By Erin Chambers
One of the prerequisites of leadership is knowing the ropes. Top execs know that comes from years of experience. To a college student, getting to that level -- and attaining all that knowledge -- seems daunting. But even guys like Goldman Sachs (GS ) CEO Hank Paulson had to start somewhere, and that's why the Goldman Sachs Foundation is betting on a few accomplished young students who want to start from Square One and start climbing.
The foundation's fourth annual Global Leaders Program, held in New York in July, brought together 50 college-age emerging leaders from around the world to meet and discuss common problems, share solutions, and create plans for joint ventures in the future. Of course, it wouldn't hurt if some of these young trailblazers found the investment bank to be an appealing career choice one day, either.
"We're promoting leadership long-term, but these students are ready now, to make a difference now," says Stephanie Bell-Rose, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, which sponsors the forum.
Indeed, many of them already have made a difference. Ricardo Lerner Castro of the University of Sao Paulo scored first out of 1.2 million high school students on the National Examination in Brazil and went on to represent his country at the Global Jewish Leadership Summit in Jerusalem. The second-year college student also published a book on the art of judo for children.
Or take Jacob Leibenluft, a National Merit Scholar and history major at Yale University who serves as managing editor of The Yale Politic. His interest in development economics led to an internship with the Council on Foreign Relations, where he coordinated more than 100 students for a congressional campaign.
The program at Goldman Sachs, which started in 2001, is similar to leadership-development initiatives at other major corporations. Goodyear Tire & Rubber (GT ) sponsors the fast-track Future Global Leaders Program. In 1999, Boeing (BA ) debuted a Global Leadership program that focuses on graduate- or executive-level candidates. People to People, a nonprofit founded by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and currently chaired by President Bush, sponsors the Future Leaders Summit, a campus-based, college-prep style conference. The organization also runs Student Ambassadors, a similar leadership forum for kids and young adults up to age 18.
But the uniqueness of Goldman's program lies in one of the most fundamental tenets of big business: competition. Participation in the week-long event is granted only to 50 of the world's most elite and accomplished scholars, and only after a rigorous application process that includes scores of essays and interviews.
Throughout the week, students displayed the kind of temerity that most expect only from seasoned leaders: They asked lots of questions. Indeed, nothing stopped the young scholars, all rising juniors in college representing 25 nations across six continents. They grilled officials during a visit to the U.N. about improving global economics, discussed world peace with producers of a documentary film on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and most important, met with each other to compare leadership challenges in different regions of the world.
After an afternoon group discussion on ethics and values in leadership, students said the conversation continued into the night back at Columbia University's Carmen Hall residence, where they bunked for the week.
The roster of students was beyond impressive. Sharand Maharaj chaired Remember and Give, the largest student fund-raising organization in the Southern Hemisphere, while in his first year at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Per Ageback, who attends the Stockholm School of Economics, speaks three languages and fulfilled his military service as a Russian interpreter at the Swedish Defense Language Institute. He also held a position at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow and plays on his school's floor-hockey team, which won the national championship in 2003.
Even past participants reunited with one another. Together, they've tapped into seed funding from the program's Social Entrepreneurs Fund to start ventures such as a school in rural India, a water-purification system in Bangladesh, scholarship programs for children orphaned by AIDS in Thailand, and a campaign to prevent malaria in Nigeria.
When Bell-Rose says the event has nothing to do with recruiting, she's partly right. "We have a strong interest in playing a part in preparing the next generation of leaders to succeed," she says. "We're not brokering jobs here."
But some of the participants expressed an interest in returning to Goldman in the future to try their hand on Wall Street. "I want to learn how I can contribute to a better world through business," says Ageback, the third-year student who has already interned with Bain & Co. in Stockholm and a cosmetics company in Ukraine.
And, while the Institute of International Education, not Goldman Sachs, determines the final selection of students, the summit's culmination felt more like a glorified recruiting session than a global leaders forum. On that final day, a series of top Goldman execs -- dynamic speakers in their best suits -- spoke about values and leadership. It was a forward-looking farewell for the program and a veritable "this-is-what-you-could-become" message for the young leaders.
Each of the scholars left that day with Goldman Sachs bags and binders, plenty of business cards, and a rosy impression of a prominent Wall Street firm that's sure to linger after graduation.
Chambers is an intern at BusinessWeek in New York