Having served as the Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge for seven years – on top of another five years as the Chief Program Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Nevada – Athena Gould has seen firsthand the value of mentorship, of learning from those with diverse experiences and insight.  And so, as her organization was positioning itself to grow and confront new challenges, she began exploring ways to find a resource that could contribute to her own growth as a leader.

“For the past five or six months, I’ve really been focused on how to be a better leader, how to grow my agency,” Athena says. “In the same way that kids can’t do it alone, neither can adults. I’ve had excellent mentors and an executive coach. I was hungry for more exposure. That’s when I discovered the Darden fellowship and decided right away to apply.”

She admits that six months ago, she may not have had the confidence to submit an application, especially given the fact that nonprofit leaders from across the Commonwealth would no doubt be applying.  “When you look at Darden, you think it’s very elite C-suite executives from large organizations. I wasn’t sure it would be a fit, but I decided to take a chance.”

That perception of Darden’s The Executive Program (TEP) as being decidedly corporate may be pervasive, but TEP has a history of attracting a wide range of students, including from nonprofit organizations around the country. (You can read about two of them here and here.)

Reading more about TEP, Athena became convinced it was exactly the right program at exactly the right time. She liked learning about the collaborative nature of instruction and how students bring real-world challenges to the program.

“I liked that the program is not theory-based,” she says.  “I’ve got undergraduate degrees, I’ve got a master’s degree, and a lot of that is theory. In the real world, you find yourself asking ‘how does all that apply to me?’ But with TEP, it feels like this is intentionally focused on how to help those of us in the group grow, and that’s valuable.”

Athena’s focus will be on learning how to lead her organization to a new level, which she says takes a different kind of leadership.

“I recognize the power and prestige that comes with Darden,” Athena says, “And I’m interested in how to leverage that for my agency and my community because, although I’m the one attending, Big Brothers and the larger community will also be reaping the benefits.”

“I think there is power in peer learning,” she says, “And I’m really interested in hearing from the others in the group and learning about their experiences within their organizations and how that can relate to Big Brothers and my personal growth.”

When the 2023-2024 TEP cohort starts in October, Athena will recognize at least one familiar face among her classmates.  Ravi Respeto, the President and CEO of United Way of Greater Charlottesville, was the other inaugural recipient of the Commonwealth Fellowship.