Within five years of completing her undergraduate education, Heather McDougall (BA ’96) earned a master’s degree, studied at two universities in Europe and added this to her resume: founding an international leadership institute.
“Little did I know it was going to be a crazy, heartbreaking process,” she says. “People wouldn’t take me seriously.”
McDougall arrived on the University of Denver campus in fall 1992 with an interest in leadership. While on a retreat early in her college career, she began a discussion with Bill Schafer, then-dean of campus life, who suggested she formally propose a leadership program. “As I recall, it did not take much encouragement for her to participate in the development of the program,” Schafer says.
The Pioneer Leadership Program began in 1995 and continues to thrive, much to McDougall’s delight. “I like the environment of leadership programs,” she says. “I feel it generates this energy among people, and once you’re in that environment, it just explodes from there.”
At DU, McDougall’s interest in leadership combined with a second focus: global outreach. She points to a politics of Eastern European course with now-Provost Gregg Kvistad as particularly influential. Her budding interest in international affairs eventually sparked her signature idea: She could design her own study-abroad program with an emphasis on leadership.
“I felt that Americans really just didn’t know enough about the rest of the world, and as Americans we have all these amazing opportunities, but we also have responsibilities as well,” she says. “So if our government is going to make policies that often impact the rest of the world, then we should know what’s going on in the rest of the world. I thought, ‘We’ve got to get more Americans overseas.’”
McDougall dubbed her enterprise Leadership exCHANGE. The organization conducted its first Global Leadership Program (GLP) in 2000 in Prague. Since then, it has expanded to other continents and served students from more than 80 countries. GLPs, two- to 10-week summer programs for which students often can earn course credits, culminate in each participant completing a project proposal. DU students enjoy preferred status to enroll in the programs.
McDougall has watched as concepts she understood two decades ago enter the vernacular — the global citizen, for example, or social entrepreneurship. Now based in Durham, N.C., she is especially interested in upping the number of women in leadership roles around the globe. Her institute hosts a “Women As Change Agents” workshop in Panama in partnership with the local United Nations Information Centre. Team members train local women to start their own businesses in service of social change.
“We’re moving toward a hybrid between business and nonprofit — really trying to take the best of both of those to create something that’s even more powerful,” she says.
— Rachel Stewart Johnson