Q&A with
 and Students

The following are questions asked by Hornstein and answered by fieldwork supervisors and alumni who describe their fieldwork experiences during their time in the program.

Gali Cooks and Alena Gomulina

Leading Edge: Alliance for Excellence in Jewish Leadership 

Alena Gomulina, MA/MBA'16 (above right) did her fieldwork at Leading Edge in New York City during the summer of 2015. She was hired after she graduated in May 2016. Her supervisor was Gali Cooks (above left).

Fieldwork Supervisor:
Gali Cooks,
Executive Director

Q: You were at the early stages of creating/developing Leading Edge when Alena did her fieldwork with you. What did you think about having an intern at this early stage? Did you have any reservations? Why did you ultimately decide to take on an intern?

Yeah, we were at the “zygote” stage of the venture – brand new and out of the gate. I was the only full-time employee and knew we needed more people-power to push our work forward, but didn’t want to start hiring additional full-time staff until we knew that Leading Edge could deliver value and prove that we should continue to exist. So, hiring a summer intern, at the caliber of Alena, was perfect for us. And, like with many things in those early days, it happened serendipitously! I was doing a lot of speaking at the time to different groups, and one of them happened to be to the Hornstein students during their Starr Seminar in NYC. You could tell from the way they engaged with the content I was sharing that they were on another level. And when Alena followed up almost immediately after that presentation to ask about a summer internship, I nearly pinched myself.

Q: What did you know about the Hornstein Program before Alena came on board?

Not much, to be honest. I knew that Hornstein was similar to the dual-degree program offered at NYU, a program I considered doing before opting for an MBA at NYU instead. I obviously knew about Brandeis University and the critical role it has played and plays in building our global Jewish community, but not much more than that.

Q: Would you have considered hiring Alena if you hadn't first worked with her as an intern? It's a common practice in certain professions to hire those interns who prove to be successful. Would you recommend Jewish organizations take advantage of the opportunity to prescreen?

I don’t think I would have hired Alena had I not worked with her first as an intern. Alena came on as employee number two. Up until she was hired, we had “borrowed” talent through engagements with consultants and contractors. So, when we got to actually hire another full-time team member, I needed to make sure this person would “get” what we were doing and building, even though they wouldn’t be able to fully see it (because we were still building it!). Alena “got” it. She was with us in the early, early stages, did really well with the uncertainty of that time, and even helped shape some of our identity (she helped us purchase the leadingedge.org domain name once we officially changed our name!). It’s always a gamble, hiring someone knew. You never really know how that person will perform in your context. Getting to see Alena in action during the internship – her professionalism, agility, smarts, humility – mitigated a lot of the risk of hiring someone new. I highly recommend Jewish organizations do this. As one of our board members would say, it’s an opportunity to “date” before “getting married.”

Q: I’ll ask Alena what project you had her work on, but you will be better able to tell me if, and how, her work moved Leading Edge forward toward your goals. (Or it may be that Alena did work that freed your time up a little.)

The work Alena did as an intern was critical. She laid the foundation for a lot of our research and communications/brand identity. Alena is like a Swiss Army Knife – she can do so much! So, we gave her a wide range of things to do – from conducting research, to creating early infographics meant to “map” the Jewish nonprofit sector, to advising on a major rebranding we did in our first year. To your last point, Alena not only freed my time up a little, but she also ameliorated a bit of my loneliness. In those early days, when I was the only employee of the organization, I spent a lot of time working alone. Very practically, Alena’s summer internship provided me with a colleague! It was really nice to have another person in the office.

Q: Leading Edge has grown since Alena did her fieldwork with you and since you hired her in 2016. What are the insights you’ve gained since then that are relevant to Hornstein students seeking to further their qualifications and skills as Jewish professional leaders?

We are now a team of five and growing. It’s kind of crazy to think about how far we’ve come. And as we have been on this journey, I have come to realize that leaders who are humble and curious are most effective. If you’re humble, you know you need to share your leadership with others, because there are ways you are strong and ways you are weak. The best leaders know themselves well and bring people onto their teams that complement their strengths/weaknesses. And if you’re curious, you are constantly learning. That keeps an organization fresh and focused. If Hornstein students can nurture both of these attributes – humility and curiosity – that would be exciting.

Alena Gomulina, MA/MBA'16
Program Director

Q: You could have chosen among many well-established organizations at which to do your fieldwork. What inspired your interest in Leading Edge?

I remember, at first, my only criterion for field work was that it must be in New York City. The organizations I was considering at the beginning of the Organizational Behavior class with Professor Mark Rosen, were the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and UJA-Federation of New York. Then I got to experience Starr Seminar. It was at the JDC offices at 8 a.m. that Gali Cooks, Executive Director of the Jewish Leadership Pipelines Alliance (what we were called up until August 2015), walked into the conference room and spent the most thrilling hour with us. She was just hired to head this brand-new organization just 90 days before that meeting. Gali joked about the excessive number of coffees she’d consumed in conversations with everyone and anyone in the Jewish nonprofit sector over those 90 days. She spoke about the talent pipeline, the frustrated workforce in Jewish nonprofits, and the looming leadership cliff. It resonated, and I was in awe. When Gali departed and JDC staff began their presentation about the incredible global work they do on a daily basis for global Jewry, in my mind I knew that my field work was going to be with JLPA (good thing we changed the name to Leading Edge, right?).

Q: What projects did you work on and/or duties were you responsible for during your fieldwork?

It’s very hard to list all the things I did during fieldwork. The most memorable will always be the amazing relationship I built with Gali. I learned an immense amount and felt challenged as well as supported every day. When I began my fieldwork, Gali quickly figured out my knack for graphic design. So, the first of my tasks was to create an infographic depicting some key statistics about the state of the talent pipeline. The best part of that assignment was that Gali took the printed infographics with her to her next speaking engagement. I was also tasked with a few research projects, the best one was laying the foundation for a field-wide mapping of professional and leadership development programs available at various points during a career trajectory. It’s still a work in progress but we’ve used that research many times since. I think the best experience was helping prep and sitting in on one of the most unique board meetings I’ve ever attended by the heads of major Jewish foundations and federations from across the country (the founding board). There was also a two-day task force to dig into the work Leading Edge would do around workplace culture, which was an incredible experience for me.

Q: How were you challenged at Leading Edge (professionally and/or personally)?

Having come from a JCC environment which was my second home since I was a teen as well as where I built a 13-year career, this was a whole other world. We were, as Gali liked to call it, a “scrappy” team of one and a half. A lot of things were unknown, there were many moving parts, many consultants, etc. I think the quick pace, high intensity environment, and the high level of standards, were the biggest change from my previous experience. Even with a fast learning curve, I found it challenging at times. There was always this start-up spirit of not knowing if Leading Edge was going to survive past the two-, three-, four-year mark. There was no routine, and a lot of just figuring things out, but that’s what happens when an organization is barely a year old. But to be completely honest, the most challenging part may have been the hour-long commute on the NYC subway in the dead heat of a NY summer! ;)

Q: The purpose of the Hornstein Program’s fieldwork component is not that it will lead to employment, though it’s nice when it does. How did it happen that you ended up working at Leading Edge after you graduated? 

The January before graduating, I emailed Gali to check in on how everything was going. When we parted ways the previous August, we spoke about my career aspirations and Gali offered to be helpful in my job search. I was taking her up on her offer. We caught up a few weeks later and I told her all about the positions I was considering in the NYC area. As we wrapped up the conversation, Gali nonchalantly mentioned that Leading Edge is finally ready to hire a second full-time person to be a Project Manager. I asked to see the job description to see if it may be something I would want to pursue. The job description definitely fit my skill set and while I pursued two other positions at two major Jewish organizations in NYC, Leading Edge held my heart. I think Gali was very cautious during the hiring process because we had such a great relationship. She wanted to make sure she was hiring me for my skills and growth potential versus being blinded by our dynamic. When the call came, I was over the moon. This was such an incredible opportunity and the furthest thing from where I imagined I would end up when I started the Hornstein Program.

Q: By way of parting advice to current students, please review the objectives listed above and recount a specific fieldwork experience you had that was especially meaningful. 

Two things stand out the most when reflecting on my fieldwork experience.

The first is Gali. She was an incredible supervisor and taught me so much in such a short time. I remember the single most important advice I received when looking for fieldwork was that the supervisor can make or break the experience. Gali gave me an opportunity to be on the ground next to her, as she navigated the unknown of being in lean, start-up mode while having quite an enormous undertaking. 

The second was the opportunity to experience a very unique board meeting. It was amazing to watch a board so unified in supporting the Executive Director in her decision-making. They empowered Gali with their trust and confidence in her leadership skills, her thoughtfulness, and her vision for Leading Edge. It was a different kind of lay / professional relationship from anything I’ve ever seen. It expanded my understanding of what boards can be.

Overall, I feel that I walked away with a very unique fieldwork experience. It was the people who made it meaningful and the work that made it challenging. Three years later Leading Edge is a completely different organizations with a team of five and soon to be six or seven. It’s surreal reminiscing about the summer I spent at Leading Edge for my fieldwork.

Learn more about Leading Edge: Alliance for Excellence in Jewish Leadership>>