Professional Development

Ageless wisdom

An entrepreneur since she was 17, Irene Fernando shares her insights into the contemporary facets of leadership

By Nate Garvis and Tom Wiese
Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Studio/E member Irene Fernando is a force to be reckoned with. She has packed into her three decades more than many do in a lifetime — and she has only just begun. Her past and present titles — Bush Fellow, co-founder of the nonprofit Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF, which she co-founded in 2003 at age 17) and TEDx speaker — validate her accomplishments. It is her personality and contagious passion, however, that put Irene in the member spotlight this month.

Ten days into her freshman year of college, Irene decided to run with what she calls a super naïve sense that one person can make a difference. She and her co-founders decided young people can change the world, and they created STLF to provide college students with opportunities to do just that. When building the nonprofit, the STLF team structured a succession plan so that the program didn’t die when they graduated. Irene’s desire to provide lasting impact and better the world shows up everywhere she does, so we sat down with her to hear how she leads, betters the world and stays in alignment with her values in all that she does.

Studio/E: You received a Bush Fellowship last year. What are you working on?
I’m focusing on shared leadership and succession planning. Most startups I hear about are co-founded. If you listen to an interview with a renowned leader, they often talk about a close set of advisors. Leading in teams is a clear trend and I want to contribute to a body of work so that someone who Googles “shared leadership models” will find pragmatic resources to help them tactically pursue that as a viable management option. Additionally, I strongly believe we’re meant to change roles. Everyone’s business function is replaceable, so if it is going to happen anyway, why not plan for it?

Studio/E: What is leadership?
Leadership is not a title; it’s an action. We each have within us the opportunity and responsibility to lead. We may not always be in a position where we have the circumstances or environment to do it, but for me great leadership is dynamic — it is moving.

Studio/E: What is a roadblock you’ve hit on your way to success?
My STLF co-founder Brian Peterson used to say, “What we lack in qualifications we’ll make up for by working twice as hard.” I love that sentiment … except on days when I don’t think I can work twice as hard! Ultimately, I was committed to the people that breathed life into STLF — my team and students — and why would I want to give up on them? Success is about understanding your personal values and your moral and ethical compass, and staying true to that calibration … especially on days when you don’t think you can work twice as hard.

Studio/E: You have a strong sense of alignment with your values. How does that show up day-to-day?
I’m hell-bent on being not only culture- and values-aligned, but culture- and values-strengthening. The question then becomes, if we believe what we say we believe, what must take place in order for that to happen? It’s about demonstrating in our actions that we go above alignment to strengthen our values. It’s about being true to our beliefs.

Studio/E: Where does leadership go wrong?
Often when people speak about needing more of X or Y voice at the table, it isn’t because that voice knows more; it’s because no voice singularly knows more, so we need those voices to complete our collective voice. We need to be broad in the ways we speak about diversity but specific in the ways we prioritize diversity. It’s easy to say you have a broad set of backgrounds and vantage points; we must also prioritize racial, ethnic, gender, sexual and age diversities.

Studio/E: How do you know when you are making the right decision?
 A difficult balance of leadership is when to change course and when to double down and say, “This is the path.” When it comes to leadership, you can’t “kind of” compromise, you can’t go left and right. That’s where I think people make mistakes: You can’t take the highway and the frontage road. However, you can change your mind. You can take turns or turn around, but you can only be in one spot at one time. And you need to stay true to that decision.

Studio/E: What are three pieces of advice you have for those wanting to lead with lasting impact?

  1. Be grateful and unapologetic. Acknowledge that nobody owes you anything, so you must be grateful. Similarly, you don’t owe anyone anything. Be unapologetic in your decisions.
  2. Leadership is within everyone. Leadership ability is within every single human and it can be nurtured and brought out. There’s literally no limit to what leadership can look, sound or feel like.
  3. Leadership is your responsibility. We as humans are designed to be in community with one another. If you are a part of a community, you have a responsibility to contribute to that community. You have a responsibility to be the best version of yourself for that community, to influence and be influenced.

Irene has the distinct ability of recalibrating her pathway while staying aligned with her desire. With her many talents at play — whether that is at the helm of organizations, divisions or boards around the Twin Cities — we can rest assured that her leadership will be full of powerful intention and a gratitude. 


Nate Garvis and Tom Wiese are founding partners of Studio/E. They are both Senior Fellows at the Lewis Institute’s Social Innovation Lab at Babson College, as well as co-owners of Earn Influence, a consulting firm that helps its cool clients profitably travel into the unknown with clarity and confidence.