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Starting Over, With a Second Career Goal of Changing Society

Resource type: News

By Steve Lohr

Harvard kicked off a small but ambitious experiment this week that it hopes will become a new “third stage” of university education. For the student-fellows in the program, most in their 50s and early 60s, the goal is a second-act career in a new stage of life.

The 14 fellows have résumés brimming with achievement — including a former astronaut, a former senior official at the United States Agency for International Development, a physician-entrepreneur from Texas, a former public utility official from California, a former health minister from Venezuela and a former computer executive from Switzerland.

They gathered at Harvard on Thursday to begin the yearlong program intended to help them learn how to be successful social entrepreneurs or leaders of nonprofit organizations focused on social problems like poverty, health, education and the environment. Their interests include sickle cell anemia, women’s education in Africa, health care quality and water conservation.

The opportunity, the fellows say, is to pick up new knowledge, skills and professional relationships in a new realm. To Charles F. Bolden Jr., one of the fellows, it has the potential to be as life-changing as his selection to join America’s space program nearly three decades ago. “The Harvard program feels sort of like that,” said Mr. Bolden, 62, a retired major general in the United States Marine Corps and a veteran of four space shuttle missions.

The program, called the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, is a collaboration among five of the university’s professional schools — business, law, government, education and public health. It is seen as a next stage for universities, beyond undergraduate and then graduate and professional schools.

If successful, Harvard professors say, it can serve as a model for schools at other universities, creating case studies and course material.

“This is about deploying a leadership force to have an impact on major social problems,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the HarvardBusinessSchool who heads the program. “We want to make the case to the world that experience matters.”

The recession, to be sure, is going to make things tougher for social entrepreneurs, as it has for profit-seeking start-ups. Vivian Lowery Derryck, 63, a former A.I.D. administrator for Africa, had incorporated a new nongovernmental organization earlier this year, before joining the fellowship program. Her organization’s purpose, she said, would be to forge government and corporate partnerships to address social issues in Africa, like education. This summer, Ms. Derryck said, she spoke to multinational corporations that expressed an interest in contributing. But after the financial collapse, she worried that money might be scarce.

Still, the nonprofit sector tends to hold up reasonably well in recessions, experts say. The demand for social services grows in bad times, and while contributions will surely drop over the next year or so, they expect the long-term trend of growth to return eventually. In addition, experts say, a shortage of experienced leaders and management is a chronic problem in nonprofit organizations as they become larger and increasingly complex.

Nonprofit organizations face a collective “leadership deficit” over the next decade of more than 600,000 senior managers, the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit organization that advises foundations and nonprofit groups, has estimated.

The Harvard program is aimed at the upper tier of that leadership gap. “This initiative is path-breaking and has enormous potential if it is done properly,” said Thomas J. Tierney, the chairman of Bridgespan.

The Harvard experiment is part of a larger effort to help find productive “next” careers for a coming flood of retiring baby boomers — more than 75 million people born from 1946 to 1964. Many of them resist the traditional retirement ideal of leisure and travel.

Indeed, more than five million Americans who are 44 to 70 are already engaged in a stage of work after their first careers that has a social impact, mainly in education, health care, government and other nonprofit organizations, according to a survey this year by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

Such later-in-life, second acts have been called “encore careers,” “postcareers” and “engaged retirement.” No matter the name, the concept seems to have considerable appeal, encouraged by celebrity role models like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton.

Half of Americans age 50 to 70 want to find work that has a social impact after their primary career ends, according to a poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates.

“There is a pretty significant pool of interest and the question is whether they will be able to act on that interest in large numbers,” said Marc Freedman, chief executive of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit organization whose programs and research focus on social careers for baby boomers.

Civic Ventures and other groups have sponsored programs at community colleges to develop initiatives that match people’s experience and skills to later-in-life careers in education, health care and social services.

The Harvard program, along with the community college efforts, represents “the fitful creation of institutions and pathways for this new stage of engagement and purpose in the second half of life,” Mr. Freedman said.

The fellows in the leadership program come to Harvard with varying degrees of certainty about their next step. But all say they hope to use the course work, tutorials and field trips to become more effective social entrepreneurs. Next November, each fellow is expected to deliver not a dissertation, but a business plan of action.

Hans Ulrich Maerki, 62, a Swiss citizen, retired in April as the chairman of I.B.M. operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He has traveled widely across those regions, met with heads of state and worked on applying technology to fields like education, health care and energy. As yet, he said, he has no particular project in mind, but is eager to explore the possibilities at Harvard, though he confesses to some anxiety. “I haven’t sat on a school bench in 40 years.”

Susan Leal, 59, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is a water expert. She is coming to Harvard to explore fresh thinking to the challenges of water management — rising demand, aging infrastructure and inadequate investment. Ms. Leal said she might write a book or found or join an advisory group. “I just haven’t figured out the vehicle yet,” she said.

Dr. Charles R. Denham, 52, is already a successful social entrepreneur. He has a thriving consulting firm that works with companies on health care information technology and finances his nonprofit Texas Medical Institute of Technology, a research and education organization dedicated to improving health care quality in hospitals. Dr. Denham wants to pass on what he has learned, but also consult Harvard’s experts to become more productive. “I want orders of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of what I do,” he said.

For the Harvard program itself, the long-term measure of success will be what it produces. Fourteen fellows is a start, but Mr. Tierney of Bridgespan said the program must eventually generate a few hundred role models. “The imperative is to go from the few to the many,” Mr. Tierney said. “The issue is how you scale up, how you get a multiplier effect.”

Within Harvard, there is a strong sense that developing this third stage of education must be part of the evolving mission of leading universities. “It may be a steep hill to climb to success, but this has to be part of the 21st-century educational plan,” said Charles J. Ogletree, a professor at the Harvard Law School.

There is also a personal incentive for many of the faculty as well. “All of us are motivated to some degree by that fact that we’re at or near this stage in our own lives,” said David Gergen, 66, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government. “We want to know how to go through this and how to help others to go through this to have more of an impact.”

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Civic Ventures, encore careers, Harvard University, nonprofit leadership