A New Vision for the Iacocca Institute

Kira Mendez has returned to Lehigh University to lead the Iacocca Institute leadership program.It’s rare that a person has the opportunity to bring her life’s work to bear on an initiative that she cares deeply about, with the end goal of strengthening an organization that she has strong ties to. But that’s just the kind of serendipity that Kira Mendez ’83 is experiencing as she returns to Lehigh as interim director of the Iacocca Institute.

Mendez first came to Lehigh to study electrical engineering, graduating in 1983. She then got a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before getting an MBA from Harvard and switching course into the business field. Ten years after leaving Lehigh, she ran into one of her old professors delivering the keynote at a conference in New York. Roger Nagel was a professor of computer science and had been the advisor of Mendez’s senior project. 

When they reconnected, he was also the deputy director of the Iacocca Institute, a center founded by alumnus Lee Iacocca ’45 to improve the United States’ competitiveness in the world economy. It worked across the university’s four colleges, as well as with industry and government. By 1993, it had moved from its initial focus to studying how to create leaders who could excel in the 21st century, in part due to leadership of Nagel, who became director in 1995.

“The Iacocca Institute was a tremendous outwardly connecting hub for communication, relationships, ideas,” recalls Mendez. 

“It was a really high-energy space—lots of collaboration and corporate relationships. It had a foot inside and a foot outside the university and was a platform for doing a lot of different kinds of things. For me, it changed the way I felt when I was on campus—it became less a place for nostalgia and more a place where exciting initiatives were happening that were very relevant to what I was experiencing and thinking about in my own career.”

After Mendez graduated from Harvard, she left engineering to work as a strategy consultant. She appreciated the Institute’s cross-disciplinary approach and strategic outlook, and started collaborating with Nagel on projects like new models for executive education, a speaker series and workshops.

Nagel and his team were also trying to create an experience for Lehigh students that would help them develop global perspective and leadership skills. 

“Peter Likens, the president at the time, suggested piloting it as a summer program, opening it up to the world, and seeing what happened,” says Mendez. “This made it much more diverse than it would have been if it was limited to the student body at the time, and more intensive and immersive.”

And thus, in 1997, the Global Village began with 53 participants. 

Today, the Village brings adult professionals from around the world to Lehigh for five weeks each summer to learn leadership skills and how to work across cultures and thrive in a global community. The Global Village alumni network now includes more than 2,000 successful leaders from 135 countries. And the Institute has developed similar programs like the Pennsylvania School for Global Entrepreneurship, for American and international high school students, and Global Village on the Move, which works with global partner organizations to bring programs to cities around the world. 

Roger Nagel, Dick Brandt and Kira Mendez
celebrate at an early Global Village (top) 
and recreate the moment at Brandt's 
retirement party in 2016.

Soon after the Village launched, Nagel returned to teaching and Dick Brandt, a business expert with 25 years of experience at AT&T, was appointed director of the Institute. 

Mendez remained involved—out of 20 Villages, she’s participated in 15, as a facilitator, project mentor or friend. She also led the Lehigh University Alumni Association, worked closely with Zoellner Arts Center and sat on the advisory boards of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and Corporate and Foundation Relations. Over time, her career in strategy consulting changed focus, and she joined the Bridgespan Group, a consulting firm that focuses on the nonprofit sector. Today, she’s an independent senior advisor to social sector leaders.

When Dick Brandt announced his retirement in fall 2016, it was a natural fit for Mendez to step into the role of interim director of the Iacocca Institute for a two-year appointment. 

“I had been searching for something where progress is measured in years, not months,” she says. “When you’re a consultant, a lot of it is short and intense—part of me was looking for something deeper and more meaningful. I’ve spent most of my professional life thinking about the strategic direction of organizations, so this is an intersection of something that’s deeply important to me and something that’s a great opportunity for Lehigh. You don’t often get chances like this.” 

She’s excited to return to something she helped create, in an atmosphere of renewed support from Lehigh’s new president, John Simon, and vice president and vice provost for international affairs, Cheryl Matherly. As the Institute approaches its 30th anniversary and the Global Village completes its 20th year, Mendez says it’s the perfect time to think about the future and reinvigorate the programs.

“The things that we’re able to do here are more important than ever,” says Mendez. “Our programs bring people together for a fairly short period of time and completely transform the way they look at the rest of their lives. We can think about where positive change comes from and what it takes to create leaders with a global perspective, with a respect for diversity and who know what to do with that—people who can ask the question, ‘What is the world we want to live in and how do we get there?’”

Together with staff, alumni, partners and others, Mendez is working to strengthen the Institute’s programs and embed them more firmly in the broader work of Lehigh, enhancing links to other campus initiatives and goals. They’re also designing new leadership experiences tailored to particular needs facing certain regions of the world. For example, they’re discussing a Global Village on the Move program that will focus on sustainability and local agriculture in Puerto Rico and a leadership experience for municipal officials in southern Italy.

“It’s going to be designed as an immersive leadership experience around a theme that’s incredibly critical to the region,” says Mendez. 

Going forward, Mendez wants to expand the Institute’s work and return to its roots as a think tank and a hub for relationships and ideas. She plans to collaborate with Lehigh’s colleges, and areas like the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation, and the Mountaintop Initiative, as well as with partners outside the university.

“The Iacocca Institute can be a driving force, a catalyst, and a trusted partner for creating global leadership experiences and learning from them,” Mendez says. “Lehigh can absolutely lead in this space—I see us transforming the lives and opportunities of future leaders for generations to come.”