A history of providing CU's top undergraduates the opportunity to lead

What does it take to lead — whether it’s a startup venture, a nonprofit, a global corporation or a community? Does our DNA contain a gene for leadership?

Some say leaders are made, not born. At CU-Boulder, top undergraduates have the opportunity to learn or enhance the necessary skills to invent, create, lead and manage in the Presidents Leadership Class (PLC).

Forty years ago, CU-Boulder teamed up with a group of Colorado business and community leaders to design a program for talented students. The goal was to recruit the best and brightest who would then become leaders in Colorado.

The seed of that venture found fertile ground. The result was PLC, one of the country’s oldest collegiate leadership programs. Founded in 1972, the pioneering academic program approaches leadership as a set of skills that can be learned, expanded and improved. Last July Inc. magazine featured the annual list of America’s 30 Top Entrepreneurs Under 30, and three PLCers made the list.

“Our mission is to develop extraordinary leaders — not ordinary ones,” says Barbara Volpe, PLC director. “We take this mission very seriously and have defined the skills we believe a person needs in order to lead in an extraordinary way.”

Each year, 50 of CU’s most gifted incoming freshmen are selected to be PLC scholars during their four-year undergraduate career. They are awarded a merit-based scholarship and receive rigorous academic instruction, internship experiences, personal development, community service experiences and leadership training.

Throughout four years, students attend courses and lectures focusing on ethics, global issues and leadership. Each year’s courses build on the previous year. In the last two years, students engage in real-world activities, including crafting policy statements, interacting with international policy leaders and applying for grants to fund their own leadership ideas.

“We operate our program as a leadership laboratory,” says program director Jake Davis. “All students, staff, faculty and volunteers model and practice the skills and virtues that PLC cultivates.”

Upon graduation, students receive a leadership certificate with their diploma, equivalent to a minor in leadership studies, as well as transferable skills and experiences for their résumés.

Accomplished PLC alumni embody a bold spirit of entrepreneurship. They have the ability to see possibilities and the ambition to follow where inspiration leads them. Read on to find out how some PLC graduates are making a difference in the world.

Being Unreasonable

What happens when you put 25 entrepreneurs together with 50 mentors and dozens of investors?

You get the power to change the world.

Sound unreasonable? Maybe, but that’s exactly what they cultivate at the Unreasonable Institute, say Daniel Epstein (Phil ’08) and Teju Ravilochan (IntlAf ’08), two of the nonprofit institute’s co-founders who were in PLC. The institute aims to help young civic-minded entrepreneurs across the globe reach their goals. Its name came from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who once said, “all progress depends on the unreasonable man [and woman].”

“The PLC community is chock full of innovators and entrepreneurs hungry to make a positive dent in history,” Epstein says. “Some of them became my co-founders and many have become my best friends.”

One of them is Ravilochan.

“PLC transformed my life,” says Ravilochan, “by introducing me to some of the greatest people.”

Entrepreneurs travel to Boulder from around the globe for six weeks of workshops, mentoring, training and business development. With a nod to Shaw, the nonprofit was launched from a desire to effect change on a global scale.

The goal is to arm entrepreneurs with the knowledge and resources to accelerate startup ventures that address an urgent social challenge affecting a million or more people. Entrepreneurs tackle issues ranging from converting agricultural waste into fuel to developing a clean water delivery system to providing an inexpensive palm-sized infectious disease detector.

In spring 2013, the Unreasonable Institute headed for the high seas by teaming up with Semester at Sea to launch Unreasonable at Sea. The 106-day journey around the world is a unique entrepreneurial learning laboratory for mentors and innovators. The idea is to mix great thinkers and doers in an international setting while in the close quarters of a ship to facilitate powerful outcomes.

“Our solutions will transcend borders and cultures,” Epstein wrote during his own Semester at Sea experience. “Tomorrow is today’s mystery . . .  I kind of like that.”

Media Madness

In today’s nonstop, wireless, global news environment, event coverage unfolds at warp speed and can be accessed from anywhere. That’s good news for universities that can provide stories to a content-hungry audience.

The challenge, says Bronson Hilliard (Hist’86), director of university media relations and news services at CU-Boulder, is to be prepared for a mélange of scenarios — positive and negative — that could impact the campus.

That’s no small feat for a university that garners national and international coverage. Daily stories can encompass the announcement of a new Nobel Prize winner in physics, a $20 million instrument built by CU being launched to Mars, President Obama’s multiple campus visits, football team ups and downs, and even CU’s efforts to snuff out the unwelcome 4/20 pot smoking event.

As the official spokesman for the Boulder campus, Hilliard has to have the facts straight and an answer ready when the media call.

“It constantly keeps me on my toes,” Hilliard says. “There is always a story out there and most of them are good, but even unforeseen negatives can come out of positive stories.”

Hilliard recalls how beneficial participating in PLC was in preparing him for his career. He rubbed elbows with such influential leaders as a U.S. senator, a governor’s press secretary and an economist — heady stuff for
a freshman.

“Today, we talk about the university’s role in helping keep our intellectual know-how in our own backyard,” Hilliard says. “I’m proud to say CU and PLC had that vision 40 years ago. The program succeeded, I think, beyond its founders’ wildest dreams.”

A Guide for Parents

The idea for UniversityParent.com came about when Sarah Schupp (Bus’04) was a sophomore and her parents, visiting from Dallas, asked for suggestions on where to eat, sightsee and shop in Boulder.

There was no guide specifically targeting parents, so she wrote the first University Parent Guide for the annual Family Weekend event on campus. Her business proposal to launch University-Parent Media won the business plan competition in the Leeds School of Business entrepreneurship program in May 2004.

Schupp’s company produces print and online guides for parents with more than 200 universities and colleges around the country. Each participating school has its own website that helps parents find information they need from events, hotels and shopping to the location of the closest bank to campus and when tuition is due.

“All of the PLC experiences helped me form the business,” says Schupp, “and gave me the framework to work with other higher education institutions to fulfill UniversityParent’s mission of making a positive impact on students’ success.”

Power in Public Policy

JulieMarie Shepherd (PolSci’07, MA’09) thought she wanted to pursue a career in law, but her experience in PLC redirected her goals.

Shepherd learned to use research and data to drive decision-making. Her PLC internship at the Colorado State Capitol turned into a paid staff position Shepherd held for two legislative sessions.

Today Shepherd is a doctoral candidate in political science at CU and anticipates graduating in May. She is studying the structure of school boards, their governance models and the implications for student achievement, and board/superintendent relationships.

As president of the Aurora [Colo.] School Board, she also serves as research associate at the Spark Policy Institute in Denver where she conducts research and evaluates projects related to early childhood health integration; social and emotional learning and development in K-12 education; and access to health care.

“I have always had an interest in politics and public policy,” says Shepherd. “Nearly everything we do every day is in some way driven by political or policy decisions, and I want to better understand those decisions, how they are made and, when necessary, how they can be improved.”

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