The Texas Exes’ sixth executive director—and the first female—talks about what has to change at the 126-year-old organization.
Tim Taliaferro: What were you doing before you took this job?
Leslie Cedar: From 2000 until I got here, I worked in a segment of the hightech industry called “platform as a service.” We provided the technology to get businesses to interact. Think Ebay meets Facebook for business.
Why do you think that experience was attractive to the selection committee?
A lot of the thinking that goes into the strategic execution of building a network—making it magnetically attractive, content rich, meaningful, and fun—that experience was important. Also, experience in a business made up of the key network components—the platform, the connective tissue, flow, and participants—all seemed to play well with where the Association is at this point in time.
And what is that point in time?
This is our time to look at what we do and say, “Could we take our current methods of connecting people and deliver more of it more meaningfully to more people? Or provide entirely new methods of activation and new channels of activity, distributed in new ways?” We’re really good with connecting to a certain group of individuals, but we have the opportunity to execute the mission in a different way.
How do we do that differently?
We’ve got a lot of opportunity to engage a lot more people, and make membership more enriching. Not every alumnus is a member of Texas Exes—only23 percent—so clearly we can do better in terms of formalizing that relationship with more people out there, then engage them with activities and information that is important to them. Equally as important: we can define the relationship differently, and the purpose it serves.
How do you change the relationship?
Make it two-way. We can improve that channel between the University and where alumni reside. We can change what we provide in terms of local interaction, how we take the great things that are happening at the University to alumni. Then we ask them to participate in new ways, such as being the front line of recruiting the best students in their area to the University, being the face of UT in their communities. Also, allowing a two-way interactive relationship to develop and flourish in the online world. We’ve got to make it simple to join and meaningful to interact with each other and with us on a daily basis.
Where is that most needed?
The local regions where alumni reside and online are two places. Also, the Association needs to start when people fi rst land at the University. We need to tell students why it’s important to build a lifelong relationship with us, so when they leave they’ll look back at the Association as a way to fulfill a covenant they have with the school. We want them to know the Association will keep them informed and protect the market value of the degree that they spent time and money earning. Then we want them to in turn to be active, to connect with each other and promote the University.
What if anything worries you?
Internally, it’s structural barriers to innovating and change. Externally, it’s competition. The interconnectedness of the world today means that there is a lot of “noise” that bombards people—it’s hard to sift through it all. Other casual networking opportunities are a huge threat to our mission because they take up people’s attention. But the most insidious of all competitors, is Doing Nothing. I’m worried about reaching unconnected, uninformed alumni before they find other things to do and let their relationship with UT become dormant.
What so far has been your assessment of the way that UT Development and the various schools and colleges see Texas Exes?
Some schools look at us as good friends. I don’t think they are all necessarily aware of what we could be doing for them, and frankly, I don’t think we’re super aware of what we could be doing together. What I do know is that Texas Exes can change the game in promoting and recruiting for the University in two ways: one, work with Development and the schools to raise more Forty Acres Scholarships, the programming of which we manage. And two, enable alumni across the nation to engage the best and brightest academic prospects to get them to the University. There is also a huge opportunity for the schools to help us out in two ways: one, by educating the student on why it’s important to be a good lifelong steward as a Texas Ex; and two, to take great programming out to dispersed alumni.
In the short time you’ve been here so far, what have been some of your early impressions of the organization?
It’s a very large business with a lot of programs and services. It handles all sorts of constituent requests and runs its programs with a consistent service level. It has a strong voice and is good at convening people. It enriches students’ lives in a very tangible way—this year disbursing almost $2 million in scholarship funds to nearly 700 kids. It’s very impressive.
Talk about The Alcalde. What should it be doing differently?
I think the content created by the Alcalde team should be exposed to everyone. As a marketing tool to drive membership and interest, it’s a very enticing hook. In that sense, we can leverage it to drive membership. But I also wonder if we’re doing ourselves a disservice by keeping it behind a door, or not distributing it through as many channels as possible when it is such a powerful connecting and advocacy tool.
What do you see as the Texas Exes’ role in the current higher education debate?
We can do a better job of communicating what the sides mean when they say things such as the word “reform.” UT has a very strong history of executing reform to drive effi ciency, productivity, and quality—just look at the last five years—and we need to convey that message. Also, we need to articulate how UT’s plans going forward are going to help us strive to be the best among our peer institutions, and how they contrast with what some regents or outside groups are suggesting. The Texas Exes and The Alcalde are poised to be at the forefront of that communication as the thought-leader and curator of information surrounding the debate.
What do you think is the role of the Association is as it relates to its independence from the University?
It’s critical that the Association be an independent organism and remain so, because we support individuals who support the mission of the school. We’re not a cult of a particular personality, and if we were employees of the state then whoever was in charge could dictate what we say. We can advocate and promote diversity.
What would you like to be talking about a year from now?
That we moved the needle in making alumni aware of issues affecting the University, and on educating the general population on the value that UT contributes to the community, state, and nation. I’d like to be talking about potentially
hundreds of thousands of people connecting with each other through the Association as an open platform for everyone who cares about the University—members and non-members alike.
You’re the sixth executive director of the Texas Exes and the first female. What does it mean to you?
It’s a huge honor. Second, it’s a working position, not a ceremonial one. The fact that there have only been five in 126 years speaks to the notion that the role requires the executive director to be a bridge from president to president and as the board turns over. There’s got to be consistency, but also flexibility as each new president comes in with their own objectives and what they want to focus on for the coming year.
The female component, it’s super important to know that if anyone out there has the notion that the Association is a bunch of good ol’ boys and thinks that there is no room for diversity, that is totally wrong. I thought all the hoopla
would be around me being a Silicon Valley outsider, but I’m glad it’s about being the first female executive director. I’m honored to be that person.
As a woman, do you have any sensibility or skill that’s an advantage for the Association?
Women—maybe to a fault—lack a sense of ego that allows us to focus more on getting to the solution, as opposed to the triumphant dealmaker position. Take the new head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. She mentioned recently that women in leadership roles work out very well because they’re not as focused on being the dominant side of the table, but getting to the point where everyone can walk off with a deal that was fair to everybody.
Is your charge here explicitly as a change agent?
Yes, certainly. If we are to fulfill that mission, then this place needs a fundamental overhaul in the way it connects to a large population and the meaningfulness of those connections.
That’s why you were brought in.
That’s why I was brought in.