Art Lessons

At last July’s Presidents Academy Summer Institute (PASI), participants were addressed by John F. W. Rogers. He is the partner at Goldman Sachs who is responsible for 10,000 Businesses, the program that partners with community colleges to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses. This program is creating jobs and contributing to the economies of cities around the country. In its first 2 years, it had an astonishing 99% graduation rate. According to Rogers, “…when we were first contemplating a $500 million investment in small business growth and job-creation through education, partnerships, mentors and networks, and financial capital, community colleges weren’t initially modeled as the vehicle through which we would roll out the program.”  This wasn’t a surprise to those of us in the room. We are, unfortunately, used to being overlooked as a resource for economic development despite the vital role we play. Fortunately, powerful and eloquent advocates like Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education and Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, helped Goldman Sachs discover the potential of community colleges.

I was privileged to attend the first 10,000 Businesses graduation ceremony at LaGuardia Community College and will never forget the student speaker who boldly turned to Warren Buffet and told him he should buy her company then, because he would not be able to afford it later! It was, for me, a typical community college event where students, in this case the entrepreneurs, shared amazing life stories and demonstrated that with the right resources, in this case the Goldman Sachs and community college partners, they could and would succeed. But for many of the Goldman Sachs executives in attendance, seeing what Rogers called the “deep-set sense of determination, resiliency and resolve” of these entrepreneurs was a powerful new experience, one that positively reinforced their decision to invest in the partnership with community colleges.

Rogers was generous in his praise of community colleges and the leaders to whom he was speaking. When he said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” I assumed he was getting ready to conclude with a picture from one of the graduations, illustrative of the success of our partnership. Imagine my surprise when what appeared on the screen was “La Meninas,” by the 17th. century painter Diego Velazquez.

Las Meninas

Las Meninas

According to Rogers, we can look at the painting as a work of genius because of Velazquez’s skill in capturing the royal subjects’ facial expressions, their clothing, and even the dog’s fur, with vivid detail.  But, he continued, the most dramatic element of the painting is the self-portrait of Velazquez, the artist, engaged in his art. Going against the grain of 17th. century culture, which regarded painters as tradesmen who worked with their hands, Velazquez demanded respect for his role as a court painter and as an artist. He directs our eyes to his figure, literally changing the audience’s point of view at the time in which he lived and for the next 350 years.

The lessons Rogers takes from this painting and that he hoped to impart to us were, first, that we are “at liberty to chart our own future.” Like Velazquez, we can “create a new reality.” This is a message we regularly impart to our students and embrace for our colleges, but it is also important to remember for ourselves as leaders.  

Second, said Rogers, “it is all about the future.” He highlighted the beam of light central to the painting: “As the light pours in to greet the scene, it also beckons to be followed…to where we know not…but in its luminous grandeur, the corridor of light is a tunnel to the future, undefined but limitless in its scope.” Those of us who have made community colleges our life’s work know a lot about enabling students to chart their own destiny. We create opportunities that change students’ lives and often the lives of succeeding generations. Now, with the collaboration that Rogers called one of the hallmarks of the Goldman Sachs culture, we have a powerful new partner in this endeavor. “We believe,” said Rogers, “that when you combine a collaborative spirit with one of optimism, tenacity and purpose, the result is an outcome that far surpasses what could otherwise be achieved single-handedly.”

Leadership lessons come from many sources. This one came from a 17th. century artist by way of a 20th. century corporate executive.    


Thank you to Mr. John F.W. Rogers for permission to use his remarks and to Katherine Jollon Colsher for her assistance.  

Barbara ViniarComment