Wednesday 13 April 2011

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Sally Thorner: Follow the Leader

When Aishat AnuOluwapo Bakare (Anu) was a little girl in Nigeria, her mother gave her a book. Gifted Hands by Benjamin Carson, M.D. would change her life forever. There are many lessons in this best-selling autobiography by the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, but the one that resonated with this eight-year-old was: listen to your mother!

Ben Carson wrote of growing up with little support, save one determined parent who denied her son nothing except idleness. Carson wrote when he returned home from school one day, his mother was working, but she left him instructions to go to the library and read a book. His book report would be read by her that evening. Anu’s mother got a lot of mileage out of that simple example, and adopted a similar child rearing approach.

Years later, the family would move to Queens, N.Y. where Anu excelled — her public school guidance counselor even nominated her for Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). Every year, LEDA plucks approximately 60 high school juniors from low income communities across the country and guides them towards a future as successful leaders.

Each class begins the journey the summer before senior year at Princeton University. Over the course of seven weeks, these LEDA Scholars, most of whom have never left their home states, learn about college life and the preparation it takes to succeed in the top schools. Nearly half of the LEDA class of 2011 has been admitted into the Ivy League, MIT and/or Stanford. But LEDA is way more than a college prep program. These kids study how to become leaders.

Anu remembers that summer like it was yesterday. Every morning, she and her classmates recited the Aristotle quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” They examined the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. What was it about these leaders that allowed them to make a difference? She was struck by the accounts of Lincoln’s battle with depression and his ability to overcome all odds. Anu found her LEDA curriculum inspiring, but it was that book she read at the age of eight back in Africa that left little doubt where she was headed. She simply had to come to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University.

Freshman year, she introduced herself to Dr. Carson and, for the next four years, would major in Public Health. When she graduates next month with what should be a 3.5 GPA, she will choose between graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (at this writing, she had yet to learn of her acceptance) and a job offer with PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City. When she’s not studying, she volunteers for Hand in Hand, a non-profit started by a Hopkins grad that helps boys released from the Baltimore City Detention Center earn their GED’s. She ultimately wants to start her own NGO for at risk youth in developing nations. Anu also regularly meets with Hopkins freshmen and shares her trials and tribulations about life in a high pressured academic environment, telling them “Mistakes happen, you keep trying.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I recently joined the Board of LEDA. I want to tell everyone about this spectacular organization that identifies the Anu’s of our country. This young woman is convinced that she wouldn’t be where she is without LEDA. She insists it’s not about getting into the most prestigious schools — it’s about how she was challenged to make a difference. That summer program taught her how to manage her time, get organized, and interact with kids who were at least as intelligent as she was. Those scholars are still her closest friends as they get ready to graduate from Brown, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania.

They share LEDA’s four core values: “Excellence, Integrity, Compassion and Community.” The standardized test preparation and writing instruction were incredibly helpful to all of them, as was the exposure to schools they never dreamed of visiting, let alone attending. And once they’re in, LEDA continues to provide support to its scholars through graduation and beyond. But the leadership classes still seem to resonate most with Anu.

During these last weeks of college, she’s taking stock. Anu tells me she’s still a work in progress, that every step is a means to achieving her goals. A signed copy of Gifted Hands is still in her personal library, but the writing she is guided by today is How Will You Measure Your Life? by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. She shares his words with me: “Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

This is how Anu plans to measure her life, by asking “Will what I do make anything better?”

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