People who have taken Professor Tony Brown’s classes at Duke all know one simple truth: once you’ve become a Tony student, you’re a Tony student for life. For some alums, even years after they have left campus, if they have a big life decision ahead of them—whether to change jobs, whether they’re ready to go to grad school, if they feel as if they’ve lost purpose or momentum—Tony is still one of the first people they call.
Despite Tony’s steadfast devotion to his alumni—whether that be through his flurries of email exchanges, his ringing telephone, or his ever-revolving office door—his former students now number in the thousands and are spread out all over the country, making it difficult for them to consistently engage with him and with each other. But Tony firmly believes that, even though they aren’t in college anymore, his alums should still be cultivating the kinds of practices they learned in his class—having deep conversations, working on projects that are of benefit to others, and reflecting on their core leadership values.
That’s why, in 2015, he created RIPPLE.
The Ripple Leadership Program (RIPPLE) is a city-based alumni leadership program designed to connect groups of motivated Duke alumni who are committed to supporting each other’s journeys—to create lives of meaning through their communities, leadership, and personal growth.
Unlike regional alumni associations, which put together events for alums living in the same area, Tony wanted to create something more active, intentional, and community-oriented. RIPPLE cohorts, he describes, are “curated communities,” each with approximately 10-15 members. Initially, the cohorts consisted mainly of his own former students. However, over time, the groups began to evolve to include other Sanford School alumni, local aspiring entrepreneurs, group members’ spouses, and other individuals who had a strong connection to the program mission and who valued increased engagement with Duke alumni, students, and faculty.
RIPPLE meetings, which happen monthly, are centered around the motto “do better, be better.” Though one of the program’s outcomes is to allow members to build deeper and more diverse personal relationships and engage in conversation and reflection about leadership and personal values, RIPPLE cohorts are “more than dialogue groups.” Members are also expected to participate in collaborative activities that provide tangible benefit to fellow group members or to their local communities.
RIPPLE first launched in 2015, with cohorts in San Francisco and New York City. In 2016, it expanded to include pilot tests in Boston, Los Angeles, the Research Triangle, and Washington DC. This year’s RIPPLE members recently renewed their commitments, so in 2017, there will be eight active RIPPLE cohorts all over the United States—two in New York City, two in San Francisco, and groups in Boston, Los Angeles, DC, and the Triangle.
Alums who are a part of RIPPLE are enthusiastic about and grateful for what the program provides. “The opportunity to join RIPPLE came at a time when I was eager to reconnect to my alma mater,” says Kathy Sell Smith, a member of one of the Triangle RIPPLE cohorts. “The experience has been meaningful in so many ways and the highlight has been new relationships with fellow alumni who share a passion for Duke and Durham.”
David Wang, a member of one of the New York RIPPLE cohorts, shares a similar sentiment: “RIPPLE allows me to stay engaged with Duke in a meaningful way, within a community sharing a set of values developed through Tony’s coursework.”