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Manage, delegate, lead: Success begins at Vassar

Alumnae/i draw from extracurricular experience

Guest Reporters

Published: Monday, January 17, 2011

Updated: Monday, January 17, 2011 21:01

Geraldine Laybourne founded Oxygen Media Network, sold to NBC Universal in 2007 for $925 million. Christopher English built a $600 million global hedge fund. Anthony Friscia led a cutting-edge technology consulting firm, sold last year for $64 million after decades of advising Fortune 500 companies. What do these industry pioneers have in common? Vassar.

Their entrepreneurial spirit was first sparked not from business school, nor from industry experience. It began with extracurricular engagement at Vassar. Indeed, many Brewers who have gone on to lead corporate boardrooms attribute their later success to their early leadership outside the classroom.

This might seem surprising. A prospective Vassar student would expect to learn ancient Greek or political science, maybe with a touch of Urban Studies or literature. Liberal arts degrees are rarely associated with learning to "manage," "delegate," "communicate," or "lead."

But those are exactly the words Laybourne ‘69 used to describe her Vassar education. As a sophomore, Laybourne was President of Davison House. "Early on in my life, I was put into a position where I forced to run something," she recalled. "As a freshman, I was bored. Bored by the academic work. And when I'm bored, I don't function well," said Laybourne, who was put on academic probation during her first year. "It was student government that turned my career around. It made me an A-student."

According to Laybourne, it was her student government experience that gave her an education in leadership. "One of my early lessons from the position, for example, was learning how to delegate." As dorm president, she remembers organizing two orientation lectures to the incoming freshmen: one about alcohol and one about sex. "So I turned to two friends, one with a lot of experience with sex and the other with a lot of experience with alcohol," she laughed. "But it was my first real experience with delegation—trusting people who knew more about something than I did."

Laybourne's extracurricular dedication to Vassar continued during her junior and senior years, when she served on the Master Planning Committee during a time of significant change for the College. "Once Vassar decided to go coed, the College needed to take a hard look at its buildings," she explained. "We needed a new system for the dining halls, new athletic facilities and new apartment housing to spread out the student body. The Committee discussed all of these projects. It was really an incredible group—it had faculty, administrators, a couple deans, and me. I had to be creative, collaborative and deliberative. I had to think ahead."

After Vassar, Laybourne thought she wanted to teach, but after earning her master's degree in Early Childhood Education from University of Pennsylvania, she "quickly realized [she] wanted to have a broader influence."

Laybourne felt that television "had really been dumbed down" for children. "It was really a bad time for children's TV," she said. Founding a non-profit, she tapped into a large base of independent filmmakers and worked with them to produce more intellectually stimulating programming. "We wanted to tap into a smarter world."

Laybourne began her tenure at Nickelodeon in 1980 as Program Manager, and by 1989 she was running the network. Under Laybourne's leadership, Nickelodeon launched several new initiatives, bringing prestige and profit to the fledgling network. She added Nick at Night—featuring The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show—aimed at a growing baby-boomer audience. She also oversaw major cross media promotional strategies, making films with Paramount such as The Brady Bunch Movie and the popular Rugrats movie series.

She left Nickelodeon in 1996 to become president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. In 1998, she left Disney to create Oxygen Media, which grew to reach 74 million homes by the time it was sold to NBC Universal in 2007.

Years later, Laybourne still draws on her experiences in student government at Vassar. "When you're running a company, it's a lot like running a dorm," she reflected. "You have to get everyone excited about something. You have to motivate them around your ideas. Running those town-hall-style meetings was actually perfect preparation for running business meetings. That's where I first learned to listen well, motivate my peers and learn from people who know things that I don't."

Like Laybourne, Anthony Friscia ‘79 also traced his success in the business world to his involvement in student government. A shy student when he first arrived at Vassar, he originally clung to his coursework. "When I left high high school, you wouldn't have said, ‘This guy's gonna be running a big company,'" Friscia joked. "If you were going to make a list of everyone who might have been a leader, I wouldn't have been on it." All of that changed in his sophomore year when he became President of Raymond House. In that role, he oversaw countless dorm activities, ran meetings, and resolved conflicts between other leaders in the House.

Following his time in Raymond, Friscia served on the Executive Board of the Student Government Association (SGA) as Secretary—a position with similar responsibilities to the current Vassar Student Association (VSA) Vice President for Operations. "I became very active in what you could call the ‘political life' of the College," he said, describing meetings with faculty, students and administrators about a variety of campus issues. "I also loved the Student Senate meetings [now called the VSA Council]. I loved being vocal, the feeling of bringing others around to my point of view."

"By the time I left Vassar, I knew I wanted to lead," he said forcefully. Not long after graduating, he was contacted by a recruiter for IBM, whom he had met at a Vassar career fair. "IBM knew that the world was moving from technologies that served companies to technologies that served consumers," he said. "And they were hiring bright liberal arts majors to train, and then help them make that transition." After months of training, however, Friscia realized he did not want to pursue a corporate track. "I was impatient," he said. "I didn't want to wait around for years and years before I got promoted to positions at the top." Instead, he wanted to be his own boss.

In 1986, he founded AMR Research—an independent research group that advised companies on developments in technology. At first, Friscia worked alone, researching and writing a newsletter to inform small businesses. By the mid-1990s, the company ballooned in size to over 200 employees, and advised many Fortune 500 companies on issues affecting technology vendors, green technologies and international supply chains. AMR sold in 2009 for $64 million.

Friscia attributes his proclivity to lead to his Vassar extracurricular leadership. "The great thing about Vassar was that it didn't have an overwhelmingly competitive environment," he reflected. "I felt like I could put myself out there, like I could capitalize on opportunities and experiment with my leadership. And once I had the feeling of leading, I knew that was for me."

Unlike Laybourne and Friscia, Christopher English ‘82 was never a member of student government. Instead, he devoted his time outside the classroom to Vassar athletics. As a freshman, he and his friend Phil Khan ‘81 founded Vassar's first official baseball team, an underground operation that today, 30 years later, remains one of the College's most successful athletic programs. "The first practice was at midnight on January 13, 1979. We had four guys and two girls. It was a really small group of students, but the six of us put together a real baseball team," said English.

This was no small challenge for English and Khan. "In a school that's academically oriented," reflected English, "how could you imbue people with excitement? How do you assemble an organization as complicated and involved as a fully functioning baseball team?"

With slow but steady progress, English and Khan raised funds for the team, scheduled games and eventually got the team on its feet. Even in its first year—without a proper coach or facility—the Brewers put up a fight against their seasoned neighbors, West Point. As the team grew, English took on the job of finding a coach. "I was a 21-year-old kid, interviewing 45-year-olds. I remember sitting with them, looking at their resumes. It was really unusual for a student to be able to have that kind of responsibility."

By the time he was a senior, English had taken over as captain of the team and taken on new extracurricular responsibilities. President of the Debate Society during his junior and senior year, English led the team for the first time to the World Debate Championships in Scotland. "This was real Division I debating," said English. "We did well, and the next year we held the Championships at Vassar. The students on the team had enormous responsibility. I had to organize the whole conference from beginning to end, figure out housing for dozens of people, and run the whole program. That gave me some practical experience in organizing a complicated, high-stakes event with many moving parts."

As a senior, English continued to garner "real-world skills" as an interviewer for the Office of Admissions. "Being able to meet someone, read their resume, and make a quick judgment was essential to my development as a student. That's a crucial business skill that I've used all my life," he said.

An economics major, English took a job with J.P. Morgan after graduating. He then moved to Boston where he built New Bond Trading Inc., a $600-million hedge fund, from the ground up. Today, English is a partner at Magnitude Capital, LLC, a $2 billion Fund-of-Funds based in New York City serving high net-worth individuals and institutions around the globe. A small but remarkably successful shop, Magnitude received a high honor in 2010, when it was named "Best Small Fund-of-Funds Firm of the Year" by Institutional Investor.

Because Magnitude is a quickly expanding firm, English and his colleagues constantly find themselves meeting with potential hires. "Every day at Magnitude, I remember the interviewing experience I gained at Vassar. When we look for new employees," explained English, "we're looking for the best and the brightest. Vassar showed me how to make these judgments, how to be a quick judge of character."

Although ostensibly dissimilar, English's extracurriculars contained an essential common thread—they were lessons in risk, in starting something on your own and trusting your judgment. "Vassar taught me to take risks. You have to. I've made fortunes and I've lost them, and I've made them back again. And that's what you've got to have the guts to do," said English.

"When I first graduated, I was the low man on the totem poll again, which was a shock after having so much responsibility at Vassar. But then when you're five to seven years into your career, you're suddenly given the chance at some major responsibilities. And I found myself prepared in a way that others weren't."

Laybourne, Friscia and English are just a small sampling of the industry pioneers who got their first taste of leadership at Vassar. Phil Griffin '79 was captain of the men's track team. Now he is president of MSNBC. Rick Lazio '80 was Vice President of the student government. Now he is the Executive Vice President of J.P. Morgan Chase. Paula Madison '74 was a leader of the Black Students Union. Now she is the Executive Vice President of NBC and the first African-American woman to run a network-owned TV station in a top-five media market.

For 150 years, Vassar has been one of the world's foremost liberal arts colleges. But it has also given its students unparalleled opportunities to gain practical leadership experience outside of the classroom. Christopher Roellke, Dean of the College and Professor of Education, whose division oversees extracurricular opportunities for students, recognizes the incredible pedagogical value of student leadership. "It's clear to me, both from my perspective as a senior officer of the College and as a professor, that one of Vassar's core institutional strengths has been its ability to promote as much learning outside the classroom as within," he said.

For Vassar, extracurricular leadership does not just mean leading students. It means leading, period. At few other colleges in the world would management opportunities like these exist. "Being taken seriously as a student was transforming for me," reflected Laybourne. "I could tell the adults didn't just want to hear my opinion as a student—they saw me as an adult and as a partner. Years later, I've seen a lot of other colleges, and none of them take their students as seriously as Vassar. It's really at the heart of our Governance. That level of practical responsibility was so transformative and foundational to my career."

—Ruby Cramer '12 is the VSA Vice President for Operations and co-chair of the Sesquicentennial Student Committee. Brian Farkas '10 is the former Vice President for Operations and currently serves on the Vassar 150: World Changing Campaign Committee.

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