For our 35th anniversary, we’ll be sharing the stories of 35 alumni showcasing the leaders they are today and how 21st Century Leaders inspired and impacted their journey. Alumni will represent the 3.5 decades since our founding in 1989 – the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s. Take a read and be inspired!
35th Anniversary Alumni Spotlight
How has your career unfolded and how did participating in 21CL help prepare you for your next steps going to college, taking on a new leadership role in community/college and after?
After my time in 21st Century Leaders (21CL) (high school class of 1997), I graduated from the University of Georgia and pursued a career in journalism that took me to the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including 4.5 years overseas in Belgium. In 2018, I changed careers and became CEO of an Atlanta-based think tank called the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Looking back, I can see clear ways that my participation in 21CL helped me. For example, I became more comfortable speaking not only in front of groups, but also one-on-one with adult business executives. I also learned a lot about different personality types and how people within those various types see the world differently. And just generally, I would say 21CL was a key part in helping a small-town boy like me see a much larger world and understand more possibilities.
What’s your memorable or ‘aha’ moment during your time at 21CL? (Particular program, meeting a professional and diverse peer, speaking in public for the first time, etc.)
While I had a racially diverse group of friends growing up, my hometown overall was not a hugely diverse place during my childhood – although that has changed significantly over time. 21CL was an experience that helped me learn what it’s like to be among people of diverse backgrounds: not only in the small group that I might choose, but in a broader sense as well. I remember things like a member of the staff team one year teaching us in the evenings about step shows. Of course, we found that we had more things in common than not, but being exposed to some of the differences gave me a comfort level as well as an awareness that helped me be a better citizen of my surroundings as my surroundings changed.
Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? If so, how?
I try to lead by example and by consensus: I model the behavior I expect from my team, and I seek their buy-in for important decisions or changes. The exercises, discussions and experiences in 21CL contributed to those elements of my leadership style.
Why do you believe programs like 21CL are important? And what advice would you give to a current or future student?
Whether one grows up in a small town or an urban area, young people tend to take a more constrictive view of the world than they may realize. They are largely limited by their observations and experiences. That applies to their horizons, which dictate how they view opportunities and possibilities. But it also applies to their self-conception: They may believe they are only what they have been, which is shaped by the people and influences they’ve known. Today’s technologies may broaden their opportunities to know more people and influences than those nearby – for better and for worse – but young people still need ways to try out new versions of themselves in constructive, nurturing environments. I firmly believe programs like 21CL allow them to do just that, because these programs let them break out of the molds that have built up around them. These programs are opportunities for what we might call positive rebelliousness: going against what they’ve always known and been, but in ways that build them up rather than put them at risk.
Inspired? Share this story with your network.