Walter Isaacson on Going Home
When Walter S. Isaacson winds down his 14-year tenure as the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute at the end of this year, his beloved hometown of New Orleans will be seeing more of him. Students in his classroom at Tulane University will be the lucky recipients of his rich knowledge and experience as he returns as a professor in those stately halls in the Garden District.Isaacson, who has penned biographies of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit in October on innovation and disruption. (He will also release a new biography on Leonardo da Vinci in October.)
In addition to his work as a writer, Issacson keeps his governance plate quite full: he is a director of United Continental Holdings and an advisory board member of the National Institutes of Health. His nonprofit board service includes the Society of American Historians, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. He also has served as an advisory board member at Perella Weinberg Partners, a global financial services and advisory firm, since 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to correspond with him via e-mail and ask him any question my heart desired. While the edited version of our full interview will run in the forthcoming May/June 2017 issue of NACD Directorship, I saved choice pieces from our exchange that unfortunately landed on the cutting room floor due to the physical constraints of a magazine page.
Many of my questions were inspired by newspaper headlines. “Why I’m Moving Home,” a recent New York Times op-ed piece by lawyer cum venture capitalist J.D. Vance, particularly grabbed my attention because it explores a common question: Can you really go home? Can you re-integrate yourself into that community—let alone revitalize it?
Isaacson seems to think so—and he’s a living example that it’s possible. Both he and his wife have divided their time between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans for some time. “I am happiest in my hometown of New Orleans dealing with issues of urban planning, jobs programs, and education reform,” he writes. “I got re-involved after Hurricane Katrina when I was made vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. My wife and I have a place in the French Quarter. I think there is more impact to be made when we act locally, and I am lucky that I have a deep passion for the town where I was born and raised.”
And how have the horrors of Hurricane Katrina shaped his worldview? The storm not only physically decimated New Orleans, but in its aftermath, the city’s population dropped by half largely due to storm-related displacements. Isaacson is determined to help reverse this radical demographic shift by invigorating education and entrepreneurialism to attract top talent and great thinkers back to the city.
“Hurricane Katrina reminded me of the value of home,” he writes. “I think that when we are looking for the good we can do and the impact we can have, now is a good time to be looking locally. I am fortunate to have New Orleans as my hometown. We are trying new ways to reform education and make an innovative environment for creative people and entrepreneurs.”
Do you have a similar experience of returning to your hometown to change it for the better? Do you serve on a board that inspires a company to better serve the communities in which the business operates? We’d love to hear from you. Share your experiences in the comment section.
Judy Warner is editor in chief of NACD Directorship magazine.