Exchange to Change: Reflections on 10 Years of GPLEX

In the kickoff to the Economy League’s Exchange to Change series, Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange alumni recount some of their favorite memories and reflect upon learning visits to other regions as well as programs here in Philadelphia.


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Since 2005, more than 500 of our region’s most engaged leaders have participated in the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange – whether on learning visits to AtlantaBostonChicagoSan Francisco, and Toronto or in local programs here in Philadelphia. We asked a few GPLEX alumni to take a walk down memory lane and reflect on their Leadership Exchange experiences over the past 10 years. In their own words, they recount lessons learned, ideas implemented, why they think GPLEX is important for our region, and how the relationships formed during Exchanges lay the groundwork for meaningful collaboration.


Bill Marrazzo

President & CEO, WHYY


Over the course of the Leadership Exchange’s ten years in existence, the Philadelphia market has continued to show remarkable resiliency in a complex race for “mind share” and population growth. While the Leadership Exchange can’t take full credit for regional progress over the past decade, it has become a source for corporate, civic, and political leaders to grow in their appreciation for the remarkable assets of our region’s marketplace. While it has been intellectually enriching and personally satisfying to explore best practices in other regions through the Leadership Exchange, the experience has deepened my appreciation for the greatness of our own. Different? Yes! But the Leadership Exchange experience makes it possible to see a very positive future for Philadelphia despite tough challenges.


Nancy Dunleavy

Founder & CEO, Dunleavy & Associates


As a business owner, I find many invitations to network, learn, and study “best practices.” But, let’s face it … time is money, which makes time “away” feel like a luxury that had better deliver some measurable ROI. For me, the Leadership Exchange does that in multiples. It’s why I keep it at the top of my annual list of experiences to plan for and schedule around.


Regardless of whether the exploration is in-region or to another major metropolitan area, it never disappoints. Delivering substantive information and provocative dialogue, the takeaways from GPLEX are abundant. Participants have good heads and good hearts and approach the topics with a spirit of humility and openness to learning from another leader’s journey. I, personally, find the roster of attendees to be as much of a draw as the city or the subjects we study.


Farah Jimenez

Member, Philadelphia School Reform Commission


The Leadership Exchange visit to Toronto, Canada was our first international trip, but it was more than a border crossing. It was a good reminder that culture impacts implementation.


In contrast to our domestic exchanges, this one was striking because from the very beginning we knew we'd left the familiar embrace of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for a nation moved by Peace, Order and Good Government. Of course, we know that every city is shaped by its culture. Yet, too often, when we go to explore what's working someplace else, we don't as readily consider whether the cultural setting contributes to its success and, therefore, might fail to ask what challenges await us in introducing an idea or best practice to Philadelphia.

The Toronto GPLEX offered a good reminder that while we can learn a lot from our neighbors, sometimes promising solutions discovered elsewhere need a thoughtful Philadelphia makeover to take hold locally.


Dave Foster

CEO, Bastogne Venture Partners


I have been honored to participate in four Leadership Exchanges, and with each one I am reinforced in my belief that GPLEX is among the most important events in our region. It is important for two reasons. First, the Exchange affords participants the opportunity to discuss and reflect on new ideas for tackling some of our region's greatest challenges. Second, it brings together leaders in an environment that fosters connections and relationships that are vital to collaboration in our important work the other 51 weeks of the year (and beyond).


The 2014 visit to Boston highlighted issues that are at the top of our discussion list back home. Among many things, we looked at a successful approach to land-banking, talked at length about the role of the business community in shaping the future of education, explored the costs and benefits of mayoral term limits, and dug deeply into the role of institutional philanthropy in guiding the region's agenda. Within the first two months after returning home, each of these issues was front-page news in Philadelphia. Personally, I felt much more prepared to form and share my own opinions on these topics having explored them with my colleagues and studied how the Boston community was addressing them.


The second benefit of the Exchange, and the one that I believe is most enduring, is the relationships that are created among our region's leaders. No problem of any significance can be addressed alone. And so if we begin from the premise that many of us will have to work together to see our region excel, we can appreciate the value in having established personal relationships with one another. A few months after the Boston trip, I could count six significant business or civic projects that I had worked on with other Boston GPLEX participants in the short time since we returned. This is the fuel that will ultimately drive progress and problem-solving in our region.


Craig Carnaroli

Executive Vice President, University of Pennsylvania


I participated in both the San Francisco/Silicon Valley and Boston Exchanges. Each was stimulating in their own unique ways. On the San Francisco trip, our kick-off session was delivered by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Chip Heath. In his book, Switch, Professor Heath talks about approaching complex and daunting challenges through the identification of “bright spots,” or outliers, and understanding their underlying causes. As I think about a daunting challenge we face as a region, the delivery of public education is top of mind. Yet, a “bright spot” in public education is Penn’s partnership with Philadelphia School District, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Spruce Hill Community Association to create the Penn Alexander K-8 school. We also heard from several people during our tour of Silicon Valley that its success was organic: there is no secret formula or sauce that we should try to replicate. Clearly, there are ingredients to the success we should all understand – people, capital, risk tolerance, ideas. In the end, each trip leaves me energized and optimistic about the future of Philadelphia. I meet and become better acquainted with scores of new people doing all kinds of interesting things across the city and region. And, the trips provide valuable takeaways that enable all of us to import some  of these learning moments to our own organizations and provide more effective leadership in forging a uniquely Philadelphia-centric future.


Feather Houstoun

Senior Advisor for Public Media and Journalism, Wyncote Foundation


It is hard to imagine how fragmented and parochial regional consciousness was among Philadelphia leaders at the beginning of the Exchanges. I can remember clearly the moment on the first Exchange in Chicago when a panelist asserted: "even Chicago cannot compete by itself - we live as a region and we compete as a region, globally and nationally." Mark Schweiker - then president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce - turned to me and said "that is the most important message of this trip." What we have come to recognize is that the diversity of workplace, residential, and recreational opportunities that make us attractive are spread throughout our region.


Beverly Harper

President, Portfolio Associates, Inc.


Over the past ten years, I have had the good fortune to visit five cities as part of the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. The staff of the Economy League does an incredible amount of work to research the cities, arrange for knowledgeable speakers, organize explorations where one gets to talk with the locals, and pick restaurants and hotels that provide a local flavor.


Each city we visited provided examples of initiatives that could work well in the Philadelphia region as well as some pitfalls to avoid. I can point to at least one great idea that stuck with me from each trip.


The people who spoke to us in Atlanta changed my long-standing negative image of that great city. Almost every speaker talked about Atlanta’s struggles with overcoming and continuing to address the issues stemming from enslaving Africans. They were comfortable talking about racism, diversity, and discrimination and what they are still doing to address these persistent problems. They have used a strategic emphasis on immigration to help overcome the image of the past and increase their population.


After the trip to Atlanta, I started to ask people back home to notice how much diversity is evident in the groups they meet with, in the photographs their organizations publish, and on their boards. I am not obsessed with diversity - I am amazed how few people notice that we have a problem at the highest levels in our cultural and social services organizations and especially in the private sector.


Lynn Bush

Chief County Clerk & Planning Commission Executive Director, Bucks County


My job as director of a county planning commission places me between the big thinkers in the region and the volunteer elected officials who make the decisions about development in their communities – and who, ultimately, shape the region.


I get to meet with the leadership of the region through the Economy League, DVRPC, SEPTA, the Metropolitan Caucus, and in other venues where we can talk about large regional forces and how we need to shape our future for the region's vitality. But decisions are made every day - every night, actually - by 352 local governments who do not have the benefit of big-picture regional concepts. I work closely with the 54 local governments in Bucks County, and the Exchange experience has helped me see what big changes look like.


Seeing an entrepreneurial center in an old warehouse building in Boston gives me a picture and an experience that I can share with local leaders to help them be more aspirational. Hearing from regional leaders who have been successful in taking a message and getting local leaders to follow through is the type of experience that helps give me the tools to be a spokesman for big ideas that can be implemented locally.


Peter Gonzales

President & CEO, Welcome Center for New Pennsylvanians


Over the past 12 years, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians has developed immigrant integration programs that help the Philadelphia region attract and retain global talent. While we are proud of our accomplishments, we are always looking to improve. On the Leadership Exchange trip to Toronto in 2012, I was struck by how well organized Toronto was in welcoming and engaging "newcomers" civically, socially, and economically. Since then, the Welcoming Center has been developing a mentoring program for high-skilled immigrants based on the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council's model. Many of the local leaders I have developed relationships with through my participation in GPLEX will serve as mentors for the Philadelphia region's newcomers as part of this new program. It won't be long before leaders from cities across the U.S. will be coming here to learn from us.


Lisa Dickson

Senior Vice President, Financial & Strategic Planning, Radian Group


The Leadership Exchange has been an energizing experience connecting with a diverse group of leaders with unique perspectives in and outside our region to move our region forward. The opportunity to share best practices and learn from other regions has been invaluable and inspiring.


The Toronto trip made a big impact on me and two items in particular stood out. First was their use of the word “newcomers” instead of “immigrants” for not only foreign-born residents but others who had recently made Toronto their home. It’s such a small change, but choosing and using a different word like newcomers really sets a tone and provides a more welcoming environment. Second was how much the culture in Toronto seemed to focus on collective success – especially around their support of the entrepreneurial community. We have similarly strong entrepreneurial and innovation assets in our region compared to Toronto – we just need to do a better job of connecting them for impact.


Melissa Weiler Gerber

President & CEO, AccessMatters


A veteran of three learning visits to other regions and several in-regiona Exchanges, I confess I'm a bit of a GPLEX zealot. Part of why I found the Exchanges so valuable is that they facilitate introductions to people and institutions in fun, interactive ways that help connections stick. To that end, I've learned that what happens outside of the formal schedule is just as important as what happens within it.


On the Toronto Exchange, a few of us decided we wanted to explore the city further after dinner. We walked, we talked, we laughed - we even persuaded those hospitable Torontonians to reopen the bar at the top of the CN Tower for us! A few months later, my agency was facing a tricky situation. Without hesitation, I called on a senior official at a state agency - an Exchange mate I'd gotten to know that night in Toronto - to advise me on the most effective way to shepherd the issue through a complex administrative system. Without hesitation, she was there for me. I know several years later, she still would be. That's the power of the Exchange.


David Hyman

Managing Partner, Kleinbard LLP


There is something magical about encountering new urban venues with the Economy League’s Leadership Exchange. It is true that many of us have previously paid visits to these cities in other contexts. It is also true that we Philadelphians have engaged in local forums on similar issues to those explored during the Exchange. But somehow when we experience another region together as a group, the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Whether it’s learning about delivery of health care to the poor or fostering entrepreneurship among millennials, the Leadership Exchange experience generates energy and ideas. I am most grateful for the opportunity to participate.


Carrie Gray

Managing Director, Wilmington Renaissance Corporation


I attended the 2013 Leadership Exchange that was held in Philadelphia and it created opportunities for my organization that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. The ability to meet and network with the diversity of attendees was outstanding, but the site tour to The Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia introduced me to an outstanding organization with which my own nonprofit has continued to engage. Some of the best practices introduced that day by Enterprise Center President Della Clark are now being explored as possibilities for Wilmington.


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The Exchange to Change series is made possible through the generous support of the University of Pennsylvania.