Generating the Next Generation of Leaders

By Michael R. Malone

Generating the Next Generation of Leaders

By Michael R. Malone
The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s 2016-17 Leadership Miami (LM) class, now in its 38th year, aims to groom and prepare the next generation of leaders to address vital county issues and meet future challenges.

Helping veterans traumatized by war duty in Iraq and Afghanistan find solace and renewed purpose wasn’t Melissa Szaja’s first choice for her Leadership Miami service project. “I’m an animal lover through and through,” she says. But working with veterans as part of the leadership training program taught her about her own motives and passion to serve the city she now calls home.

“These were all people who had served their country, and they wanted to keep giving back. Many of us who have not served don’t do nearly what they do,” said Szaja, director of development and alumni relations in the Office of Advancement at the Miller School of Medicine.

Szaja was among 92 budding leaders, including four others from UM, selected for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s 2016-17 Leadership Miami (LM) class. Now in its 38th year, the program aims to groom and prepare the next generation of leaders to address vital county issues and meet future challenges.

Providing scholarships for UM participants, the University has been a consistent and major talent contributor to the program—90 students over the past 15 years, according to Mindy Herris, Community Relations manager. Among them was Sergio M. Gonzalez, outgoing senior vice president for advancement and external affairs.

Also joining Szaja in this year’s class, which graduated June 7, were Ijeoma Adele, director of special projects in the Office of the President; Michael Baumhardt, associate director of student activities and organizations; Michelle Costa, manager of special events at the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities; and Nikki Traylor-Knowles, assistant professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.


The 38th Leadership Miami class, which graduated last week, included five emerging leaders sponsored by the University.


Over the year-long program, members of “LM38” attended Saturday focus sessions—on government; education; environment; economic development; arts, culture and sports—and professional development workshops to hone leadership skills. They also conducted fieldwork, then developed, implemented, and documented a community service project.

The experience no doubt left a mark on many illustrious alumni, who include former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, former Coral Gables Mayor Donald Slesnick, and Jayne Harris Abess, whose philanthropy established UM’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.

Mary Young, executive director of career services at the School of Business Administration, was part of the UM cohort that graduated with the program in 1996. The experience, she said, anchored her career. “I was new to town, wanted to make an impact on the community, and didn’t know where to start,” she says.

Young sees the nexus between UM and the chamber as invaluable and supports it in many ways, including serving as chair of Leadership Programs, overseeing Helping Young Professionals Engage (HYPE) Miami, Leadership Miami and its younger sibling, Youth Leadership Miami, and Senior Executive Orientation.

In her position at the University, Young helps business and MBA students chart their career direction, and she’s an advocate of investing in more leadership opportunities that give students more access to training, connection to the community, and to established professionals. “Our hope at the U is not only to have a greater imprint on the community, but also to help our students engage,” said Young.

Like Young, Szaja, who grew up in Boca Raton and lived for 10 years in Central Florida, was new to Miami, new to the University, eager to make connections—and an impact.

Leadership Miami trips to the Everglades and to Miami’s diverse neighborhoods exposed her to the area’s rich tropical terrain and multi-ethnic landscape. Collaborating with her project team opened her eyes to new leadership challenges.

“Everyone was strong on the team, and there’s no hierarchy. You have to learn who’s reliable, who will do what they say they will, and what skills people have,” Szaja said. Her biggest challenge was synching the program’s schedule with an already bulging work calendar.

For her project,

For their project, Melissa Szaja’s team created a public service announcement exploring how veterans feel when someone acknowledges their service.


Szaja’s team, Team 38HOT (Helping Others Together), stumbled at first to find their focus and establish roles, but they persevered and regained their footing as their community project—supporting United Way Mission United, an initiative that helps veterans transition from active duty to civilian life—prospered. As part of their project, Team 38HOT crafted a public service announcement, “Veteran’s View,” to highlight the frustrations many veterans feel, particularly about the often well-intended but rote and cliché comments others make about them and their military service. The video offered an outlet—and a teaching tool.

“The project is the vehicle to accomplish the program,” said William Dukes, chair of the Leadership Miami committee and coordinator of the 92 budding leaders and 30 volunteers this past year. “The end goal is that all participants come through to the other side a better version of themselves and with a greater awareness of what’s going on in the city—and a greater empowerment of what it takes to bring together a group of people to get something done and make an impact.”

Today, Catherine Garrido, a 2015-16 Miami Leadership fellow, is an enthusiastic assistant director of admissions in the School of Business Administration. Last year, as she entered the leadership program, her outlook was far different. Garrido’s job of 23 years with another organization was being phased out. A single mother with two children, she took full advantage of the skill-building and networking opportunities the program afforded.

Her activism earned her the Carlos Arboleya Community Service Award, presented to the participant who demonstrates the strongest commitment to community service throughout the program year. The connections and relationships she forged were critical to helping her secure her new position at the University.

So grateful for how the program boosted her confidence and career, Garrido was eager to “pay it forward.” She’s become a hub at the University to facilitate student participation and stepped up to serve as chair for Leadership Miami alumni. In this capacity, she’s putting the finishing touches on a print yearbook for the LM38 class and organizing the first gathering of alumni planned for 2019—a volunteer day and social night—in celebration of LM’s 40th anniversary.

In addition to 38HOT, other UM leaders’ projects this year included: Adele’s Make It MYami, which developed educational workshops for under-served children and families; Costa’s MAD Miami, which worked with the nonprofit Guitars Over Guns to provide musical instruments as a creative outlet; Traylor-Knowles’ Evolve Miami, which partnered with Easter Seals to renovate a community garden, a mural, and recreation areas; and Baumhardt’s Voice Myami, which assisted children with autism by installing equipment and renovating a playground, providing teaching materials, and spreading awareness of autism.

“Each of us grew as a leader, contributed back to the community in a large way, and believe we represented UM very well,” Baumhardt said.

The program is open to college graduates of any age who are in the workforce and on their career paths. Applications for the next Leadership Miami class will be available later this summer; please check Veritas for notices. Students should request an application from Mindy Herris at or call 305-284-5478. A limited number of scholarships are offered by the University.