Lauren Decker ’09 attributes much of her own success to Hitendra Wadhwa’s Columbia Business School course on personal leadership.
“It was the most valuable class I took at Columbia,” says Decker, who called on many of the skills and ideas discussed in the course — living according to her values, for example, and taking a holistic approach to her career — when she transitioned from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector.
This spring, thanks in large part to Decker’s enthusiasm, Wadhwa and his colleague from the Institute for Personal Leadership, Matthias Birk, adapted the course for the 84 graduating seniors of East Harlem’s Cristo Rey New York High School, where Decker serves as director of strategic partnerships.
Like its 23 sister schools in the Cristo Rey network, Cristo Rey New York offers students from low-income families a rigorous education that is supplemented by real-life work experience: every student participates in the school’s Corporate Work Study Program, which sends students to companies and nonprofit organizations throughout the city to work one day each week. The students’ earnings go directly to the school to cover part of their tuition costs.
Every aspect of the Cristo Rey experience — from the students’ required business attire to the absence of bells (students are expected to be on time without reminders) — reinforces the school’s expectation that students will not only graduate from college but also lead productive careers.
Decker reconnected with Wadhwa when she was accompanying a student to his first day of work at a Midtown firm. Wadhwa and Birk happened to be on their way out of the same building. Wadhwa mentioned that part of the mission of the Institute for Personal Leadership was to do pro-bono work, and, at Decker's urging, he met with Cristo Rey's president a few weeks later.
The course took place over eight sessions in the spring and anticipated the seniors’ transition from East Harlem to colleges across the country. All of Cristo Rey’s seniors were accepted into college; most will be the first in their family to attend.
Like Wadhwa’s MBA course, this program focused on developing the ability to understand and direct one’s internal environment — goals, motivations, mindsets, and emotions. Students discussed examples of emotional mastery in practice by great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. They also practiced self-awareness techniques like meditation and shared personal values and goals on a class blog.
One blog assignment asked students to reflect back on their lives in the year 2085. “It’s a trigger for deep reflection on your ‘ideal life,’” says Wadhwa. “The vision of being close to your death moves students to create a greater sense of balance and purpose to their lives, and to live them in alignment with their values rather than taking life for granted.”
“I would have accomplished all of my goals,” one student wrote. “I would have travelled the world. I would be a retired CIA agent. I would have helped my father with his illness. My mother would never be worried about another bill. I would have opened millions of shelters in third-world countries for the poor. I would own multiple estates around the world. I would have made sure my family was financially stable.”
“It’s very exciting to get a chance to have such a foundational impact,” says Wadhwa. “These students’ lives are still to be sculpted in terms of their sense of who they are and the kind of trajectory that their lives will take.”
Father Joseph P. Parkes, S.J., Cristo Rey’s president, sees the course as a capstone leadership seminar. “All the knowledge and skills that students have acquired both here and in the workplace, they can now see them coming together with their own personalities and backgrounds to create the possibility of being true leaders,” Parkes says. “What we’ve discovered is that the intellectual capital in the low-income community is there. You just have to figure out how to free it up so that it can fully blossom and develop. I think that’s what this model of school has done in a unique way.”
The strength of self-awareness shined through in the students’ reviews of the course. “Going into college, I will be able to remove the labels that society has placed on me because of my ethnicity or social class,” one student wrote. “I want to be the second in my family to graduate college and become a professional regardless of my parent's legal status, ethnicity, or income.”
Inspired by the students she greets in the hallways each morning, Decker also recently created an after-school philanthropy club where students learn about social impact and present a $3,000 grant to an organization of their choice. “I really like working in such close proximity to the mission of the school,” she says.
Decker joins a growing roster of Columbia Business School alumni supporters of Cristo Rey’s unique educational model. Kyle Miller ’89 serves as a school trustee, Paul Guenther ’64 is a former trustee, and Teague Sanders ’08 serves on the advisory committee. Russell Carson ’67 has been a longtime supporter of the CRNYHS approach to inner-city education. And Regina Pitaro ’82 and Mario Gabelli ’67 have been dedicated advocates and supporters, recently hosting an event for Cristo Rey at the Belle Haven Club in Greenwich, CT, and sponsoring a job in the Corporate Work Study Program. Rachel Vessey Gibson ’09 worked as a development associate for the school, and Ryan McRae ’10 served as the program’s first full-time volunteer.
Professor Wadhwa is the faculty director of Personal Leadership and Success, a three-day Executive Education program based on breakthrough research in psychology, neuroscience, and other scientific disciplines. The program provides insights and tools for executives to gain mastery over their goals, values, purpose, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, mindsets, and motivations to be more effective leaders.