Alumni executives who serve as adjunct professors offer students a practitioner’s expertise — and the inspiration of an instructor who has walked in their shoes.

Ron Gonen ’04 returned to the classroom after spending six years working day and night as an entrepreneur. “That’s like 24 dog years,” he jokes.

For Gonen, that time was spent creating and growing Recyclebank, a company that rewards residents in 29 states and parts of the United Kingdom with points for home recycling, electronic recycling, and learning about “green” topics through online videos and tutorials. Participants can then cash in their points for coupons and gift cards for a slew of retailers, including Macy’s and Home Depot. 

I thought my experience in building two businesses, especially Recyclebank, provided valuable lessons that I could offer students

Ron Gonen

Columbia Business School came calling at the right time: “I was working so many hours during those years that I was starting to lose perspective, and I felt like the best thing for me and for the company was to bring someone in who could take it to the next level,” says Gonen.

Gonen now serves as a director on Recylebank’s board, where he votes on budgets and other options that can build value for shareholders. After transitioning out of his CEO role, Gonen was developing a class on social entrepreneurship when Murray Low, former director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, asked him to teach the Introduction to Venturing course. The class aligned perfectly with Gonen’s skills and experience; besides Recyclebank, Gonen was also the seed investor in Lindhardt Design, an ecofriendly jewelry company, in which he is still a partner.

“I thought my experience in building two businesses, especially Recyclebank, provided valuable lessons that I could offer students,” Gonen says. “Also, I was not that far removed from my own Columbia Business School experience, so I could still relate to the students and their current knowledge base but also knew what they would need when they graduated.”

That unique alumni-practitioner perspective wasn’t lost on Gonen’s students. “Besides his practical experience as an entrepreneur, Professor Gonen could also relate to the student perspective, having been one himself,” Amanda Freedman ’11 says. “I really appreciated his honest portrayal of starting a new venture as a recent Columbia MBA graduate.”

Gonen holds the distinct vantage point of an alum who, in addition to leading a successful professional career, returns to Columbia Business School to teach. In fact, more than 100 alumni have served as adjunct faculty members at the School. These practitioners play an important role in helping students prepare for their post-MBA lives by offering not only expertise but also potential roadmaps for students to follow as they embark upon their careers.

The Professional Perspective

Brendan Burns ’95 is an expert when it comes to starting and growing new companies. In 2003, after eight years spent building AdOne, a pioneer in classified online advertising (think precursor to Craigslist), Burns sold the company and was at a crossroads.

“I really didn’t know what to do; I hadn’t become a zillionaire, but I didn’t have to work immediately. I was figuring out what was next,” Burns says. It was then that Cliff Schorer, the School’s entrepreneur-in-residence and one of Burns’ former professors, invited him to come back to the School and “hang out.” “That’s literally what happened. I came back about one day a week to sit in his class.”

Since then, Burns has co-taught with Schorer, focusing on entrepreneurial topics. He is also now a managing director at Stepping Stone Capital Partners, a consulting and advisory firm that helps start and grow new companies. In fall 2011, Burns taught Launching New Ventures, which gave him an ideal outlet to impart his industry wisdom. To better illustrate abstract concepts, Burns often uses real-life examples of how Stepping Stone negotiates with clients, uses technology to reach customers, and launches new products.

“Students often confuse having a brilliant idea with success,” Burns notes. “But, almost always, the real idea — the unique insight that you build a business around — does not reveal itself until long after you’ve started a company.”

Unlike Gonen and Burns, some alumni adjuncts are drawn to teaching long before graduation day. While an MBA student, Jeffrey Barclay ’83 worked as a teaching assistant in the Business School’s Accounting Division, as well as in Columbia University’s Department of Economics. After graduating, Barclay did a brief stint on Wall Street before going into real estate, eventually working for ING Clarion Partners for 17 years. In 2010, he was tapped to manage Goldman Sachs’ investment management division’s new real estate group.

But academia never lost its appeal. Barclay taught at NYU’s Stern School of Business in the 1990s, and in 2004 he was asked to teach an advanced seminar in real estate at Columbia Business School.

“Professor Barclay’s success in real estate afforded us the highest caliber speakers and case studies,” says Karim Hooda ’11. “His class was one of the best I took in business school.”

Alumni adjuncts also take active roles in helping students launch their careers after business school. On the last day of class one spring, Gonen invited his students to go through all his contacts on LinkedIn, the professional networking website, and approach him about making any connections on their behalf. Barclay also takes an active interest in his students’ post-MBA job hunts, sometimes connecting students with recruiters  — and jobs — at his own firm. “He has a vested interest in the success of each of his students,” Hooda says. “He would meet with each of us outside of the classroom to discuss our professional goals.”

Shared Lessons, Unexpected Rewards

Alumni adjuncts often balance high-level careers with the time and energy required for effective teaching — and find unexpected benefits along the way.

Tommy Craig ’82 found a lot to learn from his students, even after a long, successful career. Following graduation, Craig was hired at Hines, an international real estate firm that was just starting a New York office. Today, he is the company’s senior vice president. “I’m not sure how many of my Columbia classmates are still with the first company they worked for straight out of business school,” Craig laughs. During his time with Hines, the firm has worked on building projects for Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley, among others.

Bringing colleagues into class as experts makes the concepts of real estate come alive and turns a desktop exercise into a living, breathing project

Tommy Craig

“When I got a call about the opportunity to teach real estate development, I really welcomed it. I thought it was a chance to share all my experiences, which I’ve felt extraordinarily lucky to have, with students.”

Craig has found that the key to balancing a full-time career with teaching lies in integrating the two. “Bringing colleagues into class as experts makes the concepts of real estate come alive and turns a desktop exercise into a living, breathing project,” he says. 

Rachel Abramowitz ’11, who took Craig’s real estate development course, agrees: “Having someone who has managed real estate projects as a teacher painted a more detailed and realistic picture of the process than otherwise would have been possible.”

Even after years in front of students, though, teaching can still be daunting. “You have to show your own enthusiasm and passion for the subject,” Craig says. “It’s often the teacher who says, ‘The students aren’t interested,’” Barclay reports. “Well, if they aren’t interested, you should look in the mirror and say, ‘Why not?’ As a teacher, it’s your job to get them excited.”

Indeed, alumni who return to the School to teach find they get as much from their students as they give. “Intellectually, my professional work is pretty similar to what I teach,” Burns explains. “If I’m in a board meeting with a company, I cite ideas or research I’ve used in class. And there have been tools that students have discovered that have made me say ‘Wow, that’s better than what I’m using.’ It happens all the time.” Barclay says he continues to teach because of the benefits he receives as a teacher and a professional.

“I’m surprised at the level of sophistication, discourse, and expertise students bring. Many students who come to Columbia have been in industry before and have work experience. Some of them have experience in areas where I don’t, so I find their perspectives intriguing.”

For alumni who have returned to campus alongside demanding work schedules, teaching also sometimes pays off with less tangible rewards. Burns says he has experienced the benefits in his daily life. “I definitely think I have more patience as a direct result of my teaching,” he says.

Gonen agrees that he has found immense rewards in teaching, even alongside a sense of duty. “You can get up there and just talk about the material, but you have a responsibility to give students a good experience that they’re going to remember.” Adds Barclay, “They have a right to be instructed by teachers who know what they’re talking about and are fair, open, and honest. These students are the future of business.”


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Columbia Business, the School’s alumni magazine. Read the original article.

Photography by Leslye Smith