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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

American Express Leadership Academy alumna Elena Zee shares profound impact of 2019 Aspen Institute Fellowship


It is hard to express in one blog my entire week-long experience with nonprofit leaders from Japan, Syria, Uganda, Nigeria and different parts of the United States at the American Express Leadership Academy 2.0 at the Aspen Institute.

This fellowship, which brings together 15 next-generation leaders each year, has made a profound impact on me and my work, beyond our readings and discussions about Aristotle, Hobbes, Chimamanda, Confucius, Frederick Douglass, Hayek, Soto, Machiavelli, Guha, Plato and Martin Luther King. 

I learned that while one person may be inspired by the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, another may be angered by it. While one may be proud of the Declaration of Independence, another may be ashamed of it. This is all because of our various personal experiences and social perspectives.

There is not one single story. It is only through time and interactions that we come to see and understand the whole story and connect with one another to make greater social impact.

The Aspen Institute fellowship gave me the opportunity to learn the whole story. It is hard to imagine there would be another opportunity like this for me to directly learn the situations and personal struggles from nonprofit leaders who work with refugees, mothers, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and youth. I feel humbled by and grateful to this experience given to me by the ASU Lodestar Center’s American Express Leadership Academy, whose team believed in and selected me; my amazing board of directors, who never hesitate to support my professional development; and the nonprofit leaders in my fellowship, who challenged and inspired me. 

Group picture

It is almost surreal to remember 13 years ago when I was working at American Express and learning for the first time of their investment in nonprofit leadership. It planted a seed for me to step into the nonprofit sector. The top-notch environment and accommodations in Aspen provided by the Aspen Institute reminded me of the numerous executive leadership retreats I had participated in while at American Express. It felt familiar yet different. As I was saying goodbye to my fellow nonprofit leaders in Aspen, I felt the immense bonds we had made and tried to hold back tears, believing more than ever in my mission to work together and empower our youth financially and economically for a better future.

Elena Zee is President and CEO of the Arizona Council on Economic Education. Prior to this role, Elena had worked in the global financial services industry for more than 20 years. She is a graduate of the American Express Leadership Academy at the ASU Lodestar Center’s Class VII and Valley Leadership’s Class 40. Elena is very passionate about education, professional development, economic empowerment and international exchange, having served on the boards of the Global Economic Education Alliance, the Organization for Nonprofit Executives, the National Association of Economic Educators, the Phi Beta Kappa of Greater Phoenix and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Arizona. Elena has represented the city of Phoenix multiple times to visit China for cultural, education, tourism, and business exchange.


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