Leaders Experience Reflections 2023

Courtney Cesari ’04CC
Nicole Bullock ’10GSAS
November 01, 2023

Columbia Alumni Leaders Experience is an annual conference where the University's top alumni leaders and volunteers gather to exchange best practices, advice, and ideas. 

This year’s conference was held on October 20 and 21. Learn more about the conference and volunteering for Columbia, and see what happened at this year’s conference

Read on for reflections on the event from the Chair, Courtney Cesari ’04CC, and Co-chair, Nicole Bullock ’10GSAS.

Dear fellow alumni:

When we first spoke about Leaders Experience (nearly 10 months ago!) we decided on a few things that were important to us: 

  • In order to talk about being better leaders, we knew we had to first talk about being better humans. For us, this meant broaching a topic new to Leaders Experience: mental health and self-care.
  • We wanted to activate new or lapsed volunteer leaders, interested students, and alumni leaders who had never spoken at Leaders Experience.
  • Acknowledging numerous socioeconomic and political challenges, we wanted to facilitate a safe, educational event where we could help fellow alumni.

Partnering with the University’s alumni relations team and the 2023 Steering Committee, we realized each point above within the thematic programming: Taking Care of Yourself, Taking Care of Business, and Taking Care of the World.

The world, especially in the weeks before this year’s conference, changed from when we started planning 10 months ago. Suddenly the theme of “taking care of the world” became more significant. Our Friday evening Opening Keynote Panel handled the topic with aplomb; Emmy Award-winning Rhonda Colvin ’13JRN moderated a discussion between Wafaa El-Sadr, Executive Vice President for Columbia Global; Jess Fanzo, Professor of Climate and Interim Director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and Kelly Larson ’96PH, Director Bloomberg Philanthropies., who spoke from their respective areas of expertise: public health, road safety, and food systems. The next morning, Dean Jelani Cobb of the Columbia Journalism School spoke to Sara Just ’88CC, Executive Producer of PBS Newshour, and Matt Bai ’94JRN, Washington Post columnist, handling the topic from another angle, the role and responsibility of journalism in shaping the world. 

Following morning sessions, this year’s Leaders Luncheon included an awards ceremony for 2023’s CAA Alumni Medalists and Clubs of Distinction (Domestic: Columbia Alumni Northern California, International: Columbia Alumni Greece) after which we were privileged to hear President Minouche Shafik in conversation with CAA Chair Lisa Conroy ’89CC—a genuine, heartfelt conversation with two Columbia leaders. 

We ended the weekend in Low Library with a wine tasting featuring alumni winemakers (and a brewery!) 

We had attendees from five continents and more than a dozen countries with most sessions oversubscribed. It is a point of great pride that of the more than 50 presenters, 44 had never spoken at Leaders Experience before. 

All of our panelists, moderators, and University leaders had thoughtful insights, deep expertise, and engaging perspectives during the sessions. The combination of the topical content and each speaker’s genuine approach presented a new level of vulnerability and success this year. 

This is perhaps what we are most proud of, that our community joined together and explored the concept of leadership beyond our CVs and achievements. In our shared openness, we created a safe space where we could first acknowledge that all Columbia alumni sometimes need help, and then share solutions, strategies, and advice from our community. Now more than ever we need more authentic leaders, those who have the potential to see the light because they have also seen the dark. Together we can see the light and be the light. 

It’s been the utmost honor and privilege to serve together as your 2023 Chairs. We hope that the seeds planted during Leaders Experience create deeper relationships, continued bravery, and vulnerability so that we can continue to take care of ourselves, each other, and the world. 

With heartfelt gratitude, 

Courtney & Nicole