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- by  Abby Weingarten
Interacting face-to-face with globally renowned executives like Target CEO Brian Cornell is not an everyday occurrence for college students. But on March 15, Cornell visited New College of Florida to share valuable leadership lessons during an in-depth discussion in the College Hall Music Room.

The talk was part of the Certificate in Leadership: Liberal Arts Work in the Real World initiative, launched early last year by New College’s Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO). Since its inception, the certificate program has invited multiple professionals to New College for “campus conversations,” giving career-driven students a firsthand glimpse of what leadership looks like.

“Our leadership certificate offers students the ability to connect with varying levels of leadership on an intimate basis,” said Patricia Courtois, one of New College’s Professionals in Residence, and the head instructor and coordinator of the certificate program. “The lessons learned through those dialogues can be applied not only during their time at New College but also as they begin to explore potential career paths and engage in the community after they graduate.”

Courtois knew Cornell would be an ideal speaker for the program, having worked with him in the mid-1990s at Tropicana. During the conversation at New College, Cornell shared details about his background—including how he worked toward an undergraduate degree in political science at UCLA, ultimately deciding against a career in law to pursue leadership positions in consumer-packaged goods and retail. Those choices ultimately led him to his position as CEO of Target in 2014.

“We talked about what he wanted to maintain as a culture at Target when he first joined—one of community engagement and support—and how he and his leadership team would build upon that with higher wages, benefits and overall team culture,” Courtois said. “Having that culture in place allowed Target to continue to serve the community during the pandemic with team members who felt valued.”

Cornell said that he placed priority on the welfare of the internal team over shareholders, which was unpopular on Wall Street (but it proved to be a competitive advantage during the pandemic, with Target reaching record earnings). Cornell also spent time answering student questions, some of which directly challenged the earnings gap as well as unionization.

“We want to make sure that people in leadership roles are getting to share their wisdom with New College students. We have tons of student leaders on campus that can benefit from this type of mentorship and from learning about how to be strategic when leading,” said Lisandra Jimenez, an assistant director and career coach for the CEO. “Brian’s talk provided a glimpse into what it’s like to run a business as large as Target.”

Target currently has more than 1,900 stores covering all 50 American states, with a team of 350,000-plus employees. Prior to joining Target, Cornell spent upwards of 30 years in escalating leadership positions at leading retail and consumer-product companies.

Similarly, Courtois is a seasoned professional who has spent more than four decades leading communications and corporate philanthropy efforts for companies and brands such as Beatrice Foods Company, Sara Lee Corporation, Tropicana, Sweet’n Low, Butter Buds, Sugar in the Raw and ClosetMaid.

Courtois’ ability to teach students about leadership—and to bring in experts like Cornell—gives students at New College a major competitive edge. Students who aim to earn the Certificate in Leadership participate in four, 90-minute workshops in a given semester (led by Courtois and guest facilitators) and participate in a practical experience such as an internship or research project. During this process, students from all areas of concentration gain the skills and insights needed to make a meaningful impact in the world.

Dwayne Peterson, the executive director for career education at New College, said that all of the College’s students have the capacity to become leaders; they just need the optimal tools.

“We could argue that all New College students are leaders. But part of this certificate program is about trying to bring out and practice the leadership ability that lives in each New College student,” Peterson said. “Our students are collecting leadership approaches through these experiences, and really figuring out how to develop their own approaches that will serve them in their careers.”

To learn more about the Certificate in Leadership, click here.

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.