Re-Imagineer: Jonathan Drapkin: Off to Harvard in his 60’s. One man’s journey.

You had a long and successful career in government and in the nonprofit world. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in Bayside, New York in a middle-class community. Went to a high school that was racially diverse and we all just got along. The “good old days”. I truly had no idea what I wanted to be, but I was the youngest in a family of five, that was very tuned into the events of the day, so I grew up as an observer of the 60s. It led to an undergraduate degree in political science, a master’s degree in economics, and a law degree. Combined with these degrees were many opportunities to be an intern. One was as a New York City Urban Fellow. That is the one that changed the trajectory of my life. It led to two interests: working in government and helping people – two things that today are hard to convince people are possible. 

My career then went on to have five acts. I worked for the Criminal Justice Coordinator in the Office of Mayor Koch, I was the Director of Oversight and Investigation for the New York City Council, I ran a county government as the Sullivan County Manager, I led the development of a performing arts center and museum at the site of the original Woodstock Festival, and for 15 years was the President and CEO of the regional think tank, Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for the 2.4 million residents of the 9 counties its serves. 

Full disclosure, you reached out to me after reading ROAR and you told me that it inspired you to “Rewire” in an exciting new way! You are on your way to Harvard! How did that happen?

I knew after 15 years, the last 3 impacted by Covid, that it was time to step down from my position at Pattern. I loved my job, but it was time. I was at the magic age, as defined by others, of 65 and felt like it is time to determine what’s next. The organization initially wrote the announcement of my leaving that I was “retiring”. I crossed that out and wrote “stepping down”. I knew there was one or two more acts within me but honestly did not know what they would be. In December, I was browsing in Barnes and Noble and came across ROAR. I never heard of the book or Michael Clinton. It was the book jacket and title that caught my attention. By New Year’s Eve, I had finished the book and decided that the program described on page 39, Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI), seemed the perfect way to find the next act or as the book would refer to it – my next chapter. So, I did not know ROAR, Michael, am not an Ivy Leaguer, and certainly did not know of the program at Harvard. I took a shot, applied and 8 months later was accepted.

What is your goal in attending the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative? 

As the fictitious President Bartlett used to utter on The West Wing, ‘What’s Next’ 

Short and sweet…to find the next chapter of my life. ALI is designed to take ‘the potential of experienced leaders to help solve society’s most pressing problems’. It is a full year’s immersion into all that Harvard has to offer – the ALI core sessions, ability to audit classes throughout the university, interaction with specialized centers, professors and more. While I have also launched a successful consulting practice since stepping down at Pattern, I am hoping to take a deep dive and find the next chapter in a career that I know is not done. 

ROAR is full of ideas. I have been described as someone who finds everything interesting (almost) and as someone who still believes there is a solution to every problem. ALI is the perfect place for me to discover what the next problem to tackle is, how to solve it and ROAR into the next part of my life. If it sounds a bit like a commercial for what Michael is trying to accomplish, it is. You can do all the planning you want but a healthy part of life is serendipitous. I don’t pick up ROAR, I am not heading to ALI. Stay tuned.