Global Conversations With: George de Lama, President of Eisenhower Fellowships

Phuong Nguyen, for GPA -- George de Lama is the President of Eisenhower Fellowships, a world- renowned Philadelphia-based, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that identifies, empowers and links ascendant leaders from around the world. Before arriving at Eisenhower Fellowships, he was a prominent journalist and managing editor for news at the Chicago Tribune, where he supervised reporters who won two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting and investigative reporting. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a two-time Pulitzer Prize juror and the first Latino to appear on the masthead of the Tribune. The national magazine Hispanic Business has twice named him one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the United States.

What brought you to Eisenhower Fellowships?

There were a couple of stops [that led to Eisenhower Fellowships]. I was in one place [the Chicago Tribune] for a very long time because they gave me many different opportunities to do different things. I went to more than 50 countries and worked as a foreign correspondent, national correspondent, White House correspondent and diplomatic correspondent. I lived in South America and a number of cities in the United States. Each job was like a different life. And then I was an editor for a long time….It was a wonderful run. But when I decided to leave, the new ownership of the company had a different view. They were not so interested in international and national news.. I had spent most of my career trying to help build that part of the newspaper, so I decided that it was time for me to go.

My background is Latino, the son of immigrants from Latin America, where I had worked as a correspondent. So I went to work in international development, focusing on Latin America [with the Inter-American Development Bank]. It's a regional multinational organization owned by 48 countries, the Latin version of the Asian Development Bank or the African Development Bank. I traveled with diplomatic passport and dealt with relations with the parliaments of our 48 countries, civil society in the region, outreach to think tanks and academia and the strategic communications of the institution. There, I had the opportunity to contribute to the formation of policy. That was really rewarding. I did that for two-and-a half years.

And then my best friend who I grew up with since kindergarten…talked me into coming back to Chicago to work with him. He had a very fun digital media company in Chicago. So I went back to work with him. We were trying to build an online education division and about a year later, I spun it off and started my own little company and worked with him. There, I was working on a couple of fun projects and, all of a sudden, a search firm reached out to me to discuss this opportunity [with Eisenhower Fellowships].

I had never heard of Eisenhower Fellowships. I had no idea what it was. They said that the president was retiring and they were looking for a new president and asked if I would be interested. I looked into it and I thought, this was really interesting. I told them that I would be a very different kind of candidate. I was not a diplomat…I was the son of immigrants and I came up as a journalist. They said they were open to considering somebody different. And clearly they were, so here I am. When I found out more about the organization, I thought it was extraordinary. I wish I would have known about it earlier; I would have asked for a fellowship.

After about six months in the new position, what do you find the most interesting about your work and life at Eisenhower Fellowships?

You know, there are a number of things. There was the international dimension of it that was the most important. I worked internationally my entire career. And I've always been attracted to the kind of work that has some meaning and purpose. So whether I was in journalism, or in international development or …looking at new methods of education, I've been always attracted to the kind of work where, if we do well, we’ll do some good. And if you look Eisenhower Fellowships, that’s the very mission of this organization, to do some good and to help better the world. It was immensely attractive to me.

This organization is so interesting because we have people from all fields. In my own background, I had a parallel experience. I was a Nieman Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism [at Harvard University], the most prominent mid-career journalism fellowship in the world. And I was lucky enough to be a Nieman Fellow in 1991-1992.

Just like Eisenhower Fellowships, the Nieman Fellowship is very prestigious and brings people together from around the world. And then it has the expectation of life-long engagement with the organization and with the network of Nieman Fellows around the world. The Nieman Foundation is similar in size to Eisenhower Fellowships. It's a very parallel experience. I know the passion people have for Eisenhower Fellowships; I have that same passion for the Nieman Fellowship. Over the years, I have spoken there a number of times and I have been on the Advisory Board for the last five years. One of my colleagues in my Nieman class went on to become the Vice President of Colombia after being a journalist. Another later became the editor of The Washington Post. So I understand the passion and the mission of these organizations. That's another thing that really drew me to this opportunity.

Like the Nieman, Eisenhower Fellowships…. is a very prestigious organization. It's been around for a very long time. One of the things that I'd like to do is to figure out ways to build on what's already a formidable foundation, to build on what has been done before to help maximize the impact of our programs and perhaps to raise the profile of the organization, so that people will know more about it.

What are the challenges of this new position?

The same challenges faced by all non-profit organizations… To maximize the impact of our programs and be able to grow our resources. My goal is to get to the point where we are on a firm enough financial footing where we are limited only by the limits of our imagination.

To me, these three things are linked: to maximize the impact of the organization, to raise the profile of the organization and in turn to strengthen your fundraising capabilities…. You want to attract people who want to be associated with you and who value the work of your organization. And again, this is an incredibly successful organization. Throughout its history, it has always evolved and adapted to face new challenges.

One of the things I mentioned to the trustees the very first time I met with them was this: In some ways, if you think about it, Eisenhower Fellowships was an idea ahead of its time. Now, more than 60 years later, we live in our globalized world that is marked by intensive professional and social networks, the increased use of inter-disciplinary approaches to solve problems and a growing reliance on public-private partnerships to drive innovation. All are tied together with the revolution in digital technology information that has linked us all in ways that President Eisenhower and his friends could have never dreamed of. So in this hyper-linked and globalized world, the greatest asset of this organization is its exceptional network of influential leaders around the world. That, to me, seems more valuable than ever. This is what I would like to make even more the focus of this organization--not me, not our trustees, but the Fellows, to help support the Fellows so that they can collaborate with each other and maximize the impact of the organization.

Can you mention a specific challenge that you are dealing with?

All those are the biggest challenges. Another challenge is to fulfill our potential with our small staff. The staff is formidable. They are very talented, they work really hard and it's a small staff to support such a big network with big ambitions. So one of the things that we wanted to do is to take a look within the staff to see how we should best organize our staff and resources, how we can energize the Fellows' network and engage them even more than they had been before.

What was the first thing that you did as president to achieve the mission of Eisenhower Fellowships?

There was something called the Alumni Advisory Council, the council of senior fellows around the world. And they would meet about once a year to advise the president. So one of the first things I did was I proposed that we stop using the word “alumni.” Alumni has a connotation that you graduated already--you did that, you finished, you're done. And I was thinking of the Nieman Fellowship. We are not alumni, we are just Nieman Fellows. I am a Nieman Fellow all my life even though I did it twenty years ago. And the (Eisenhower Fellows) enthusiastically supported that. So then we changed the Alumni Advisory Council to the Global Network Council, which has a different connotation. It's the network of global leaders of our Fellows around the world. I wanted to use them as a sounding board, and for them to generate ideas to help us in our evolution--to look at our strategy, our mission and our vision as we seek to refine them. To help us to look at things like new challenges in communications. So that's a project that's underway.

They also serve as the sounding board to look at our nominating process around the world: How can we make sure that we are always getting the widest possible range of excellent candidates so that the nominating committee in each country can have the best range of candidates to send to us? (So the Global Network Council is) working on a number of issues right now. We also instituted a mechanism so they will meet once a year in person, but quarterly we will have global teleconferences so that we can stay in touch and make this a living, breathing, dynamic network. And at the same time, they are nourishing our thinking as we are evolving our strategy, so we can have the most impact from our programs.

Image courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.