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STANFORD UNIVERSITY - In 1960, Beltway bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., called the idea pie in the sky. Promoting world peace and friendship by dispatching young, inexperienced Americans to developing countries for two-year volunteer assignments sounds nice, foreign aid officials said, but it won’t work.

The Kennedy administration ignored the naysayers, and this year the Peace Corps turns 50. Since 1961, the independent U.S. government agency has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries to work in education, community development, health care, business, technology and other areas. Among them are 1,350 Stanford alumni; more than 200 of them returned to campus this year to reflect on the program and its effect on the world and their lives. 

Today Mike Hochleutner is the executive director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 1997 at age 26 he signed on for the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, figuring he’d be stationed in a small village. Little did he know he’d end up at the center of an international movement to usher a new country into democracy.

He’d first been drawn eastward traveling through Europe after college. An economics and political science major at UC-Santa Cruz, Hochleutner, MBA ’01, says he was “amazed to see what I had studied playing itself out in countries that were moving out of totalitarianism. I wanted to be part of that experience.”

After a few years managing small businesses in the Bay Area, Hochleutner was assigned to serve as a small-business consultant in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which four years earlier had split from the Czech Republic. Assuming he’d be helping companies operate in a market economy, he was surprised to be placed with a branch of the USAID-funded Foundation for Civil Society (now Pontis), which helps emerging economies develop their nonprofit sector. “The foundation was pulling out of Slovakia, so I was engaged to help the local staff create a plan for an independent organization,” Hochleutner says.

He arrived just before the country’s pivotal 1998 election. All Europe was watching to see whether the country would move forward into democracy or backward into autocracy.

“All around me, I saw that young people were energetic and forward thinking, but not politically active,” Hochleutner recalls. He came up with a bold idea: Mobilize youth as a political force through a nonpartisan media campaign modeled on America’s Rock the Vote effort. With Hochleutner working “behind the scenes,” the foundation staged a 16-city concert tour with popular rock bands, during which volunteers handed out voter information. One of the national TV stations ran ads to inspire young people to cast their ballots.

As a result, 80% of voters ages 18 to 21 turned out, compared with an estimated 20 percent in 1994. More than two-thirds of them supported the opposition, giving the pro-reform coalition a majority in the government. Slovakia since has become the fastest growing economy in Europe.

“I went into the Peace Corps to challenge myself to have a little impact on the world while being outside my element,” Hochleutner says. “I ended up being part of something much bigger. The experience shaped my expectations for myself and gave me more clarity and confidence about how I define success.”

Today Hochleutner focuses on improving business education. As executive director of the GSB Center for Leadership Development and Research, he has set his sights on helping Stanford share its knowledge in leadership education internationally. “Taking more of a ‘systems view’ is the only way business leaders will avoid the mistakes that led to the [recent] financial crisis.”

- Marguerite Rigoglioso

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