Leadership Pursuits After the Exit

Peter Reiling, Executive Director of the Henry Crown Fellowship at The Aspen Institute, speaks with GrowthCap about his work with successful entrepreneurs and helping them accomplish their purpose-driven ambitions.


RJ: Hi Peter, it’s been some time, great to chat with you again.  Would you mind sharing with us background on the Aspen Institute as well as the Henry Crown Fellowship?

Peter: Sure, I’ll start with the Aspen Institute.  We’ve been around since 1949. We’re often described by the press as a think tank. But we’re not a think tank and have never been one. If I had to use one word to describe the role of the Aspen Institute, it’s that we are a “convener.” We were designed to bring together people who should be talking, but for whatever reason are not.

If you think about our founding in 1949, it was a time in the world when there was a lot of turmoil and tension. You had the Cold War going on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with Europe in the middle. You had Israel gaining independence with reverberations across the Middle East that continue to this day.  India had just gained independence, leading to the Partition. Mao was winding down his Long March and founding the new People’s Republic.  So we were created to lower these sorts of tensions, to bring together people who needed to be talking – to provide a neutral, relaxed setting, away from the press, and give these people the chance to get to know one another as human beings, to understand where each was coming from, their values, their beliefs, their dreams, their fears.

We carry that original founding idea forward to today in a lot of our work, having been host to aspects of the Middle East peace talks, for example. Ever hear of the Wye River Peace Accords?  Clinton, Ehud Barak, Arafat?  Wye River is our East Coast facility in Maryland.  At a more prosaic but equally important level, we are the people who will bring together those who are battling over, say, education reform in the United States.  Union leaders and reformers who are sparring every day in the press. We give them a place to come together to say “Look, if we’re all truly serious about providing a high quality education for every child in America, well, we may disagree tactically and we may have some different values, but let’s figure out where we agree and move forward.”  We do the same in health policy, judicial policy, urban policy, and more.

So that’s the Aspen Institute, a convener of people who need to meet, focused on addressing an array of challenges that face society both in America and around the world. Ultimately we want to work with leaders who are willing to engage in constructive dialogue and who are willing to lead with values, not with just ideologies.

The Henry Crown Fellowship was launched many, many years later, in 1997. Today, it’s one of fifteen fellowship programs at the Institute, but it’s at the root of all of them.  Out of the Henry Crown Fellowship Program we’ve launched similar fellowships in China, India, the Middle East, Africa, Central America and more; fellowships for elected officials, education entrepreneurs, environmental leaders and more.  We are now 2,100 Fellows in 48 different countries.

The Henry Crown Fellowship is named after a very successful businessman from Chicago. His family arrived as refugees from Lithuania in the early part of the 1900’s and eventually went on to create a business empire that includes what today we know as General Dynamics Corporation. Henry Crown was a very principled man who believed that all business leaders should operate ethically and be good citizens of the communities where they lived. He was worried about business leaders who cut ethical corners, ended up in handcuffs and undermined the public’s faith in the business sector.  He also had a deep concern that the social challenges we see all around us – healthcare challenges, environmental challenges, educational challenges and more — seem to be growing almost exponentially in number and complexity, and that, while governments were working on these challenges as were a lot of well-meaning and often very effective non-profit organizations, they simply didn’t seem to have the collective horsepower to tackle them.

And so, he wanted to bring entrepreneurial business leaders into the fray because they tend to look at challenges differently than most people do. The Henry Crown Fellowship was designed to identify highly successful business leaders and to nudge them to dedicate a portion of their mental bandwidth and their creative energies to some of the greatest societal challenges around us. So basically what we’re doing with this venture is taking a bet that business entrepreneurs will think differently about social challenges and come up with approaches that your classic government or non-profit leader wouldn’t.  Each year, we put out a call for nominations and we select 20 very diverse entrepreneurial leaders who’ve achieved both a high level of success and who, in the view of their nominators, have arrived at something we call an “inflection point” where they’ve covered most of their personal needs, but they’re starting to feel this itch to “paint on a broader canvas” as leaders.

We satisfy that itch by pulling fellows into retreat in groups of 20 four times over a two year period, for a week each time.  With these retreats, we give them the gift of time to pause and think about what they are really passionate about in terms of the challenges they see around them in society. I’ll give you an example. One of my classmates – I am a Henry Crown fellow myself – is the founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings. Reed was this guy who had just sold his first software company and was now developing the idea for what today is Netflix. The fellowship helped him to step back and do some thinking about the fact that he was also very, very passionate about U.S. public education.  Why?  Because he had a sense that the sector was really struggling to fulfill its mission.

Reed was and remains a strong believer in the power of competition. And he happened to think that charter schools could make a big difference by bringing competition into U.S. public education. So he decided that what he wanted to do with some of his time was to clear the way for more local control of schools in his home state of California. And, so, as his personal leadership project, something required of every Henry Crown Fellow, he decided to run a statewide referendum to lower the level of voter approval needed for local schools to pass bond issues. He also stepped up to become the head of the California State Board of Education. So, while this was something Reed definitely knew he was interested in, the fellowship gave him both the time to pause, to step back, and to do some strategic thinking, as well as the nudge to actually do something tactically. He’s a great example of who our Fellows are and what they do.

RJ: That’s a fantastic example of what the program leads to and some of the ideas that come out of it. One of the things that’s been striking to me is how accomplished the people are that are selected for the fellowship. From your perspective having been able to interact with these folks, were there any common characteristics that you found in this group? Many of those in our community are entrepreneurs and investors are also striving to do something great and to fuel their passions.

Peter: Well, we select for certain traits so there are definitely some commonalities. The average age of a Fellow coming into this program is 40. All are proven, highly successful entrepreneurs.  We look for men and women who have a track record of being both ethical players, but also purpose-driven leaders.  Perhaps more than anything though, we’re looking for people who aren’t going to simply study problems endlessly or who are going to be easily deterred from tackling big challenges. We’re looking for people who have a track record of doing things and who have shown time and time again that they can be persistent and overcome obstacles.

And so those are going to be the most common traits, but we’re now about 2,100 fellows in nearly 50 countries, and when I look at it from a “big data” point of view, what can I tell you that’s really common to these fellows is the fact that they’re all very, very human.  I say that in the following sense: They’re all struggling to maintain balance in their lives. Because they’re such do-ers, they tend to go to extremes on the work front. And while that’s where they get a good deal of their inspiration and satisfaction, they’re smart enough to know that they also draw tremendous energy from their families and from their communities. So they need to focus on these in the same way they focus on their businesses. None of us ever achieves prefect balance, but it’s something that I find all of them are really struggling with, and when I say struggling with, I mean struggling in a positive way, to get it right.

Another common trait: they’re all very much seeking a larger purpose. It’s become very clear to me in our time together that many of these men and women have evolved in their thinking to realize that money, profits, return on investment can never be the true measure of their happiness. They want to be more rounded as leaders.  They want to be engaged family members.  They want to be active community members as well as being effective business leaders.  They want to have a moral, sometimes a spiritual anchor in this world.  This train of thought comes up again and again.

RJ: That’s a great insight.  Is there one problem that you find comes up the most frequently among the fellows that everyone wants to solve? Has there been a trend towards one particular issue over another?

Peter: All of our fellows are people who are really thinking big in various arenas. Politics. Healthcare. Youth unemployment. Inequality of access to all sorts of things.  But if I were to draw a bubble map of the areas in which they’ve focused their leadership projects, I’d say the biggest bubble is around education.

RJ: It’s interesting because education and education technology is one of our focus areas, more so from the business side, but these businesses also have a tremendous impact on society overall.

Peter: Absolutely. One of our Fellows is a guy by the name of John Danner. John came out of Silicon Valley.  He took an internet company public and sold it in the late 1990’s. After the sale, as I remember the story, he said to his wife something like, “Look, my career’s been taking precedence for years here. What do you want to do?” She wanted to teach law and was offered a faculty post at Vanderbilt.  So they moved to Tennessee. John decided he would start volunteering in the Nashville public schools, and, well, he was appalled by what he saw in the classrooms. So appalled that he was moved to start something called Rocketship Education, based out of San Jose, California. They were really one of the first charter school networks to integrate technology into the classroom in a really smart way. And when I say smart, I mean not only smart for the kids but also for the school administrators, who are all-too-often under budgetary pressure.  So when, for cost reasons, they need to reduce the teacher count, they can rely on technology in a way that still allows the students to continue to learn and move forward. John’s since moved on to yet another Ed-tech venture called Zeal, but, like Reed, he’s a great example of our Fellows. Just this morning, I also had an exchange with another of our Fellows, Lila Ibrahim, the first President of Coursera, a terrific venture using technology to reach millions of learners over the internet.  So there are lots of Fellows in the Ed-tech space, which is really such an important one.

RJ: If I could switch topics here – I’m always fascinated to learn about people’s backgrounds; can you share with us yours and what led you to the amazing work you do today.

Peter: I wish I could say I woke up as a kid and decided I wanted to be doing this. But, like a lot of people, it’s a path that I’ve sort of stumbled onto. I’m first generation American, my parents are both European, and grew up in a very middle class suburban neighborhood in Baltimore. The one great thing I think my parents gave me, besides security and a good education, was the experience of spending our summers in Europe visiting family.  I suspect that’s what planted the travel bug in me.  And so, as I went through my studies, I knew I wanted to be doing something internationally. I came to DC, went to Georgetown University, studied in the School of Foreign Service, and found myself interested in studying developing economies. But I had to laugh at myself when I realized in 1979 that I had graduated with an undergraduate degree in Development Economics, having never been in a developing country.

So I came out of Georgetown and, to my mother’s chagrin, went into the Peace Corps. I ended up in Togo, West Africa living in a mud hut without water or electricity, in an isolated compound with a farmer, his 3 wives and 19 children. I spent 3 years behind a team of oxen plowing his cotton fields. In 1982, I ended up meeting a guy at a holiday party in the capital city who turned out to be the head of USAID in Niger and who offered me a job.  Thanks to him, I ended up moving north and doing some really interesting work in agroforestry in Niger.

After 5 years out of the US, though, I said to myself, “This is great, and great fun, but I think I need to go get some hard skills”. So I came home in 1985, and I went out to Cal Berkeley to get an MBA.  It was a great decision.  I learned a lot, made terrific friends and, more important, I met my soon-to-be wife, Denise.  After graduating, back on the East Coast, I happened to be flipping through the New York Times classified ads (can you believe it?) and I saw a job opening at a company called TechnoServe. I’d never heard of them. But they’re a fabulous organization created in 1968 by a real pioneer named Ed Bullard, backing entrepreneurs across the developing world to build successful businesses.  And they were advertising for someone to work with Ed in their Connecticut headquarters to build up their programs in Africa, Latin America and, shortly, in Central Europe.

So I’ll just sort of fast-forward to say I joined TechnoServe in 1987, and I spent a long time there: seventeen years.  I quit at one point because I said, “I need to go to the private sector and earn some more money,” and I went and worked for AT&T, doing strategic planning at their headquarters.  But while the salary was good, my heart just wasn’t in that work, so I came back to TechnoServe.  It was a lesson learned: purpose trumps profit.  In the evenings, I taught a grad-level course at Columbia University, but in 1992, an opportunity came to move my young family to Ghana to run our offices there.  So I grabbed it.  It was a terrific learning experience, managing six offices with nearly a hundred people.

A few years later, in 1996, I became CEO of TechnoServe and, about a year after that I went on a trip back to Ghana with one of our board members, Bill Mayer.  Bill was the CEO of First Boston at the time.  He started talking to me about this thing called the Aspen Institute he’d gotten involved with and told me about this new program they were starting called the Henry Crown Fellowship.  He asked if he could nominate me, and I said “sure”, not really knowing what I was getting into.  I have to admit that that one conversation with Bill changed the very trajectory of my life.

Before I became a Henry Crown Fellow, I wasn’t really thinking about leadership as a discipline.  But this fellowship certainly got me thinking about it.  And it made me realize that, when I stepped back and looked objectively at the TechnoServe portfolio, many of the companies that we were backing were failing not because they were lousy ideas but because of poor leadership either in the companies themselves or in the countries where they were located. And that got me thinking that maybe I should be doing something around this theme of leadership.

With that front of mind, one thing that really struck me in my travels in those days was that I was seeing a lot of young, talented men and women – entrepreneurial professionals whose families had been forced to flee their countries during the more difficult days of the 1980’s — suddenly coming back home.  They were encouraged by what appeared to be a move towards more democratic rule and free market economics. Their return – from the US and the UK, from companies like Morgan Stanley and Barclays and GE and Deloitte — created a huge surge of energy and optimism in their countries.  These, after all, were the people who could bring the economies of their countries into the 21st century. But then, in a few short years, just as suddenly, I saw a lot of them starting to get discouraged and talking about leaving. They didn’t feel welcome, all the talk about “private sector-led growth” notwithstanding. And it dawned on me that just about the worst thing that could happen would be for these young, gifted entrepreneurs to leave Ghana, to leave Kenya, to leave Nicaragua, to leave El Salvador after all it took to get them back there. And so I decided that the sorts of fellowship programs that encourage creative people to come together, to draw courage from one another, to roll up their sleeves and say, “We’re not going to leave our countries; we’re going to work together and build a better society here” were just what was needed.  And that’s really how this all got started for me. I decided, after much soul-searching, to leave TechnoServe in 2004, to join the Aspen Institute’s new CEO Walter Isaacson full-time, and to build what, today, we call the Aspen Global Leadership Network.  It’s tagline:  “From thought to action.  From success to significance.”

RJ: It is a wonderful career path and you obviously have had some tremendously meaningful experiences. Really inspiring to speak with you as always.  I very much appreciate your time and all the insights you’ve provided.  Thank you.


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