Alumni Stories: The Donaldson Fellows
The four 2010-2011 Donaldson Fellows come from different industries and have dramatically different life stories. Bradley Abelow '89 spent more than 15 years at Goldman Sachs before taking the job of New Jersey state treasurer and then eventually moving back into the private sector; Jennifer Niles '98 worked helping charter schools get started in Connecticut and helped run a foundation in Chicago before moving to Washington, D.C., to start a charter school; Ken Ofori-Atta '88 was an investment banker on Wall Street before returning to his home in Ghana and founding the country's leading investment banking firm; and Hilary Pennington '83 co-founded and ran the nonprofit Jobs for the Future for more than 20 years before leaving to lead post-secondary educational programs and special initiatives for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But while their experiences are different, all four alumni exemplify the spirit of Yale SOM and embody the school's mission to educate leaders for business and society.
The four Fellows appeared before the entire first-year SOM class on November 12, to speak about their careers and provide advice. The symposium was part of two days of events at SOM that included hour-long sessions with first-year Leadership Development Program groups and a medal presentation ceremony by Dean Sharon Oster.
The Fellows were preceded by the school's founding dean, William H. Donaldson, who called the group the "best of the best" and "prototypes of the people who graduate from our school." The Donaldson Fellows Program for Yale SOM Alumni is named to honor Donaldson, who has also founded an investment bank, served as an undersecretary of state, and led a major insurance corporation, the New York Stock Exchange, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Commenting on the arc of their careers, all four talked about the role SOM had played in their continuing success. They spoke of concrete skills, but placed as great an emphasis on how the school gave them a way of tackling difficult problems, no matter how complex, and the confidence to do it. "Without the school, I doubt I would have had the courage to make a lot of these decisions," said Ofori-Atta about how he left New York to return to Ghana, which at the time didn't even have a stock market. Niles commented on how important her SOM network has been to her career. "My SOM friends have been crucial to me," she said. "I knew I couldn't start the school without them. And now five of them sit on the various boards."
But while SOM has proven key to all four Donaldson Fellows, they share more than just a love for their alma mater. They all took risks at points when others might have chosen the safe route. Niles spoke of spending virtually all of her career in "the danger zone," while Abelow, who is now chief operating officer of MF Global, Inc., commented on how he is used to "jumping into pools with very little water in them." "I like putting myself in difficult situations," he said. " I have an attraction to it."
The Fellows urged students not to worry if they don't know exactly what they want to do upon graduation. If there is a theme for all of their careers, it's a willingness to be open to new opportunities and do what it takes to go after them. Pennington talked about how the direction of her career was set almost by accident. During her last year at SOM, she attended a lecture by the head of a small organization called Jobs for Connecticut's Future. She was so inspired by the group's mission that she wanted to work there. When there was no opening, she went to work for Aetna, where she got herself loaned to the organization (which evolved into the national Jobs for the Future) for a special project. "And I stayed there for 20 years," she said. "If there's been one constant in my career, it's a focus on the things I'm passionate about."