Yale SOM's Inaugural Donaldson Fellows Symposium Addresses What It Means to Be a Leader for Business and Society
The five alumni of the Yale School of Management sitting on the dais before an audience of SOM students came from different industries and backgrounds. There was a private equity investor, the head of a major national nonprofit, a senior executive at Google, a pioneer in conservation finance, and a leader of the HIV/AIDS response in Zambia. Their experiences were widely divergent, but as the first class of Donaldson Fellows, the five were all being honored for how their careers embody the school’s mission to educate leaders for business and society.
The five Donaldson Fellows — Adam Blumenthal ’89, Laszlo Bock ’99, Andrea Levere ’83, James Levitt ’80, and Elizabeth Thompson Serlemitsos ’93 — spent October 2 and 3 on campus, meeting with small groups of students and taking the stage together for a three-hour symposium, facilitated by Yale SOM Dean Joel Podolny and Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, that focused on their careers and how the lessons they learned at SOM prepared them to become successful cross-sector leaders. They spoke of favorite professors, impactful classes, and the people they met who became lifelong friends. But no matter what they’ve done since school, the five kept returning to the core idea that SOM taught them not just how to be effective managers but how to be the kind of leaders who strive every day to make a difference. “The way they teach leadership at SOM is very similar to how things are done at Google,” said Bock, the head of People Operations at Google. “The job on a team is not to give direction, but to make everyone better. This is what’s taught here. Leadership is about making people around you better.”
The Donaldson Fellows Program is named for William H. Donaldson, the school’s founding dean and the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Read a short biography of Donaldson.) This year’s inaugural five fellows were selected by a committee of Yale SOM alumni, students, faculty, and staff; and from a field of nominations from many countries, every sector, and virtually every SOM class. The program is integrated into the SOM curriculum, as well. First-year students were required to participate in the symposium and later used the experiences of the Fellows as a jumping off point for a Leadership Development Program session on their “future selves.”
During the Donaldson Symposium, which was held on Oct. 3, the five Donaldson Fellows spoke of their triumphs, setbacks, and what it means to them to be leaders for business and society. Levere, president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), spoke of how Bonnie Wright ’83, working with other students in a class at SOM, created a business plan for a start-up credit union in North Carolina, designed to serve low-income people. No matter what they tried, she said, they couldn’t get the balance sheet to balance. But despite this setback, Wright and others launched and grew the institution — the Self-Help Community Development Credit Union — into what is now the largest credit union of its kind in the country. Examples like this illustrate the point that: "It’s not outrageous to say SOM alumni have helped to invent the community development finance industry in the US," she said. Levere herself went on to a long career in economic development, where she has applied the multisectoral lessons of SOM to advance innovative approaches to the problem of poverty. As the president of CFED since 2004, she has led a charge to help more Americans build assets through matched savings, home-ownership, entrepreneurship, and education. She is now spearheading a CFED initiative to give all children in the United States savings accounts to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Perseverance and creative problem-solving were repeated themes in all of the Fellows’ careers. For Thompson Serlemitsos, the chief advisor for the National AIDS Council in Zambia, finding ways to be effective in a foreign country with an exploding AIDS population required constant adjustments and tested her leadership skills on a daily basis. “I understood that I had to work behind the scenes,” she said. “My role was to build a foundation and support the out-front leadership, because I learned that when the two come together, great things happen.” Thompson Serlemitsos, who has been in Zambia for 13 years, said she knows she’s been successful because she’s essentially put herself out of a job and expects to leave the National AIDS Council within a year.
SOM leaders understand how to work not just within their industry, but across sectors. Bock has worked in management consulting, started a nonprofit, and now is at Google. Levitt spent 20 years in strategy and consulting before becoming the director of the Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest, and Blumenthal cofounded an asset management fund before working as first deputy comptroller and chief financial officer for the New York City Comptroller, helping to invest New York City’s pension funds and then returning to the private sector with his new firm, Blue Wolf Capital Management. For all five Fellows, their careers have required flexibility and determination, as well as a sense of humility. Blumenthal said that nothing could’ve prepared him to understand the environment in the city government, leading to a number of initial mistakes. But he didn’t allow a couple setbacks to derail him, and under his tenure pension assets rose from $65 billion to $85 billion. “Because of my Yale training, I learned not to think about what ought to happen but what is likely to happen,” he said. “I screwed up a lot and when you’re not used to it, it takes getting used to. But it’s been my experience that if you try a lot of things, some of it takes.”
For students who attended the event, the stories and lessons of the Fellows left a deep impression. Corey Probst ’10, a dual degree student with the School of Public Health, said she was struck by the diversity of the Fellows experience, and how they each have made a real mark on the world. “Whether you go into healthcare or finance or HR, it’s clear there are SOM alumni out there doing amazing things,” she said.
Yash Shah ’10 said what most impressed him was the passion the Fellows bring to their careers. “But it’s not just the passion,” he said, “It’s how they impose their values — SOM values — on what they’re doing. They don’t live just for the bottom line, and that’s really inspiring
Added Randi Wiggins ’10, who is interested in working in the healthcare industry: “When you get down to it, the only thing they have in common is their SOM experiences. But that seems to have made all the difference.”
All five Fellows credited SOM for providing them with the skills to be successful and to make a difference. But as Levitt put it, what makes SOM special is not just the quality of the education, but the people who are classmates for two years but often lifelong friends. “The friends I made at SOM are some of my closest friends in the world,” he said. “They’ve been important not just socially, but professionally. I’ve been on projects with them; I’ve run campaigns with them. The meeting of the minds at SOM has been tremendously important. Look to your left and right and remember the people sitting next to you. They could be tremendously important to you as life goes on."