Planned by passionate volunteers, alumni-led forums from Asia to Europe to North America have brought graduates together to learn, recharge, and grow.
- January 10, 2020
- Alumni Stories
A “very fulfilling experience” is how Cindy Zhao, ’02, remembered her monthslong planning marathon organizing the Greater China Booth Alumni Forum in Shanghai in 2015. Then the president of the Alumni Club of China, Zhao, along with her large team of volunteers, proved more than up to what had seemed a “daunting task.”
It was time consuming and took many late nights, but seeing more than 300 alumni from all over the world in one room for the first time in Shanghai was every bit worth it. “In hindsight it’s the same as starting up a company,” said Zhao. “First [coming up with] a concept, and then trying to raise funds, recruit a team of volunteers and delegate tasks, create an agenda and invite speakers, coordinate with the school, and finally delivering the conference."
Booth alumni forums have become must-attend events in many parts of the world, bringing together alumni to learn, network, and share their school pride. It takes much passion, teamwork, and more to put them together.
For India-based Akshay Sethi, ’07, the magic ingredient was serendipity. A chance visit to Mumbai to vote for Booth’s Distinguished Alumni Awards brought him in touch with other alumni who had recently moved to India. “I realized that there were so many more people in the alumni network—doing well professionally, interesting, fun to hang out with—that I didn’t know.”
Sethi had also just finished reading Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (2008), whose first chapter describes Buffett hosting a retreat for business leaders such as Bill Gates and Andy Grove at a remote location in California, where they all put their phones away and held long and deep discussions to understand what was happening in the economy. “So I thought, why not do something similar with our alums?” said Sethi.
Fellow graduates were supportive. From the very beginning, they agreed the Pan-India Booth Alumni Retreat—also known as PiBAR—would be a retreat and not a conference: disconnected from work, spread over a couple of days, including elements of fun and learning, and free to attend. The school helped organize a LEAD program–type session as well as provided sponsorship, and a few alumni came forward to contribute money. Sethi himself offered the use of the gymkhana club he runs in Greater Noida near New Delhi as the venue.
Since the inaugural event in 2012, PiBAR has taken place annually, and the organizers have opened it up to alumni from around the world, as well as their partners and children.
Giving back to the school was what motivated Aslam Sardar, ’10 (AXP-9), to organize alumni forums in 2018 and 2019 in Singapore. “I feel very privileged to be part of the alumni network of Booth and UChicago, with a community that really cares for each other,” Sardar said.
“When I see another person I don’t know, when we talk about the program, we immediately feel we have known each other forever.”
Despite the “heavy workload” of planning a forum, it was gratifying to watch the alumni network come together, offer support, spread the word, and eventually “pull off a fantastic event,” Sardar said. “I thought, ‘Hey, you know, if the community can give so much, why can’t I?’” The event has grown to attract more and more alumni every year, for which he gives credit to having a great team of Booth alumni who volunteered, as well as to the community, Booth Alumni Relations, and the staff at the University of Chicago.
Attendees mainly come to reconnect and network, he said, though forums also help to promote the school’s brand. That goes a long way to attract the best students and is “definitely an agenda we need to push hard,” Sardar said. For him personally, however, the strongest pull is meeting fellow alumni. “When I see another person I don’t know, when we talk about the program, we immediately feel we have known each other forever,” he said, “You immediately know when you meet another Chicago Booth grad.”
Boosting the Booth brand was the goal for Hernando Bunuan, ’07, president of the Alumni Club of the United Kingdom, who organized a forum in 2018 in London, home to one of Booth’s global campuses. The team decided to make it an event akin to both the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in California and Booth’s annual Management Conference in Chicago, based on the theme of “business leadership in the 21st century,” and to open it to high-level executives from around the world, inside and outside of Booth.
“When we set out we told the committee members, ‘Look, we are reaching for the stars and if we land on the moon, it will be an achievement still,’” said Bunuan. Speakers included the president of Microsoft Western Europe and the CFO of Diageo, standing “testament to the alumni—what we have achieved as ambassadors of the school,” he said, adding, “It was about highlighting the quality of our alumni; the partnership with the school—the organization, planning, and support that we got; and the combination of alumni services and the committee: all of which are important for the entire business community to see.”
Booth’s active alumni club in Seattle followed a similar plan for their forum—which took place the next month—organizing a back-to-the-classroom session, a plethora of topical breakout sessions, and fireside chats from Oaktree Capital co-chairman Howard Marks, ’69, and OS Fund and Kernel founder Bryan Johnson, ’07 (XP-76).
In China, where the Booth community is growing and many alumni are leaders in their respective fields, the current copresident of the Alumni Club of China, Ying Wang, ’06, helmed the team that organized the Greater China Forum in 2017. It was one of the largest ever organized outside the United States, with more than 500 attendees from around the world.
“Preparation for this event was not a trivial task,” Wang said. “We spent a lot of time and energy raising funds, inviting speakers, organizing shows, arranging media interviews and logistics, etc. We were extremely happy it was a great success and our six months’ efforts paid off.”
As president, Wang is keen to encourage all alumni to participate by organizing events both formal and informal. “We make more friends, we share ideas, we find talents, we have fun together,” she said, “We all benefit greatly from this network, both professionally and personally.”
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