In early May, we announced our 2018 cohort of American Express NGen Fellows. In the months since that announcement, this year’s class of distinguished emerging leaders have convened twice in person. The first time, the cohort met at Independent Sector’s space in Washington, DC. The second convening took place over multiple days in July in Chicago with facilitation guided by Paul Schmitz, and a site visit to the McCormick Foundation. On the heels of the Chicago meeting, we caught up with Fellow Nesha Jairam.
For the past four years, Nesha has served as Data and Systems Manager of the Well Being Services Section for the Georgia Division of Children and Family Services—a role that requires her to engage in extensive cutting-edge research on a regular basis. In our interview, Nesha shared more about her role, her interests, and what drew her to the NGen Fellow Program.
Q: What does leadership mean to you?
NJ: Leadership to me means being in a position where you can utilize your values to influence others around you to bring them into the fold. I’m a collaborative leader, so for my team, I like to ask them their thoughts, and make an informed decision from there.
Q: Who are some of your favorite leaders?
NJ: Elaine Brown, who led the black panther party after Huey P. Newton. Also author and life coach Iyanla Vanzant, and Lamar Smith (Georgia Division of Family and Children Services Well-being Section Services Director). Those are all empathetic leaders who come from a place of making sure you are good internally, while keeping the vision as the main focus.
Q: What do you think sent you on a path of leadership?
NJ: Since I was younger I was always in a position of leadership. I’ve always had to lead people, systems, or change. Early on, I learned that you can’t lead people from a place of just telling them what to do. Being the oldest of three siblings, there was a lot of responsibilities. Then through school, I held various positions of leadership.
Q: What prompted you to be come part of the NGen Fellows Program?
NJ: The strategic planning director of my agency told me about the program. I was initially nervous that I wouldn’t get in, but I knew the work I’m currently doing is innovative, and that this would be a great opportunity to become a stronger leader. I knew it would help develop me to be the best leader I can be.
Q: How has your thinking evolved since being part of the program?
NJ: I consider myself a collaborative leader. I want people to challenge me by bringing their thoughts into the space. I’ve learned that having other perspectives helps me become more thorough in my decision making. Specifically, the adaptive leadership model helps me use other’s thinking to mold my decision-making, which makes me a better leader.
Q: What is a leadership experience that you’re proud of?
NJ: When I was in college at Spelman, I was the Director of Mentorship for a service organization. I realized then that my responsibility and influence reached little girls in middle school and high school, which is a transformative period in their lives.
Q: What advice do you have for the next generation of leaders?
NJ: Take it slow. Observe what’s going on around you before making a rash decision. Seek outside guidance from people that have previously been in your role. Also, seek advice from people that look like you. Find out what they’ve been through so you don’t make the same mistakes. Determine if your work is the best environment for you—don’t stay in a place where you don’t feel you will thrive and grow. Take someone under your wing and let the lessons you’ve learned go to the next generation, as they will lead us one day.