Alumni Spotlight: Ben Bryant

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

1990’s Decade
: Ben Bryant
H.S. Grad Year: Class of 1999
High School: Chamblee Charter High School
College: Washington & Lee University (BA); The George Washington University (MA, Legislative Affairs); Mercer University (JD)
Current Role: Vice President & Sr. Division Counsel for Financial Services and Marketing, InComm Payments | State Board Member, Technical College System of Georgia

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?

Professionally, I serve as Vice President & Senior Division Counsel for Financial Services and Marketing at InComm Payments, a global fintech and payments company headquartered here in Atlanta. Prior to joining the legal field, I spent three years working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. I also serve on the State Board for the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), a role I’ve had the privilege of serving in since 2013. 

As memory serves, I participated in three summers of the 21CL program back in the mid-to-late 1990s, which at the time was a single week of summer camp offered at Atlanta Christian College. One of the biggest takeaways for me from 21CL was coming to truly understand the importance of networking and the ability to find common ground in the moment with a wide array of individuals. The ability to communicate and make connections with the individuals we encounter daily is such a valuable skill whether it be interviewing for college or for a job, or in the workplace itself. Programs like 21CL serve as excellent incubators for developing these skills in a no-pressure environment.

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.)

One of my favorite memories from my time participating in 21CL was the exercise where students formed teams to run our own small businesses in competition against one another in selling snacks and drinks to program participants. It was an incredibly fun and educational exercise allowing students to develop and hone a variety of skills including business strategy, marketing, and salesmanship. I also have memories of visits to Atlanta-area businesses, etiquette dinners, volunteering, and a talent show or two. Thankfully my time in 21CL predates smartphones, so hopefully no video footage exists from the talent shows – I definitely participated in one of the step shows Kyle Wingfield mentioned in his alumni spotlight and I imagine I don’t look quite as talented as I thought I did at the time (and certainly less talented than my 21CL colleague Carl, who was the drum major at Cedar Grove High School at the time…).

Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? If so, how? 

My leadership style is one of collaboration, consensus, and camaraderie. I strongly believe that we’re better when we work together, fostering an environment of inclusivity where everyone not only feels like a part of the team, but is proud of the team and happy to be a part of it. Each of us brings different skills and perspectives to the table based on our backgrounds and experiences, and when we work together to craft solutions to the problems we face, we create better outcomes for all involved. Participating in 21st Century Leaders absolutely advanced my belief in the power of collaboration. This is something I get to put into practice as co-chair of InComm’s DE&I Council, as well as through my involvement in activities outside of my professional career, such as Scouting, TCSG, and various other community organizations.

Why do you believe programs like 21CL are important? And what advice would you give to a current or future student?

Programs like 21CL are important for several reasons. First, they provide an outlet for students who are likely already leaders in their respective schools and communities to grow their leadership skills alongside like-minded peers. Second, they afford students the opportunity to enhance their communication skills, which are critically important to future success in college and beyond. Other than Scouting, I can’t think of another program that helps students develop skills in effectively communicating with adults, a skill which is lacking in many youths that don’t regularly have the opportunity to engage with adults outside of the rigid student-teacher context. Third, these programs help students improve their networking skills, not only among high school peers, but among adults in a business setting. While the old mantra “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” is not entirely accurate, there is certainly some truth to the saying, and you’ll find at every step of your career it helps to know people. The good news for today’s participants, is that you have much more of an ability to stay connected to your fellow participants than we did in the dark ages before social media existed! 

Finally, and most important from my perspective (and this echoes what fellow alumni Brandi H. and Kyle W, both of whom I attended 21CL camps with, shared in their spotlights) the program brings together a diverse group of individuals from all across the state, giving participants the opportunity to appreciate, respect, and ultimately learn from the perspective of others. As far as advice, I would encourage current and future students to step outside of their comfort zones and place themselves in situations that afford the opportunity to learn and grow alongside a diverse mix of individuals at every step of their educational and professional careers.

Share the Inspiration!

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.