An energetic alumni leader emphasizes her “ability to listen.”
Catherine A. Gellert ’93, the new president of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), joined the organization as an elected director in 2007. At her first dinner, “Everybody seemed to know each other,” and to want to catch up, she says. “I quickly learned that this was the spirit of the HAA: folks who care deeply, who are experienced volunteers, and who want to make a difference for the betterment of the Harvard community. I was hooked!”
Such enthusiasm will serve her well this year as the University begins the public phase of a multibillion-dollar capital campaign (“The Campaign Context”). Starting in September, events will be held for alumni around the world. “The HAA wants to engage alumni in the intellectual life of the University—on the road, at educational events, and through social media,” she says. “This is a wonderful time to get involved. As part of the leadership, we all have to now put our oars in the water and row in the same direction—sharing in the vision and excitement around how to make Harvard relevant in today’s world.”
Gellert, who has an M.B.A. from Columbia, has worked in her family’s Manhattan private-investment company, Windcrest Partners. She is a former co-chair of the executive committee of the Harvard College Fund and vice president of the HAA’s engagement and marketing committee. A class reunion-gift chair, she also served as treasurer of the Harvard Club of New York City before becoming HAA president.
During the last year she has focused on analyzing University research (from focus groups and surveys) on how alumni perceive their relationship to the institution. Details of the findings have not been publicized, but in general, Gellert says, 86 percent of alumni “feel very positive toward the University and about 24 percent feel connected to Harvard.” Alumni also tend to be more closely attached to each other than to the institution. The HAA and alumni groups, she adds, are now developing better ways to “inspire and motivate our alumni around their connection to Harvard.” (That group includes her parents, Michael E. Gellert ’53 and Mary C. Gellert, a 1957 graduate of the Harvard Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, and her brother, John M. Gellert ’92.)
At Harvard, she concentrated in fine arts (now called history of art and architecture) because it was a small, interdisciplinary department and offered superb museum collections that functioned as “laboratories.” By studying Italian Renaissance painting, for example, she learned about power structures and economies and allegory and symbolism—and how to communicate what she learned to others. It was the “ultimate liberal-arts” degree, she says, “and while I have not pursued it professionally, I would not change my concentration were I to do it all over again.” She worked on the business side of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, was the H.A.N.D. (House and Neighborhood Development coordinator) for Eliot House, and was involved with CityStep, which teaches performing arts to Cambridge school children.
In recent years, she has moved away from money management to focus on nonprofit work. She is a trustee of her secondary-school alma mater, St. Paul’s School, and a board member of both the International Women’s Health Coalition and of the Lincoln Center Institute, which uses “the capacities learned through the arts to enhance K-12 education in public schools.” A passionate traveler, Gellert is proud to have visited all seven continents by the age of 40; she also climbs mountains, skis, bikes, and golfs. To the HAA, Gellert brings a worldly view, sporty energy, and pertinent professional skills. But just as important, she says, “is my ability to listen.” No doubt, as she travels for the campaign this year, she will meet many alumni eager to talk. “I feel everyone has a story,” she adds, “and if we spent more time listening to them, people would feel better about their voices being heard and reflected in the collective good.”