spokeswoman for the Michigan League for Public Policy, where Gilda Jacobs is president and CEO.

"... Her husband got a text from her at 8:45 p.m. saying she was on the train and heading home," Messina said.

More than 200 were injured after the train from Washington derailed on a curve in Philadelphia. There were 238 passengers and five crew members listed aboard. Federal investigators say the train was going more than 100 mph in a curve that was in a 50 mph zone.

Also killed in the crash were award-winning AP video software architect Jim Gaines, a father of two; Justin Zemser, a Naval Academy midshipman from New York City; and Abid Gilani, a senior vice president in Wells Fargo's commercial real estate division in New York.

Jacobs' friends and colleagues searched frantically for her for hours — ApprenNet co-founder and COO Emily Foote Williams went to Amtrak's 30th Street Station with her picture.

The Michigan League for Public Policy released a statement Wednesday evening that read in part:

"The staff and board of the Michigan League for Public Policy send its deepest condolences to President & CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs and her family as they grieve the death of daughter Rachel Jacobs, who was on board the train that derailed Tuesday evening in Philadelphia. Rachel was loved and cherished by her entire family, her husband, her 2-year-old son, friends and co-workers."

Funeral arrangements were not yet complete, but services were scheduled Monday at Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield, according to a post on its website.

Her death drew people to the Detroit Nation Facebook page Wednesday, where they offered condolences and prayers.

"Rachel was an incredible ambassador for Michigan. She made a great, positive impact on her community — in NY and MI. She will be greatly missed by the world. So so so sorry this happened," one user wrote.

"This is just so senseless," another posted.

Associated Press contributed to this report.