Harvard Business School calls on Columbus execs for leadership program

The Young American Leaders Program allows Columbus leaders to bond with executives across America.

Jess Deyo
Columbus CEO
The 2022 Columbus Young American Leaders Program class, from left: Harvard’s Jan Rivkin, Amy Taylor, Nikki Scarpitti, Joe Apgar, Barbara Benham, Yohannan Terrell, Erica Crawley, Rhoe Fields, Autumn Glover and Columbus Foundation CEO Doug Kridler. Not pictured: Falon Donohue and LC Johnson.

Every year since 2015, Harvard Business School professor Jan Rivkin has put dozens of America’s changemakers in one room and asked them the same question: Is Columbus a successful city?

“As you can imagine, the answers are all over the place,” Rivkin says. “Some point to great outcomes, some point to poor outcomes, some point to great processes, some point to poor processes in the community.”

But such an open-ended question immediately begs for others to be asked: What makes a city successful? What does success mean? The oftentimes passionate discussion is part of Harvard Business School’s Young American Leaders Program, meant to challenge city leaders to answer those exact questions by using the “Columbus way” as a focal point.

And as often as Rivkin asks such a question, he’s spent several years searching for an answer of his own. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Young American Leaders Program would be born from another project Rivkin co-chairs—the U.S. Competitiveness Project, a research-led effort founded in 2011 to analyze and grow the competitiveness of America. While working on the project, he recalls hitting what felt like a dead end.

“We dove into this data and quickly concluded that the U.S. economy was doing half its job. Large companies and the people who run and invest in them are doing quite well, but a lot of working-class Americans are struggling, including many small businesses,” Rivkin says. “We started asking ourselves, what might we do at the federal policy level to address shared prosperity in the country?”

Rivkin and other faculty members put together a set of policies aimed at improving the lives of the working class and took it to Washington D.C., but to no avail. At the same time, he was also analyzing efforts at a local level—there, a bit of hope had been restored.

“We found leaders across sectors coming together to get things done and restore shared resources that we rely upon for citizens and companies and communities to be productive and resourceful,” he says.

But at that level, innovative ideas often move slowly. What benefits one city could benefit another, if only the two had a stronger connection—cue the Young American Leaders Program, which has since evolved into an annual event that brings together leaders from various cities to Harvard’s campus. The goal is to get those good ideas flowing quicker.

Rivkin was joined in creating the program with three additional Harvard faculty: Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Karen Mills and Mitch Weiss. Since its creation in 2015, the Young American Leaders Program has grown from hosting 90 leaders across nine cities to now include 140 leaders across 14 cities (10 per city).

From the initial idea to create the program, Columbus has been part of the conversation. It was during the Columbus Partnership’s 2014 retreat to Harvard that Rivkin caught word the group would be in town. After meeting with then Columbus Partnership President and CEO Alex Fischer, Rivkin was one step closer to launching the program.

“Alex Fischer was critical to building that relationship,” Rivkin says. “I spoke with Alex before we ran the first program, when it was nothing more than an idea. He and I took a long walk around campus thinking about how it can be designed to be beneficial for cities like Columbus.”

As for the other eight cities that helped launch the program, stretching from Boston to Seattle, the selections were made with a simple criterion: “I wish I could say that we had a scientific-based search,” Rivkin says. “Instead, it happened that we were looking for two things: One was cities where we felt we knew some critical individuals, and second, cities that seemed committed to moving forward especially on the issue of the lack of shared prosperity in the country.”

The Columbus Partnership, now led by Kenny McDonald, and the Columbus Foundation, led by President and CEO Doug Kridler, sponsor the trip and select all 10 participants each year for the program, with the help of recommendations from past cohorts. Participants could be from public or private sectors, nonprofits or for-profits—there’s no restriction.

Doug Kridler, president and CEO of the Columbus Foundation, and Jan Rivkin, Harvard Business School professor.

Such a program is vital to Columbus’ growing economy and population, Kridler says. Columbus is the 14th largest city in the nation and continues to expand, and with big-name companies like Intel being recruited to Ohio, leadership opportunities also have the potential to grow.

The Young American Leaders Program is meant to be another way for the community to lift and support emerging leaders, Kridler says. “It’s not the only way, but it’s an additive. Leadership in Columbus is more distributed than in the past, which means efforts like [the program] are sound investments by distributing even further and in different ways.”

The Young American Leaders program takes place over four days each June. In May, participants who accept the invitation receive a binder packed with case studies written about the cities involved in the program.

Some past participants include Frederic Bertley, president and CEO of COSI; Brett Kaufman, founder and CEO of Kaufman Development; Shannon Hardin, Columbus City Council president; and Kelley Griesmer, president and CEO at The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio.

Rhoe Fields, a member of the 2022 cohort, says taking part in such a program is her duty. As the assistant vice president of community relations and philanthropy at Bath and Body Works Foundation, she is constantly looking for new ways to give back. “I want to do my part to grow our city in a sustainable and equitable way.”

Fields is excited to come back with skills she can utilize in her day-to-day practices. “I think being a curious person is really important and I think my takeaway from [the program] will allow me to be a more effective leader,” sh says.

The remainder of the 2022 cohort include: Joe Apgar, Pelotonia; Barbara Benham, Huntington National Bank; Erica Crawley, Franklin County Board of Commissioners; Falon Donohue, Narya Capital; Autumn Glover, OhioHealth; LC Johnson, Zora’s House; Amy Taylor, Columbus Downtown Development Corporation; Yohannan Terrell, Columbus Fashion Alliance/Warhol & Wall St.; and Nikki Scarpitti, The Walter Foundation.

Throughout the week, all 140 members spend early morning well into the evening in the classroom—that’s where those case studies come into play. All participants will rely on them, similar to how Harvard Business School typically leads its students, to learn about various challenges the participating cities have faced. The attendees share how they would have handled the issue, initial responses or new ideas.

For example, Rivkin’s newest case study, debuting at this year’s program, is about Chattanooga, Tennessee. Set in 2020 as the pandemic shut down schools, 28,000 kids didn’t have an internet connection and weren’t able to work remotely. One superintendent juggled possible solutions, ranging from little involvement to a whole new plan. In the end, free internet access was granted for a decade to any family of a public-school student who got free or reduced-price lunch.

The conversation about the case could be joined with participants noting similar challenges or providing criticisms, compliments and ideas. As a case study is discussed, leaders from that city are challenged to simply listen to all responses before contributing—which may pose a challenge for some more than others.

Jan Rivkin, left, talks with members of the 2022 YALP cohort photographed at The Guild House.

Case study: The Columbus Partnership

The first case study written by Rivkin for the Young American Leaders Program had Columbus as its subject. The well-known study is set in 2014 after the Columbus Partnership’s controversial attempts to strengthen the public school system following the investigations of Columbus City Schools in 2012 for reportedly wiping out poor attendance and test scores.

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It was that same year that then Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and then Columbus City Council President Andrew Ginther announced the formation of the Columbus Education Commission—a group the Partnership was deeply involved in. Along with other recommendations, the commission spearheaded two ballot initiatives: Issue 50, which would raise property taxes by $76.6 million and call for an independent auditor for the school system; and Issue 51, which would define the selection and powers of that auditor. On Nov. 5, 2013, voters shot down both issues—with 69 percent and 61 percent opposition, respectively.

“Here you’ve got an organization called the Columbus Partnership, which has been effective in economic development, and in a community-spirited way it got involved in public education and it hasn’t gone well—what do you do?” Rivkin says. “And first, why did that happen? What do you think about it?”

Christie Angel, a 2018 cohort member and president and CEO of YWCA Columbus, knew this case was coming, she says. Angel, who is stepping down from her role this year, remembers being briefed by past participants before arriving—and was highly anticipating the conversation.

Angel worked for Mayor Coleman at the time and was knee-deep in the education reform initiative, she says, including serving as a government relations lead to help get the ballot issues passed. “Of course, it failed miserably, and the rest is history. Everybody told me you have to be ready for that [discussion] because the criticism is going to come.”

And it came.

“I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my gosh we’re reliving his whole thing… ouch,’” she says. “You hear people talk about the business community being too involved, they shouldn’t have been involved, or this should have been led by the people and that’s why it failed.”

Though, as the program continues and other case studies are discussed, some are revisited, Angel says. It also gave her the chance to see new perspectives not only of Columbus, but also other cities involved.

“Throughout the course of the week as we workshopped these case studies, people started to say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Maybe Columbus had something going on,’” she says. “... people’s opinion, which started so negatively around how we handled that initiative, started to change.”

Participants also take part in group projects within their respective cities. Angel recalls her group discussing ways developers could take advantage of President Donald Trump’s proposed Opportunity Zones, part of his 2017 tax plan, to create social good. The idea was never fully hashed out, but some used it as inspiration, she says.

Another participant, in 2019, was Janelle Coleman, vice president of community engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion at American Electric Power. Coleman, who is married to the former mayor, was recommended for the program while she was at L Brands, where she worked for 12 years, but participated when she was executive vice president of external affairs at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Bringing so many diverse perspectives together in one room yielded a lesson she still relies on today, she says. “One of the [takeaways] is that sometimes you just have to sit and listen, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you, no matter what your opinion may be, it’s just really important to create space for open, honest dialogue whether you agree with it or not and ultimately come together at the end of that dialogue with a solution to move forward.”

For Coleman, attending the Young American Leaders Program also instilled a sense of joy, proving that communities often experience and overcome similar struggles and offering her several new connections.

“There’s a bonding there of folks who are on the ground really trying to solve these audacious issues that you think may be too big and then you discover something, or you have an unlocking of thinking from someone from Nashville and it inspires you. It gives you hope. It gives you someone to pick up the phone and call.”

Coleman hopes more programs like it could exist in Columbus.

The opportunities from the Young American Leaders Program don’t end in June. The Columbus Foundation and Columbus Partnership encourage past Columbus participants to stay in touch, and at least once a year, Kridler invites them to a private event to hear from key thought leaders. Last September, for example, he hosted New York Times best-selling author Heather McGhee, who wrote “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

“My hope is that folks feel encouraged and inspired by the opportunity and encouraged to think about what we have and what we can build on,” Kridler says. “Building a social and civic cohesion is a critical effort in building a strong community and in pursuit of common good.”

Rivkin hopes the program can also grow to include more cities. “We are taking people who are already doing extraordinary things and trying to add a little bit more to them,” he says. “It’s clear that magic happens here.”

Young American Leaders Program participating cities 

  1. Boston, MA
  2. Chattanooga, TN
  3. Columbus, OH
  4. Detroit, MI
  5. Miami, FL
  6. Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN
  7. Nashville, TN
  8. Salt Lake City, Utah 
  9. Seattle, WA
  10. Birmingham, AL
  11. Milwaukee, WI
  12. Pittsburgh, PA
  13. San Antonio, TX
  14. San Jose, CA

Jess Deyo is associate editor.