The Colgate Scene
March 2008

People on the go

Gus Coldebella '91 [Photo by Gary Fabiano]

When terrorists attacked the United States in fall 2001, Gus Coldebella '91 was a rising star in private practice in Boston's legal community. A partner in the trial department of Goodwin Procter, Coldebella had a growing reputation based on his success arguing major business cases in state and federal courts.

"Like a lot of people currently serving in the government, I was motivated by the attacks of 9/11," said Coldebella. " I'd had a general sense that I wanted to serve in the government, but for the first time during my years at Goodwin Procter, I put together a resume and wrote to the White House and said if I could help, let me know."

In October 2005, Coldebella was recruited to the emerging Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as deputy general counsel to fellow Cornell University Law School alumnus Philip Perry. When Perry returned to private practice a year ago, Coldebella was named acting general counsel, reporting to Secretary Michael Chertoff. Last fall, President George W. Bush nominated Coldebella to succeed Perry as general counsel, a position requiring Senate confirmation, which is pending as the Scene goes to press.

Coldebella is the department's chief legal officer, heading a team that leads 1,700 attorneys deployed among the various agencies of the DHS. New Jersey Lawyer Magazine observed in October 2007, "At the age of 37 [now 38], Coldebella oversees a legal department that can be equated to the size of one of the world's top ten largest law firms."

Supporting President Bush's nomination of Coldebella, Chertoff said: "Gus is an exceptional attorney and trusted advisor for me and the entire senior leadership team on the most complex and pressing issues we face."

Established in 2003 under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the DHS brings together 22 agencies — the largest change in government organization since the creation of the Department of Defense. The sprawling DHS employs 208,000 staff members charged with monitoring the security of the nation's borders, ports, and skies to reduce the risk of terrorism, and preparing for and responding to disasters, both natural and man made. Agencies and services as diverse as Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, and the Coast Guard fall under the DHS umbrella.

"Consolidating these agencies provides for sharing critical information, allowing the nation to mobilize in a coordinated way to respond to threats," Coldebella explained.

"There are a number of us [Colgate alumni] working in DHS headquarters," he added. "On a typical day I may see Rich Burke '92, who's director of the Incident Management Division, Price Roe '93, who's counselor to the secretary, or Craig Haverback '96, who's special assistant to the secretary."

As the country anticipates a new president in January 2009, DHS leadership is focused on ensuring a smooth changeover.

"Our adversaries won't take the day off when we transition," said Coldebella. "We're making sure the department runs well when we turn over the keys to the next secretary, and that senior-level, dedicated civil servants are ready to step in during the change in leadership."

Of his first opportunity to serve in federal government, Coldebella said, "I can't imagine a lawyer in the country with a job more interesting than mine." — Jim Leach


Yee-Ann Cho '90 [Photo by Mike Urban]

Yee-Ann Cho '90 manages a $200 million portfolio for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropic foundation with $60 billion in resources.

The big numbers boggle the mind, and the grants awarded have a big-time impact. But Cho also recognizes the power a $2,000 grant can possess, and how similar the process can be for awarding a grant that size, or one with lots more zeros.

That's where her experience as a senior program officer for education at the Gates Foundation has proved to be an invaluable resource for Colgate students taking part in the Student Philanthropy Council, a service-learning program run through the university's Upstate Institute. The undergraduates learn about philanthropy from experts such as Cho and then transition into a working foundation that awards $10,000 in grants to local organizations. Cho has spoken twice to students involved in the non-credit program, sharing best practices she's learned in her nearly five years at the Gates Foundation.

"I work at a big foundation, to put it mildly, but a lot of the processes, guidelines, and tools are transferable," she said. Cho's focus at the foundation is on improving the nation's high schools and reducing the high dropout rate.

"Bill and Melinda feel that education is one of the biggest levers we have to reducing inequities in our society," she said. Cho manages 37 existing grants and is constantly looking for initiatives in which the foundation might want to invest.

To hear Cho talk about her work with Colgate students and at the Gates Foundation, listen to her interview.

"We support folks who start or support high schools, small high schools by and large, but high school reform in general," she said.

Cho, who has a master's from the Stanford University School of Education and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management, also has solid experience in what it takes to start a new school. In 1993 she helped launch the Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colo., which is funded by the American Honda Motor Company.

"Since my time there I've really been like a dog with a bone, focusing on high school reform," she said. "That was a life-changing experience for me."

Working at the Gates Foundation, which in 2006 received a multibillion-dollar pledge from Warren Buffett, provides Cho with amazing resources. But there are many organizations with genuine needs, and an exhaustive evaluation process is required to determine which is most deserving.

A frustration for Cho is that once the Gates Foundation appears on the scene, other philanthropic agencies often step aside, figuring they are not needed.

"Our dollars have always been meant to be catalytic dollars," she said. "Hopefully, over time we leverage public dollars or we get other foundations involved. We do need partners in this effort." Her division has started to work with larger schools, looking at models that make learning relevant and more personal. It is also looking at education policies, from the district to national levels, and at what types of legislation might bolster reform efforts.

Cho spends a lot of time visiting high school classrooms, and when she sees progress, when she sees students who never dreamed of attending college with acceptance letters in their hands, she feels incredibly energized.

"It's so gratifying to see kids realizing their potential," she said. — Tim O'Keeffe

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