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Fireside Chat on Algorithms and Machine Intelligence in Silicon Beach

By Michal Clements, W’84, WG’89


Conversational Context

On April 4, 2019, forty Penn alumni, family, friends and work colleagues came together In the offices of Silicon beach based content targeting firm Zefr to gain insight into machine learning and algorithms. The fireside chat featured Wharton Professor Kartik Hosanager, author of the just-released  “A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence: How Algorithms are Shaping Our Lives and How We can Stay in Control” and was moderated by Bing Chen C’09.

The evening began with welcomes from Penn Club of Los Angeles President, Omid Shokoufandeh W’09 and host Zefr’s Product Manager Data Science Rebecka Zavaleta, C’13.

Frankly Penn Kartik Photo #1

Attendees included Penn alumni and local colleagues who currently work directly in machine learning and artificial intelligence as well as alumni of all ages who were interested to learn more about these topics, including a Penn graduate from the class of 1957 and 1969.

Frankly Penn Kartik Photo #2

Topics Explored

  • The trend is towards reinforcement learning where the AI creates its own data vs. supervised learning where a training data set is used
  • We all have subconscious biases and algorithms learn from data based on human decisions, therefore the algorithms develop and reflect those biases
  • There are many examples of algorithm failures, whether the algorithms are ruled based (i.e., from the programmer) or reinforcement learning based
  • While diversity in the team developing algorithms is desirable, many AI teams are quite small in size (i.e., with three or four people), and it’s not realistic to have all diversity represented within them (even if the talent pool were a perfect reflection of diversity)
  • Case example: Amazon discovered that their resume screening algorithm had a gender bias which reflected the gender bias in the underlying data. While “almost no one” is testing for bias, Amazon was and moved to correct this issue
  • Case example: a Microsoft chatbot named XiaoIce “works” with forty million followers in China (a place where there are many rules on what to not say in social media), while a similar Microsoft chatbot named Tay failed spectacularly in the US. This example is explored in the book’s opening
  • Humorous case example of gaming the system: given our notorious LA traffic, and widespread use of Waze and Google Maps, one audience member regularly reports (falsely) slowdowns in his local neighborhood to prevent traffic from being routed through the area, thereby creating congestion

Predictions (some already in existence)

  • Machines will be able to detect emotions and use that information
  • Expect an exponential increase in capabilities from AI in our lifetime. Examples on the near term and current horizons are driverless cars and smart cities (at the combination of AI and IOT)
  • We have and will have AI that is creative (e.g., art, music)

Ideas to Address the Biases and Navigate an Algorithmic World

  • In the book, Prof. Hosanager presents “A Bill of Rights” to address some of the dangers and challenges around algorithms. Some of the solutions include:
    • Transparency, particularly in socially critical settings
    • Human in the Loop
    • Auditing the algorithm

All of us are impacted daily by algorithms, and I hope our Penn alumni who are lifelong learners will educate themselves, and will also have the opportunity to see and hear from Professor Hosanager on this topic.

 

 

 

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Ira Israel, C’88, Shares How to Cultivate Authentic Relationships with Los Angeles area Penn alumni and guests

By Michal Clements, W’84, WG’89

On January 29, 2019, over a hundred Penn alumni and guests gathered at General Assembly in Santa Monica to experience Ira Israel’s, C’88, signature presentation on “How to Cultivate Authentic Relationships.”

Ira Israel Frankly Penn

 

Ira is the author of , “How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re an Adult: A Path to Authenticity and Awakening,” and also the creator of the best-selling “A Beginner’s Guide to Happiness,” “A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness Meditation,” “Mindfulness for Anxiety,” and “Mindfulness for Depression” video series.  The book is currently rated five stars on Amazon and is highly recommended.

Ira Israel 2

During the evening, Ira first engaged the audience with thought-provoking content including video clips and visuals. Ira broke the crowd into pairs, assigned interactive exercises, and gave us the chance to apply the concepts presented. This allowed each audience member to go a step beyond simply listening to the presentation, and to apply specific practices designed to bring more happiness and loving relationships into their lives.

 

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#BeWellPenn95: Social Wellness, an introduction

by Casey Ryan, C’95

95 sign

As Jordana Horn Gordon, Nicole Maloy and I have shared before, Penn has launched an initiative called Wellness at Penn.

This program affirms wellness as a core priority and necessary driver of life on campus. It offers opportunities to reflect and engage on issues of wellness, stress, mental health, resilience, happiness, personal and academic goals, and the meaning of success. And it defines wellness as an ongoing holistic process with multiple dimensions.

As alumni, we are still members of the Penn community where we live in Philadelphia or Perth and everywhere in between. Jordana, Nicole and I are encouraging you, our fellow classmates, in the ramp-up year to our 25th reunion to take some time to #BeWellPenn95 and work on some of the wellness dimensions.

While the three of us have picked one each of the eight tenets, we encourage you to follow us for tips about improving your mental/emotional, physical and social wellness as well as adding any pillars to your wellness routine.

As the same proclaimed social butterfly, I am planning to provide ideas and tips for improving one’s social wellness.

First, what is social wellness?

Social Wellness refers to one’s ability to interact with people around them. It involves using good communications skills, having meaningful relationships, respecting yourself and others, and creating a support system that includes family members and friends.

In this particular blog article, I am not going to overwhelm you with several tips; I will give you just one meaningful one as we are preparing for our reunion in 2020.

Catch up with an old friend from Penn.

We live in a busy world and some of us have jobs that take us to the far-flung corners of the earth and others of us have responsibilities that require our attention from when the alarm goes off to when our heads hit pillows. We do have technological escapes like Facebook and Instagram that do give us a tenuous feeling of connectedness. In the meantime, let’s try to improve our in-person relationships. Evaluate your core network. If you have Penn peers in that group, congrats! If not, think about a classmate whom you’d like to hear from. Either way, make some time to connect.

The interaction doesn’t have to be long. Now, I’m a dyed in the wool extrovert and I can spend hours with a friend moving among busy locales – hopping from coffee to lunch to a happy hour – chatting all the time. Not everyone has the inclination to do that or the time. So the opposite social appointment would be to commit to a fifteen-minute chat on the phone to check in and catch up.

Here are a few rules of thumb. Regardless of where you fall on the extrovert-introvert spectrum, know your limitations and mutually set expectations. Before making a commitment, be sure that you can realistically meet that expectation, taking into account everything from travel time and prior commitments to health and self-care.

Start with a fifteen-minute call with Penn friend. Send him or her an e-mail (feel free to look up your friend on Quakernet, https://quakernet.alumni.upenn.edu), or a Facebook message. Make arrangements to chat within ten days of your contact. Commit to the call. If you feel comfortable, post on our Reunion Facebook that you caught up with an old friend afterward and share your experience.

Looking toward the future, I know that a lot of social wellness activities can be tied into the other pillars of wellness, for example, finding a workout partner combines social with physical, while joining a book club can combinate social with mental/emotional. Don’t be surprised if future tips combine more than one tenet.

Like all of the wellnesses, cultivating social wellness is an ongoing process that requires attention throughout our entire life.  So, we’re here for you and feel free to interact with the class page on Facebook, as well as you can connect with me personally on Instagram and Twitter at @IrishWombat.  

#BeWellPenn95,

Casey Ryan, C’95

casey ryan

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Be Well Penn ’95: A Conversation with Penn’s New Chief Wellness Officer

by Nicole C. Maloy, M.S, W’95, SPP’18

Recall the calming voices and speech patterns of PBS icons Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers, add a medical degree, and top with a former Directorship of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry at Penn Medicine. You can now begin to imagine what it is like to be in the presence of Dr. Benoit Dubé.

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Nicole Maloy:     Greetings. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       Good afternoon. My name is Benoit Dubé. I am the University’s Chief Wellness Officer and Associate Vice Provost.

Nicole Maloy:     What does it mean to be a Chief Wellness Officer?

Dr. Benoit Dubé:      That is a simple question on the surface, but is actually something that we are figuring out beyond the general campaign for wellness that really spearheaded the creation of this position and the reorganization of our health & wellness services. This position didn’t exist before, so I have both the privilege and the daunting task of defining what it is exactly that it means. And while it’s a simple question, the answer has multiple layers because, as the university’s Chief Wellness Officer, I am responsible for the entire Penn community. So that means students, that means staff, that means faculty. And even that is an oversimplification because if we just limit ourselves to students, there’s over 25,000 [Ed. total undergraduate + graduate & professional, full time + part time], and of the 25,000 there are 12 different schools, and we have to be very humble and acknowledge that there is not a wellness solution for students. Maybe 25,000 wellness solutions, but we have to identify the common thread.

We have to create a space where synergies can happen. We have to create an environment where innovation and collaboration are fostered, nurtured. If the School of Nursing, who has learners across the whole spectrum, has initiatives that have been successful for them, then we must provide them with the resources so that the College can share some of the applicable resources, and so on and so forth.

And you’ll notice that I’ve just been talking about students. We can talk just as much and wax and wane poetic about staff. If we don’t address the wellness needs of staff, we can’t expect staff to promote a wellness culture for students. And then there’s faculty. So, thank you for allowing me to explain why it is a complicated question. It’s both thrilling and exciting to create something new, but the emphasis is on creating something that wasn’t there, that was implied, but has now been given its place at the table.

Nicole Maloy:     And you mentioned the campaign for wellness. Can you tell us more about that? What should alumni – and anybody who’s interested in Penn – know about this campaign?

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       So, the campaign for wellness is a multifaceted initiative and effort that was spearheaded by the President and the Provost in 2017 to really start creating community. To engage members – its members – in dialogue. Dialogue that values and cherishes vulnerability, that reframes stress and struggles as opportunities for growth, that reminds all of us that we are in this together.

The world is a stressful place. It’s not stressful because of politics exclusively, which is the go-to, right? But if we even remove politics from the world, it’s really stressful to keep up. We’re connected always. Are we missing out on anything? Are we responding quickly enough? E-mail. E-mail was touted as making workers more efficient. Nobody likes e-mail. I mean, everybody hates e-mail, but we all e-mail all the time. Is it OK not to e-mail my boss, or my professor, or my students after 5? Over the weekend? We’re learning this. Technology has forced us to adapt faster than we have actually been able to adapt in recent history. That’s why the world is stressful.

We’re dealing with new, unseen political situations. Look at what’s going on, the divisive political agendas that people are grappling with. All of these things make us collectively all of us, red and blue – we’re talking about Penn here, not politics – they make us stressed out. How do we feel that we have agency in all of this? How can we give ourselves permission to slow down? These are the hot topics that we’re trying to figure out.

Penn is uniquely positioned to offer solutions. If we take a step back, what we want to do is offer our learners the skills and tools they need to be successful academically. That is not new. But the rules have changed because of expectations, because of how quickly information spreads, how reactive people have become. We want to give our learners, our graduates, the skills and tools so that they can go out and continue to make the world a better place. That’s what Benjamin Franklin said. By the way, happy birthday Ben! It’s your 313th birthday today. So, that’s collectively, big picture, what we want to do. We want to use the remarkable resources we have here to make the world a better place so that our graduates can go out and become change agents. So that we get to tame our inbox. So that we become better equipped at integrating self-care with ambition.

Nicole Maloy: Integrating self-care with ambition. Oh, that’s fantastic. So, speaking of graduates, we can now move into the world of Penn alumni, who are all around the world doing all manner of different things. What can we learn from what you’re doing and what Penn is doing around wellness in general, and how can we better balance our ambition with our self-care?

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       What I have learned, and what I have benefited from, is the importance of listening. And let me qualify that because it sounds like it’s a simple, rehearsed talking point, but it’s actually not. Your question led me to pull a few things together. I’m relatively new to this. I’m not new to the Penn community, but I’m new to this role, I’m new to this mandate and these tasks. And the first thing I decided to do was, well, you know, we’re not starting with a blank slate here. Penn has done wonderful wellness-related things. So, before I start asking for resources to create new things, I need to start from a position of humility and say, hey, what great things are we doing now? Can we make them greater? And then decide what new things we should be doing. And the only way we can figure this quandary out and resolve it is by listening.

Right now, I’ve mostly been listening to students. Remember, there are 25,000 of them. So, I’ve been on a listening tour, and I’ve heard successes, I’ve heard challenges. And by listening to the students, by being present in the moment without judgement or expectations, it’s reminded me that I need to listen to myself. I need to give myself permission to manage my own expectations, to realize that this is not a 6-month contract. This is a commitment. There is not going to be one solution. There will be many, and I need to remind myself of that. Because there may be a little bit of pressure associated with this new job, right? And as I listen to students, I’ve been reminded that I also need to listen to myself and give myself permission to be patient, to think through things, to really reverse this cycle of reactivity. Just because we’re connected quickly, instantly with each other doesn’t mean that I’m expected to have the answer by the next school year. I can be reflective, contemplative, and realize that it’s not just a one-person thing. We are part of a community. Which brings me back to your question.

The worldwide community of Quakers is still accessible, and technology, in this case, does facilitate the creation of community, the pool of resources, the creation of collaborations that may not have been otherwise possible absent e-mail, absent instant message, Facebook, and other social media tools. That’s how what I’ve learned in my first few months in this role can be applied to graduates and alumni. We are part of a community. The wellness quandary, the wellness challenges, solutions we need to identify, are not one person’s goal. We will figure this out together by valuing humility, by recognizing and allowing vulnerability to be part of our dialogue. Not to create a culture of “woe is me,” but rather for people to be comfortable enough to say, “This is challenging for me, and this is how I’ve overcome the challenge,” so that others on the receiving end of this conversation can pick and choose what works for them.

“We can change and forge a new lens that allows us to see stress as an opportunity for growth. If we approach a stressful situation this way, we’re much less likely to become overwhelmed. It’s not going to make it easy, but it will make it easier. And that is within our power.”

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       You know, when we talk about wellness, usually within the first five minutes we talk about mindfulness meditation and yoga. OK? So, a little bit of self-disclosure here, I hate yoga.

Nicole Maloy:     (Laughter)

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       I’m terrible at it. It stresses me out.

Nicole Maloy:     Yoga stresses you out.

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       It totally does. Like, I cannot touch my toes. I’m just not a flexible guy. But, I don’t know, maybe you like yoga, right? Maybe, for you, being in the moment, being at peace with your body, being connected inwardly is the perfect solution to give you respite from the stress of the outside world. Doesn’t work for me. At all. So, there is no wellness solution. There must be wellness permissions that we must give ourselves. And a lot of it is trial and error. Of course, everybody’s going to try yoga and mindfulness meditation first. And by the way, mindfulness meditation is easy to say – it takes practice. You get better at it over time. Guided breathing for me, like, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes every hour, does the trick. I breathe better than I stretch.

Nicole Maloy and Dr. Benoit Dubé:       (Laughter)

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       I have learned through experience that yoga was just not the thing for me. Am I going to mandate guided breathing exercise for everyone? Of course not. Because other people may have my yoga reaction to this solution. But maybe if they hear this, it’s going to be another tool in their toolbox as they try to give themselves permission to find their solution.

Nicole Maloy:     So, what you would advise alumni to do is to be active members of the community so we can share our experiences with other alumni, with students, staff, and faculty, to be open to other people’s experiences so we might learn from them, and also to balance self-care and ambition, and give ourselves permission to be vulnerable, to try new things to see what works for us.

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       Oh, absolutely. And to always remember that stress is a part of life. We must expect it, we must embrace it rather than fear it. And we have the ability to change our perception. We can’t change the facts, but we can change and forge a new lens that allows us to see stress as an opportunity for growth. If we approach a stressful situation this way, we’re much less likely to become overwhelmed. It’s not going to make it easy, but it will make it easier. And that is within our power.

Nicole Maloy:      For our pre-reunion year in the Class of ’95, we’ve asked our classmates to identify something that is within their power to improve or change, or at least focus on more, in a few key areas of health, whether physical, mental/emotional, or social. How can we best identify the things that are within our control and things that aren’t to reduce the frustration of identifying an area to improve?

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       That’s really interesting because I don’t think there’s a master key here, I don’t think that there is one directive or one solution. Rather, each alum should give themselves permission to just try different solutions on for size and see what works for them. The subjective experience is what’s going to determine what is the best fit. It’s ultimately about giving folks the ability to, through lived experience, come to the realization that this is helpful and this is not.

Maybe yoga works for some people, but it’s not within your control whether or not you can escape to the gym during your lunch hour because of things that you have no say over, right? So, your boss may not let you take a lunch break that allows you to leave the office. Or maybe if that’s possible, maybe there’s not a shower facility that you have access to so that you can come back refreshed. So, while deciding that yoga works for you, whether you can do that during the weekday may not be under your control. And all of these things each alum will figure out and come to that realization. A simple solution would be, well, go after work, or go before work, or do something else.

You touched on community, and I think that this is where we have the biggest challenges despite having the easiest solutions at our disposal. The biggest challenge is because, in the digital era, in a world where social media essentially guides what we do, we’ve become very individualized. And we’ve lost some of our socialization skills. How do we stay in touch? Through Facebook. And that’s fantastic because we couldn’t do that before. But we forget to nurture our relationships that are closer. These are the relationships that we tend to neglect because we’re so drawn by the awesomeness of being able to connect with our college buddies all over the world. I’m not saying to stop doing that, but in the process not forget about your inner circle. You need to prioritize. We are dealing with a slew of demands, professionally, personally, and that maybe we can’t do it all, and that we have to decide, OK, there’s an order here. First, take care of yourself. It’s not about being selfish or entitled. It’s about making sure that you can take care of other people.

Nicole Maloy:     Put on your mask before you put a mask on the person next to you.

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       That’s exactly where I was going with that. So, if you put the oxygen mask on your traveling buddy, well, then you may not be around to take care of them after the fact. So that’s why self-care is important. It’s about prioritizing. And prioritizing relationships. Finding meaning in what we do. Seeing purpose beyond ourselves. Giving back to the community. Those are values that I hope that have been ingrained in all of our alum, but we need to remember, the world is going on like really fast and sometimes we forget. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing we can do to re-center, refocus, recalibrate, and then go about your day after that. That’s what deep breathing does for me. It stops the noise, outside, inside, and then I can move forward.

Nicole Maloy:     You’ve touched on the fact that yoga is not your thing, but deep breathing is, so that fits into that mental and emotional health piece. What is something, if you’re comfortable sharing, that you do to promote your social health, and something you do to promote your physical health?

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       So, physical health, I like to run. And running on city sidewalks is no longer a thing for me because my knees are telling me that’s not a good thing, so I’ve learned to adapt to the treadmill and to books on tape. (Laughter) I have also, as I’ve grown older, needed to make adjustments to what I eat, and concentrated sweets don’t agree with me anymore. And that was not within my control. I had to adapt, I had no choice.

Social health – I think that my professional responsibilities have allowed me to thrive in that respect. In the responsibilities I have been given at Penn, I get to meet outstanding, brilliant, creative, and innovative students all the time. And that is something that is energizing for me. It’s a source of inspiration, creating a community that didn’t exist before. It’s very energizing for me to be asked to do that.

The other life hack I’d like to share with you is, I am an avid traveler. I love to travel. And so one of my life rules is before you end your current vacation or your current trip, you must know where your next one is. You must always have a reward for yourself. You must always be working towards something. Because, hey, there will be stress. There will be challenges. But if you know that you will be rewarded, there’s something you’re looking forward to. That’s a life rule that I figured out a while back.

Nicole Maloy:     Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, and have a wonderful spring semester.

Dr. Benoit Dubé:       Thank you. It was a pleasure chatting with you.

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Nicole Maloy is a Penn Class of 1995 Reunion Co-Chair. Through the Be Well Penn ’95 Wellness & Self-Care Initiative, she, Casey Ryan, C’95, and Jordana Horn Gordon, C’95 urge their classmates – and the entire Penn alumni family – to be both thoughtful and proactive about making mental, emotional, physical, and/or social health a higher priority in 2019.

 

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Innovation & Leadership: Penn Alumni on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List

By: Jorge Penado, C’19

Every year, the American business magazine, Forbes, publishes the 30 Under 30  list of over 600 business and industry figures that have become influential to some degree in their respective industries and are under the age of 30. They select 30 individuals for 20 different categories that range from industries like Hollywood & Entertainment, Venture Capital, Manufacturing & Industry, Law & Policy and many other categories. The list itself was started in 2011 and has grown through the years with 2016 seeing over 15,000 nominations. The list has even spread around the world with regional versions of the list in Asia, Africa and Europe. With it’s growing popularity, it is interesting to see the presence of Penn alumni on these lists, and this year’s list has seen one of the highest rates of Penn alumni.

As The Daily Pennsylvanian wrote on November 20, 25 graduates, including a current Ph.D. candidate, have been selected for the lists. This is the fourth highest number of honorees from a university on the list. The three other schools ahead of Penn include Stanford University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With over 15,000 nominations but only 600 slots to fill, the process is definitely rigorous as only 4% of those nominated are selected for the ultimate list. With regards to which industry Penn alumni are participating in most, Finance leads the way with 5 honorees in this category and Social Entrepreneurship follows with 3 honorees. As the DP article states, most honorees are from the Wharton School with 13 honorees followed by the College with 9. Though all of this information is truly interesting to get an overview, it’s just as fascinating to look at some of the work these alumni are doing in their respective fields.

 

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Source: Welligence Energy Analytics Twitter Account

One of the many honorees in this years list includes Seth Neel. Neel is one of the 30 honorees in the Energy sector who are recognized for “fueling a more sustainable future.” Neel is a current fourth year Ph.D. candidate in Statistics at the Wharton School, meaning that he’s the only current Penn attendee on the list. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Math from Harvard University in 2015. His research as a doctoral student in Wharton is focused on two general themes: the fairness in machine learning and the study of fundamental problems in differential privacy. He has published 11 different scholarly articles in the field and has spoken at various events. His participation in the field has even taken him to start his own company, Welligence, an independent oil and gas analytics firm focused on the Latin America upstream sector. Neel’s participation in the field is only growing and his recognignition in this year’s Forbes’ 30 Under 30 is greatly earned.

 

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Source: Amazon.com

Another Penn alumni who was selected as an honoree is Emerson Brooking. Brooking is one of 30 honorees in the Law & Policy sector who are recognized for “fighting for your rights Andrew’s better governments.” Brooking received his Bachelor of Arts in 2011 from the College with a major in Political Science and Classical Studies. While on campus, he was involved in clubs like Big Brother Big Sisters and the Penn Political Review. His participation on this year’s list is due largely to his debut book, Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media. The book made the New York Time’s New & Noteworthy List, Amazon’s Best Seller List and was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Month. Besides these considerable achievements, the book has been featured on NPR, PBS, The New York Times, Time, Popular Science, Rolling Stone, Politico, Foreign Affairs and many more. The book was even praised as being “a magical combination of history, technology and early warning wrapped in a compelling narrative of how today’s information space can threaten the truth, our polity and our security,”  by former Director of the CIA and NSA, General Michael Hayden. With all of these accolades under his belt, Brooking has become an expert in the field of cyber warfare.

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Source: The Atlantic

The final Penn alumni selected as an honoree that this post will cover is Anna Wan. Wan is one of the 30 honorees in the Consumer Technology sector who are recognized for “seizing the moment of a personalized digital revolution.” Wan received her Bachelor of Science in Economics in 2012 from the Wharton School with a major in Operation & Information Management and Finance. During her time at Penn, she was notably involved in the Chi Omega Sorority. Her recognition on the list this year stems generally from her participation as a general manager of $2 billion Bird, a company dedicated to bringing scooters to cities east of the Mississippi River. Her position in this company has been a gradual growth as she has additionally worked at other companies like Ofo and AirBnB. While at Ofo, she notably managed over 20 teams and launched/ managed seven markets, which included the largest US market. At AirBnB, she supported executives with “strategic analysis and reporting” and worked “with Product Growth teams… to identify customer acquisition projects with greatest impact and ROI.” With all of this experience, her current position really goes to show her excellence in the field.

While there are 23 other Penn alumni who made the list and are pursuing equally wonderful endeavors in their respective fields, these three are just a quick example of the varying work that these alumni are engaging in and being recognized for. At a university like Penn, we’re lucky to have many great alumni, and this years Forbes’ 30 under 30 only shows a glimpse into the amazing things Penn alumni are doing around the world and in every field imaginable.

 

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Meet Gulnur Kukenova: Penn Alumni’s Newest Graduate Assistant

By: Gulnur Kukenova, GED19
Graduate Assistant for Penn Alumni Relations

Hey everybody! My name is Gulnur Kukenova and I am the new graduate assistant for Penn Alumni Office.

I just moved from Kazakhstan with my family a month ago and this month was full of new information and meeting with wonderful people. It took about 15 years to apply and become a part of Penn. And now I am HERE! (Woohoo!)

 

This year promises to be challenging as well as much enriched with knowledge for me. It is a great feeling of inspiration when I am sitting in one class with ones of the smartest and the most collaborative people from all around the world. This year I will definitely learn a lot both from my classmates who have wonderful backgrounds and different stories that shaped their lives and from the faculty who are a great source in shaping my choices and guiding me to my ideal career path.

I am very excited to get this great opportunity to explore and get to be familiar with the Penn community and especially with Penn Traditions! I am sure that the coming year will be one of the brightest and wonderful years of my life!

Let’s start the year and make it fruitful!

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The First Student Union: The Change Within Houston Hall

 

By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House

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Source: Fine Art America

At the center of Penn’s campus alongside iconic buildings like College Hall and landmarks like the Benjamin Franklin Statue, Houston Hall has had a long history at Penn as a center of social, recreational, educational and cultural activity, and in 2018, the hall has over 120 years of serving the Penn community. Quite recently, the Penn community has begun to adjust to the top-to-bottom renovation of the basement’s Houston Market, completed over Summer 2018. But, with all of this in mind, it seems right to look back at the long history of Houston Hall and how this year’s renovations are just an extension of the hall’s purpose and intention that it’s adopted since its conception.

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Source: University Archives & Record Center, Houston Club Booklet

 

As many Penn community members may be aware of, Houston Hall started as the first student union in the nation and opened on January 2, 1896. Generally, the student union was meant to serve as a university’s community center for recreation and socialization and often was the host of student affairs and even student governance which can be seen now. As the first student union in the United States, Houston had some liberty to gather influence and set the tone for what would eventually become a common center at any modern university. In particular, Houston drew its inspiration from Cambridge University and Oxford University, where the first union would be established in 1823. However, it wouldn’t be for another 70 years that Penn Trustees would decide to provide students with their own center.

After their decision, Trustee Charles Harrison would announce a competition amongst students and recent graduates who would have the opportunity to design the building. Soon after, two students, William C. Hays, and Milton Bennett Medary Jr. would win the competition and have their designs combined into the architectural style of college gothic and ultimately executed by Philadelphia-based architect, Frank Miles Day. It seemed only natural that the student center for the university would be designed by two architecture students. In order to finance the project, Trustee Harrison was luckily able to secure a donation of $100,000 from Trustee Henry Howard Houston and his wife Sallie S. Houston. Interestingly enough, the building is not technically named for Trustee Houston as it was actually named for his late son Henry Howard Houston Jr. who had unfortunately passed the year after his graduation from the university in 1878.

Once the hall was completed in 1896, the doors would eventually open to the student body. One significant activity that emerged at the beginning would have to be the Houston Club. This club was founded to, as stated in their constitution, “draw together students, officers, and alumni of all Departments of the University in a wholesome social life, and to provide for them suitable amusements and recreations.” The club would soon after establish an internal leadership which many accredit to the first semblance of student governance at Penn. Besides leadership, they also established three committees that were meant to help in the operation of Houston and included the House Committee, in charge of maintaining Houston’s various amenities, the Membership Committee, in charge of admission of new members, and the Library Committee, in charge of all reading material. Interestingly enough, Houston Club was only open to tuition-paying male students at the time, and thus, with the creation of Bennett Hall, the Bennet Club would be created as a female version of this club. As a club, this student group had much influence over the maintenance and usage of Houston Hall. However, this would only last until 1929 when it was replaced by the more inclusive Houston Hall Board, then in 1969 when it was replaced by the Penn Union Council and finally, transform into the modern Social Planning and Events Committee.

With this historical information in mind, it is possible to understand how the services that Houston Hall provides has changed over time. In particular, the original Houston Hall would be almost unrecognizable to many Penn students now and to some degree, would draw in a sense of awe for what was once provided. For example, the original Houston Hall of the late 19th century had such amenities as a billiards room, a chess room, a trophy room, a gym, a pool, and even bowling lanes! At first glance, it was amazing that Penn once had their own bowling lane which is something I’ve only ever occasionally heard in movies and would love to have on campus. But, then I consider what’s in its place now and realize that Houston Market takes up the area.

As I mentioned, Houston Market recently went through their own renovation, valued at around $15 million, and expanded the number of dining options available for everyone. Actually, the last renovation Houston Hall underwent was about 20 years ago. This renovated Houston Market now serves from eight different stations with expanded hours. While the response has been mostly positive, there has been some discussion on the ever-changing purpose of Houston Hall. In an article published on September 20 in the DP, one contributor noted the shift from Houston being purely about student socialization to being mostly a place to work and dine. This opinion piece noted how students nowadays find it harder to locate a central place to completely relax and meet in today’s busy community and believe socializing in Houston has changed. With all of this in mind, it’s clear that Houston Hall has remained a dynamic building on campus.

Overall, the new renovations of Summer 2018 seem to be a part of the constantly evolving intent of Houston Hall. While Houston is still a place where people congregate to eat and do work, the purpose has definitely changed since its conception in 1896 as recreational activities like pool tables and TV rooms mostly exist within college houses. Even though the conversation continues on campus, this walkthrough of Houston Hall’s history has only solidified its status as a staple of Penn’s campus.

 

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