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Learn to Change the World in Six Days

By Adrienne Dawson

There are no conference tables and few PowerPoint slides. No one wears a business suit. (Heels not recommended.) You'll probably get a little dirty. There may even be a zip line. This isn't just any leadership conference.

So, what is it, exactly?

LeaderShape® students creating a human pyramid.

"There is no way to describe the experience I had at LeaderShape that will do it any justice," says Erika Gaffney, MIS '14. "There's just so much that happens in that week's time. Words aren't enough to express how great it is."

Lewis Hall, a graduate student in the College of Education who attended LeaderShape as an undergraduate at Cal State, agrees. "It was one of the best experiences I ever had in my life."

So great, in fact, that Hall will be returning this year as a cluster facilitator – or mentor – to serve as a resource, catalyst, and coach for current participants.

Actually, it's not at all uncommon for past program graduates to come back to help in some way. Ivan Medina, MPA '14, will also be returning to serve as a cluster facilitator, and Gaffney is attending again in January as a student intern to help run events.

LeaderShape isn't a conference; it's a connection

Those events take place over six days at the Newcombe Tennis Ranch near New Braunfels, Texas, and are open to all undergraduate applicants within the McCombs School of Business. The LeaderShape Institute, which began in 1986 and has been a McCombs partner since 2003, seeks to transform the world by increasing the number of people who lead with integrity and possess a healthy disregard for the impossible.

LeaderShape® students posing in front of water feature

The McCombs program has been shaped during the last 10 years in collaboration with notable alumni and corporate partners, including ConocoPhillips, PepsiCo, Wells Fargo/Wachovia, and Accenture, among others. Their involvement has not only helped fund LeaderShape but also has contributed to McCombs' ability to inspire students who will become leaders in their communities and chosen fields.

Each year, approximately 60 McCombs students gather at the ranch and divide into small groups of eight or nine, known as family clusters. When students apply to LeaderShape, they are asked to write about their vision. The application asks, "If you were given the ability to transform anything you chose in the world – and you knew you could not fail – what would you revolutionize?" Once in their clusters, students work together to develop their vision statements, bringing that vision, no matter how improbable, into reality.

Leadershape students posing in front of water feature

Dream it, refine it, make it happen

In 2007, a McCombs BBA junior submitted his LeaderShape application and answered that question the following way: "If I were given the ability to transform anything I chose in the world and knew I could not fail, I would encourage people to think more about tomorrow, rather than always thinking about today. While attending LeaderShape, I'd like to focus on improving my ability to identify what intrinsically motivates people while driving them to be everything they could potentially be. I would also like to take these two concepts and figure out better ways to sculpt this enthusiasm towards a company's organizational goals."

At 31, Tom Serres has done just that. He is the co-founder and CEO of Rally.org, a cause-based crowdfunding website that enables individuals, groups, and non-profits — large and small — to fundraise easily online with an integrated payment system. He was named by Forbes as one of America's most powerful, young CEOs. He is also a McCombs alum and former LeaderShape graduate, and his 2007 vision statement "is the entire thesis for my entire product. Even today, I maintain that goal."

Headshot of Tom Serres, CEO of Rally and '07 McCombs LeaderShape® graduate

As a McCombs undergrad, Serres began developing Piryx, a political donation platform that launched in 2009 but grew in scope and purpose. It was renamed Rally in 2011 and has since enabled thousands of individuals and organizations to share their stories, build awareness, and raise funds for the causes they champion. Before LeaderShape, Serres says he had dreams and big ideas, but very little of substance at that point in time. 

"What LeaderShape gave me was an opportunity to really explore the concept of what it was I wanted to build. I think that, generally as an entrepreneur, you have a big vision and a big goal. The challenge is how do you execute to track to that goal? One of the things that I got out of the experience at LeaderShape was the ability to refine my goal into something achievable."

LeaderShape participants work with their peers, cluster facilitators, and guest speakers to identify what drives them, and then they define their Breakthrough Blueprint, a tangible plan that is developed throughout the week. Their "healthy disregard for the impossible" means that no dream is out of reach, but they are encouraged and guided to refine that dream until it can become a reality. And they leave with a plan.

Gaffney explains: "At one point during the retreat, we all sat down to further develop our visions. I realized then that the future I wanted wasn't necessarily that all kids go to college – rather that all kids know that they have the opportunity to break the mold and get a higher education. . . I am now in the process of reaching one of my goals by volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters."

Alumni and corporate donors make it all possible

Students pay $200 to participate in the weeklong retreat, but the actual cost to the school to host the event is about $1,000 per person. Students can apply for a scholarship to cover the fee if needed. In past years, LeaderShape was free to all students selected to attend, but recent funding cuts have increased the need for alumni and corporate partner support. The school is reaching out to individuals and organizations with a desire to support McCombs and an objective to help train the next generation of social and business leaders. "This program has proven its effectiveness, and we are determined to find a way to raise money and save LeaderShape for future students," explains Stephanie Hinojosa-Galvan, Texas BBA Student Life Director and former LeaderShape cluster facilitator. "We are looking for partners who may want to support the program financially as well as participate with the students."

When asked if saving LeaderShape is important, Hinojosa-Galvan pauses thoughtfully. "This is why I'm at a university. These students give you so much hope. You don't feel this way coming back from a conference. These students will accomplish things with the connections and lessons they have learned at LeaderShape that I can’t even imagine right now."

The other valuable component to LeaderShape is perhaps the most basic: a built-in support group. Medina still keeps in touch with the friends he made at his LeaderShape retreat four years ago, and Serres would be glad to hear it. "As an entrepreneur, you have to surround yourself with mentors and peers who will support you through the journey, because the journey is extremely difficult and certainly rife with its own significant issues along the way," says Serres. "[LeaderShape] gave me an opportunity to refine myself, refine my goals, refine my vision, refine my leadership skills, and to have a very safe space to explore my curiosity around what it is I ultimately wanted to do."

Ready to sign up?

Sadly, LeaderShape 2014, which runs from Jan. 5 – Jan. 10 at Newcombe Tennis Ranch near New Braunfels, Texas, is full, but McCombs undergraduates can apply again next fall. One thing's for sure: There's nothing else like it.

Please join us in making LeaderShape available for future McCombs students. Simply select "Student Support: BBA Organization and Leadership" and type LeaderShape in the comments box. Your donation will be applied directly to next year’s retreat. Click here to give.

If you are a corporate partner interested in exploring this opportunity, please contact Donnell Roy at donnell.ockerroy@mccombs.utexas.edu.

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