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Alumni Spotlight: Brandon Ona

Our second alumni spotlight for January 2020 is Brandon Ona, a graduate of Mill Creek High School (2012) and of The George Washington University (2016). He currently works as an Associate International Trade Manager at Georgia Department of Economic Development where he has been working since 2017 after his previous work at The White House! Brandon has recently joined the 21CL Junior Board of Directors.

Paint a brief picture of what you are doing now.

Since graduating college, I have worked in the public sector for both federal and state government. Today, I work for the Georgia Department of Economic Development and my role is to help small businesses in Georgia access economic opportunities in countries around the world. I always try to find time to volunteer at 21CL events where I provide my experience to students currently in the program and share the incredible opportunities that being a part of 21CL has opened up to me; I have just started serving on the 21CL Junior Board of Directors and my hope is to continue inspiring young people, and to share my message that the “secret to success” for a meaningful career is to find out who you care about the most and what you are best at, and when you put the two together, you change the game for everyone else.

How did participating in 21CL transform you and lead you to where you are now?

I participated in the 2011 Leadership Unplugged: A CNN Experience (now called the Youth Media Institute) program with 21CL, a program that was designed to develop our leadership skills through the lens of journalism. From the moment I arrived, I was eager to meet the other young leaders, who like myself, were high school students from Georgia. However, as I got to know my new peers, I quickly learned that we all had different stories despite having so much in common.

Admittedly at the time, and still to this day, I had no interest in making a career in journalism, let alone being a leader in this field. However, during the program, we learned how to lead with curiosity to find the common thread through our diverse stories.  This is when the leadership skills through journalism came into play and changed my life. In many ways, I learned how to relate and connect with others, while admiring what sets us apart. To me this was, and very much still is the ultimate lesson in leadership, and I am so grateful to have learned this as a young person. As a 21st Century Leader, I realized for the first time that leadership is finding what is unique and universal in all of us, and knowing that our diversity is what propels us forward. This is a principle I have carried with me ever since, and has led me to opportunities I could never have imagined possible if it was not for a 21CL program.

How did 21CL prepare you for your next steps? Going into college and taking on leadership roles, heading into a new era of professionalism, etc. What skills/tools/perspectives have helped you along the way?

One of my biggest takeaways from 21CL was the importance of being of service to others. I took this to heart, and upon graduating high school, pursued a career in public service with the hopes of working in and with government entities to help everyday people live more fulfilling lives. One incredible opportunity/accomplishment that came from this was early on in my career. The day after I graduated college, I was appointed to serve as an aide at The White House’s Office of Management and Budget. In this role, I helped move various aspects of the President’s agenda forward, most of which were focused on helping Americans get back on their feet during the economic recovery that followed the Great Recession.

Throughout my career as a public servant at both the federal and state level of government, the core of the work I do is trying to understand the challenges people face, the hopes they hold, and the environment in which they live, to figure out how I and the institution I work for can be of service to them. All of which are leadership skills I began to learn with 21CL. 21CL set forth the momentum for me to be prepared for the incredible opportunity of working for the President of the United States on behalf of the American people.

Which programs did you participate in, and when? What skills did you gain or improve through those programs?

I participated in both a summer leadership institute and school-year program. One important skill I gained from these programs was authentic storytelling. Being able to listen and learn someone’s story and tell it truthfully through the work I do has been invaluable in my life.

What was a memorable or ‘aha’ moment in 21CL? (Particular program, meeting a professional and diverse peers, speaking in public for the first time, etc.?)

One moment I will never forget from the program was watching a few of my peers on live television getting interviewed CNN en Español with the headline that translated to “meet the leaders of tomorrow.” It was so inspiring to watch them and know that even though we met just two days ago, they are now having an impact on the world.

Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? if so how? And have you recently learned something else about leadership? Please share!

The single most important skill I learned at 21CL was leading with curiosity- learning people’s stories and figuring out how I can be of service to them, or work with them to be of service to others. In recent years, I have learned that leading with curiosity does not necessarily feel like you are a “very important leader.” Instead, in the moment, you feel like a person who really wants to help someone else simply because you care. In fact, often times the last thing you think is that you are leader. However, when you lead with curiosity, you move someone’s life forward, which moves the world forward even in the smallest way.