After you graduated from Princeton, you headed straight to New York, ultimately building a very successful career as a top player in the public relations field. In the new company that you started in your 50’s, LeslieStevensCo., you call yourself “Chief Thinker”. Can you explain that cool Re-Imagineer title?
When I started my agency, LeslieStevensCo., I wanted to approach marketing from the lens of thinking about the customer, thinking about new and creative ways to reach a savvy digital-focused consumer, and thinking about how to create strategies that were cost-effective with impact. So Chief Thinker was a more interesting choice for a title than CEO. A lot of people look at my business card and smile.
You made a big decision at 60 to apply to the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative and you are there now. Tell us about the program and why you decided to take this step as a lifelong learner?
When I hit 62, I decided it was time to figure out the next chapter. Your book ROAR inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and see what was possible. And what I landed on was to take my skills of four decades in PR and use them for good. I have been blessed with a wonderful career, met incredible people through the journey and have had the good fortune to work with exciting brands, organizations and dynamic leaders. A few friends mentioned the ALI program (Advanced Leadership Initiative) at Harvard as a great opportunity to learn and grow, and I applied. I was thrilled to be accepted into ALI’s year long fellowship and packed my bags for Cambridge, ready to relive student life. The ALI program is geared to help leaders chart a path to solve some of society’s most pressing issues. We have a core curriculum for the ALI cohort, and audit classes at Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Divinity, Harvard Law School, Graduate School of Education, and Graduate School of Design, among others. I am taking five classes and focusing on a dual path. One lane of interest is sustainability and environmental impact; the second lane is the problem of loneliness and isolation for young adults. Attending classes, interacting with my brilliant and highly accomplished ALI fellows, and joining a myriad of seminars has set my brain on fire at an entirely new level. I am learning new skills and writing papers for the first time in 40 years (and not with ChatGPT!).
Life at Harvard is intoxicating – brilliant minds with a relentless and urgent desire to help make the world a better place. I am meeting professors, intellectual powerhouses, and students who are awe-inspiring in their dedication to develop compelling solutions. I am a kid in a candy shop and loving every moment.
Once you complete the program, what is your goal? You have a 30+ year stretch ahead of you to make a difference. What’s your plan?
What is my goal? I came into the ALI program with a focus on sustainability and hope to develop strategies and programs to help protect our planet. I am looking at developing a curriculum for K-12 focused on climate impact, knowing that children and teenagers can be the change makers if given the tools. I am also looking to join a number of environmental nonprofits dedicated to minimizing plastic use as well as figure out how to better manage the waste of fast fashion. And I am hoping to guide companies on their sustainable practices. I am taking a class on sustainable cities and I’m excited about all the possibilities to help cities reduce their carbon impact.
On another front, I am interested in loneliness and how social media is impacting our youth. The stats are staggering. I had the opportunity to take a class focused on resilience and loneliness, and there is growing research on the perils of social media and its negative effect on mental health. In my PR work, I championed social media as a tool for brands to reach consumers and now I am trying to figure out how to mitigate its harm.
What’s in store for the next 30 years? Purpose with a capital P, lifelong learning, and travel. I am an adventure seeker and will continue to travel, see the world, and be open to new experiences – the list is long! And if I can take a page out of your book Michael, I will try to write one!
I look forward to the next exciting, busy, and fun 30 years!