Contributing Writer - Megan Preston
The Leadership Education and Development Office sent two of its students to the 32nd Annual West Point Class of 1970 National Conference on Ethics in America (NCEA) this past month. The by-invitation-only conference, which brought together 225 participants from 52 universities across the U.S., was a two-day event hosted by the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Undergraduate students Joshua Santillo, a 2nd year Computer Science major, and Thomas Ross, a 4th year Industrial Engineering major, represented Georgia Tech.
This year’s NCEA focused on the theme “Selflessness: Building Unity Through Service”. The conference featured a variety of speakers whose work heavily focuses on servant leadership and applying ethical principles to business. Multiple panels and break-out groups encouraged more active discussions among the conference attendees on how to develop and cultivate a greater commitment to servant leadership. “‘Selflessness through service’ has always been a theme in my religion and is one of my top values,” Ross says. “It was really inspiring to see so many people at the conference dedicated to that and showing that it is possible to live that on a big scale.”
Santillo was impressed by the many sacrifices the speakers made to make their visions a reality, as well as the reach their projects have had in their communities. He saw a connection between the conference’s message and his involvement in the Grand Challenges program, where his team is working to reduce food waste at the source. “I think the biggest takeaway for me is that the small impacts that you make do have an effect on people, a ripple effect,” he says. “If I can make people think about food waste on Georgia Tech’s campus, and then they bring that to their friends, and all of those people bring that to their homes and families, that’s a big impact.”
Both Santillo and Ross’s favorite speaker was Rajiv Vinnakota, the co-founder and former CEO of the SEED Foundation. The SEED foundation is the first-of-its-kind nonprofit organization that provides public, college-preparatory boarding schools to students from low-income households to change the trajectory of their lives. And it works - according to the Foundation, first-generation college students with a SEED education graduate at a rate nearly four times higher than students from comparable backgrounds. Ross was particularly impressed by how Vinnakota “really drove home the fact that you can still be a servant leader in a business setting, making decisions that are good for the business but also ethical, and striking that balance in a really clear way.”
What lessons stood out? For Ross, it was the relationship between ethics, leadership, and trust because “if you’re not ethical, people will realize you don’t care about them and it ruins the trust, which is foundational to any leadership and team situation.” Being “outspoken” about ethics is equally important, Ross says. “You can do the right thing yourself but if you’re not encouraging others to the right thing that’s when you know that you’re not taking the next step and bringing it to the next level,” which he adds can definitely be done “in a non-confrontational way”. Santillo agrees. “I definitely believe in servant leadership and to me that means doing right by your team and giving back. A failure in a lot of processes is when there’s no trust between team members.”