Terry Strine has made a smooth pass of the baton to Jennifer Cohan, and the new CEO of Leadership Delaware is off and running
Jennifer Cohan had worked 31 years in Delaware state government and 12 years in academia when she decided to retire from public service last August and step into the world of nonprofits.
She had fashioned an exceptional, trail-blazing career in Dover, serving in numerous leadership roles, becoming the first female director of the Division of Motor Vehicles, and culminating in her appointment in 2015 as Department of Transportation (DelDOT) secretary under then-Gov. Jack Markell.
So what did it take to lure Cohan away from this three-decade-long climb up the government ladder?
“All of my favorite things rolled up into one little nonprofit,” she says.
That’s Leadership Delaware, Inc., a program created by Terry Strine and his wife, Sandy, with the help of former Gov. Pete du Pont, in the summer of 2008. Strine, who was chairman of the Delaware State Republican party from 2003 until 2008, came to du Pont with a seven-page outline of a year-long program of issue-oriented forums aimed at informing and training young Delawareans to be leaders in three areas: their professions, politics, and the non-profit sector.
Strine got du Pont’s blessing, recruited a board of directors, secured 501(c)(3) non-profit status, then sought nominations for participants in the program from business, political and industry leaders throughout the state. And Leadership Delaware Inc. was born.
Each class is stocked with 18 to 30 “fellows.” Chosen through a rigorous vetting process, they generally range in age from 28 to 38.
The year-long program consists of 20 sessions held throughout Delaware. Fellows participate in 230 hours of classroom time as well as additional hours working on group projects and LDI initiatives. They hear from about 150 speakers, and participate in multiple public speaking exercises.
Tuition for the program is $5,775, and is often covered or shared by employers.
Last October, the Strines officially stepped down. “We’ve given 12 years of our life to it,” says Terry Strine, who was CEO. “We love it and we’re proud of it, and we’re still physiologically and physically sound and still at the top of our game, but it was time to find a new leader.”
They announced their decision in June of 2019, giving the LDI Board of Directors time to form a transition task force to find a new CEO. A recruiter was hired, and a nationwide search ensued.
Board Chair Penny Saridakis says the recruiter held “conversations in leadership” with community leaders throughout the state to determine possible candidates as well as the scope of skills required.
While dozens of people expressed interest in the job, the field was narrowed to about 10, then three, according to Saridakis.
All-in on Cohan
Cohan was a late-comer to the competition, having been recommended to the recruiter by one of the community leaders he surveyed for their thoughts on LDI and its next CEO. She had been a speaker in the program for the past six years, had grown to admire it, and had hired people who were LDI graduates.
Saridakis says once the interviews of the finalists were completed, everyone was all-in on Cohan.
“The transition task force voted for her unanimously, the board voted for her unanimously, and I would say the state of Delaware voted for her unanimously, because as soon we sent out that press release [announcing Cohan’s selection] we got calls and emails from up and down the state, and there were [positive] posts on Instagram and Facebook. I didn’t really realize what a big deal it was that we had hired her.”
A native of Hartly, which is just outside Dover, Cohan officially became CEO in January after serving two months as CEO-elect. She has assumed the reins of the program with enthusiasm.
“Developing people has always been my passion, or calling, for lack of a better term,” says Cohan, who has served as an adjunct professor for 12 years at her alma mater, Wilmington University. “And I fell in love with this program the first time I spoke.”
She says she wants to preserve “all of the things that make Leadership Delaware great,” but feels it should be expanded geographically and conceptually.
“LDI has an impeccable brand,” she says, “but the farther you go down south, the less people are familiar with it. There’s so much opportunity to expand our reach, especially in Kent and Sussex counties. We’ll be doing a marketing program in those areas.”
She says LDI also will partner with “a lot more organizations to diversify the content of the program.”
In the works are a teen mentoring program — she calls it “Leadership Delaware Junior” — in cooperation with Wilmington’s Teen Warehouse and its CEO, Logan Herring, and a Workforce and Leadership Conference in cooperation with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce.
Cohan says another goal is to focus each month’s session on a Delaware industry, including agriculture and construction.
“Construction is near and dear to my heart (as a result of her DelDOT job), and what I’ve heard from a lot of the developers is that the workforce in Delaware is fantastic, but we don’t have a lot of leadership skills and networking ability to get things done,” says Cohan. “We’re facing what I’m calling a leadership desert. We have tons of talent, but the leadership is missing.”
So, Cohan says, one of her major goals is to make sure the state has not only “talented leaders but leaders who have the networking skills” to reach legislators and others who can assist in accomplishing their objectives.
A new class of 17 — 10 women and seven men — started in February.
Among the new Fellows is Markevis Gideon, founder of NERDiT NOW, a Wilmington start-up that repairs and resells computers and phones.
“We have only had our first two-day session last week,” Gideon said in early February, “but it’s been extremely transformative. I’ve already learned a great deal about how our state is operating.”
Another member of the class, Sierra Harris, program Manager with The Teen Warehouse, says Cohan “has led with a positivity and optimism, with enthusiasm, and engagement. She holds us accountable in how we show up, challenges us to challenge ourselves, and encourages us to stretch beyond what we believe our current limits to be.”
Says Jaime McNatt, project manager at Chesapeake Companies, of Frankford: “Terry and Jen are both powerhouses. Their enthusiasm in working together through this transition of leadership has only fueled excitement for the program.”
Saridakis also gives a Cohan a rave review: “She’s fabulous. She’s very down to earth and approachable and warm. But she also gives fantastic feedback and recommendations on how they can improve. And she has a lot of energy.”
Strine is “delighted” with the new CEO, comparing the transition to a relay race: “Take the baton and lead on without any interruption whatsoever.”
He says he and his wife “will never retire” and they’re currently meeting with small groups of alumni Fellows and working on a book that will address many of the subjects LDI has focused on over the years.
Strine also has another task ahead of him, according to Cohan: “I guarantee you I will have him come and speak to the class about the history of LDI.”