Virginia Tech students singing "Baby Shark" with students of the Project Esperanza school in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, during their after-school English Club.
Virginia Tech students singing "Baby Shark" with students of the Project Esperanza school in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, during their after-school English Club.

Shortly after May’s commencement ceremonies, while many of Kim Carlson’s colleagues were preparing for a summer of research, relaxation, or some combination of both, Carlson, along with management instructor Jack McDonald and a group of 12 students, found herself performing volunteer work in the Dominican Republic as part of the Business Leadership Center. For Carlson, director of the center, the distance between Blacksburg and the Dominican Republic – approximately 1,400 miles – represents how far the Business Leadership Center has come in the 20 years since its inception.

First established in 1999, the original concept for the Business Leadership Center began as a ‘back-of-the-envelope’ idea by Strickler Professor Emeritus James Lang, who, according to Carlson, saw the need for a curriculum that would provide students with the skills necessary to become strong leaders. The center would initially house a minor in leadership as well as the annual Pamplin Student Leadership Conference, and Lang would ultimately become the center’s first director.

Today the Business Leadership Center has expanded to include the newly designed Pathways minor in organizational leadership, the Pamplin Leadership Academy, as well as the Pamplin Leadership Development Team. Over 800 students were engaged in a center-sponsored program during the 2018-2019 year, including over 200 students taking part in the leadership minor. The center also handed out scholarships to 17 students.

While the center has grown considerably in two decades, its purpose has remained the same. “The goal then, as it is now, was to promote leadership skills in undergraduate students,” Carlson explained.

Although it is housed within the Department of Management, the center’s programs are designed to be cross-disciplinary, as the need for leadership skills are not isolated to business majors. “The center is interdisciplinary in the best possible way, as it is open to all students and it exposes them to business management basics and fundamentals, as well as leadership skills,” explained Devi Gnyawali, department head of the Department of Management. “Leadership is critical to management at all levels.”

Orientation with Caitlin McHale at the Project Esperanza volunteer farm.
Orientation with Caitlin McHale at the Project Esperanza volunteer farm

Which brings us back to the Dominican Republic. Caitlin McHale first visited the island in January 2005 during her sophomore year at Virginia Tech. It was during this trip that McHale learned of the plight of Haitian immigrant and refugee youths in the Dominican Republic. Though the two nations share the island of Hispaniola, the respective citizens of each nation are not on equal economic footing. Many of the over 750,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic migrated there due to the harsh economic conditions found in their home nation, where, according to 2003 figures, around 80 percent of the population live in poverty.

Inspired to assist in any way she could, McHale co-founded the nonprofit organization Project Esperanza in 2006. The group’s mission is, according to McHale, to “form a global community focused on creating positive change and a sustainable future for Haitian refugee and immigrant youths in the Dominican Republic through education and empowerment.”

Based out of Puerto Plata, the organization first began working with different groups of Virginia Tech study abroad students in 2008. In 2016, Reed Kennedy, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Management, brought a group of management students to the island in what has now become an annual journey.

According to Carlson, fresh off her trip to the island, the Virginia Tech faculty and students work in association with Project Esperanza to “consult with local Haitian entrepreneurs on business plans and marketing.”

“They observe and gain insight while here,” explained McHale. “They then send back a business plan after returning to the United States.” This work is in line with one of the goals of Project Esperanza, which is to produce change that is self-sustaining; change that produces self-empowerment rather than dependency.

McHale added that she is thankful for the work the Business Leadership Center has done with her organization and that she is hopeful that the relationship will continue.

Members of the Pamplin Leadership Academy, along with Pamplin Leadership Academy faculty member Lisa Fournier, work with their service-learning client Alexa Casey.
Members of the Pamplin Leadership Academy, along with Pamplin Leadership Academy faculty member Lisa Fournier, work with their service-learning client Alexa Casey.

The Business Leadership Center has gone from a simple idea to a force for good in 20 short years. Carlson stated that she sees the anniversary as an opportunity to look ahead.

“Our goal is to grow and further enhance the experiences and skillset of all students involved,” she said. “Our education programs are where we want them to be. We’ve recently reformed the minor to fit within the Pathways program. I’d love to see more research related to leadership – but we want the research to inform the work, not just research for the sake of being research. I’d love to have students doing undergraduate research – it would be an interesting element to add.”

She continued, “I’d also like to see even more alumni coming back to work with undergraduate students, helping them prepare for their careers.”

“I’m proud of how the center has grown, as well as the quality of students and the quality of the programming available,” added Gnyawali. Although he, much like Carlson, is not about to let the center rest upon its laurels. “I foresee the minor continuing to improve, with the admittance of the best and the brightest, along with an increase in company interaction and support.”

He continued, “I see corporations playing a multi-faceted role with the center. The faculty and department will benefit from the interaction with the companies, as will students. I’d like to see even more discussions focused on cutting-edge issues and topics. I’d also like to see students exposed to more international styles of leadership – leadership in a global context.”

The center will also begin to transition from focusing specifically on business leadership to that of organizational leadership, in an effort to help students be more successful in their careers. “Educators today are placing an increasing emphasis on technical and specialized skills, but students also need leadership skills and interpersonal proficiency. Such skills are just as important,” said Carlson.

In keeping with the goal of further growth, Carlson stated that she is hopeful the center can build upon its endowment to reach $20,000 within the year.

For more information on the Business Leadership Center and how you can help it reach its anniversary goal, please visit buslead.pamplin.vt.edu. For more information on Project Esperanza and how you can help their cause, please visit esperanzameanshope.org.

— Written by Jeremy Norman

Representative from online payroll and human resource technology provider Paycom leading a workshop during the 20th annual Pamplin Student Leadership Conference.
A representative from online payroll and human resource technology provider Paycom leads a workshop during the 20th annual Pamplin Student Leadership Conference.