23. 06. 2023 Pontis Foundation

Our director on the same stage with Barack Obama

After five months of meetings and development activities in the online space, last week in Athens, all the participants of the Obama Leaders programme from Europe, Asia and Africa, organised by the Obama Foundation, met live for the first time. Among more than 100 people from different countries was our executive director Martina Kolesárová, the first participant from Slovakia to join the programme.

Four days of the five-day programme were dedicated to educational meetings and networking activities. On Wednesday, the leaders from around the world met with President Obama. The day’s climax was the panel discussion moderated by Barack Obama, and we are delighted that one of the four panellists was Martina, who represented Europe. Together with the representative of Malaysia and the representatives of Namibia and Zimbabwe, they talked about what value leadership means, how to manage inclusive teams, what is the leader’s responsibility, and what motivates them and gives them hope for further work.

How did it feel to be chosen as the primary representative for Europe for the final debate with Barack Obama?

It was compelling for me to be on the same stage with President Obama at the end of his day with us in Athens. It was also a huge responsibility because I represented not only the Pontis Foundation, my unique friends in the programme from all over Europe, but also Slovakia. I was in the close presence of a person who is one of the most influential people in the world and whom I respect a lot. However, he is also a pleasant person. Even though being on stage with him was surreal, the atmosphere was very relaxed. And not only thanks to Barack Obama but also thanks to his sister Maya Soetoro, who introduced him.

What did you discuss?

In a discussion lasting approximately 50 minutes, there were four of us, together with Obama Leaders representing Africa and Asia, and a representative of the Girls Opportunity Alliance programme, who is close to Michelle Obama, was also on stage with us. We reflected on the Obama Leaders programme, talked about what value leadership means, how we manage inclusive teams, what is leader’s responsibility, and what motivates us and gives us hope for our future work. We touched upon the topic of democracy in the context of the war in Ukraine, the need for stability in neighbouring states, and also personal issues.

Like the entire programme, the Obama Foundation, as do the Obamas, especially emphasises our work and what we do in our countries and communities and thanks us for it. And the behaviour of Mr President was also in the sense of expressing support. We did not just shake hands but embraced each other as friends, as people who have similar purposes and values in life. It is an award for the work of the Pontis Foundation, for our vision and role in society. I am thrilled that I could be a part of it.

At the final meeting of the programme, there were more than 100 people from Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, a total of about 70 nationalities. I was glad to emphasise several things, draw attention to Central Europe, also in the context of the war in Ukraine, and mention the great need to develop value-based leadership. In this context, I also mentioned Zuzana Čaputová’s decision not to run for office in the next election period.


How were your other days spent in Athens that week? What are your takeaways?

New contacts and strengthening of relationships within the European Group of Leaders. I believe these friendships will last a lifetime – not only professionally, but also personally.

What did you take away from this programme overall?

A great expansion of horizons in the field of adaptive and value leadership, the development of resilience, or in the field of working with power, but also in how it is very necessary to get out of the comfort zone to be able to look at things differently, how important it is to be surrounded by people from different environments with different, often very complicated and difficult life stories. Many who we met in the programme are called servant leaders who move their community forward and are empathetic to others, but often less so to themselves. And therefore, it is necessary to learn to work with it.

First, I took away invaluable contacts and friendships from the programme, which I believe will last a lifetime. With the kind of people I was among during the programme and the meeting in Athens, I also pushed my boundaries of “thinking big” much further.

Are there any other activities planned after the programme?

We will be a lifelong part of the Obama Foundation Alumni programme, which further offers many opportunities for networking among alums (already almost 1000 people around the world) such as working groups focused on a specific issues, local offline meetings, participation in discussions and conferences related to alum meetings on the given subject. We will be able to receive further support for our work through the communication tools of the Obama Foundation and participate in personal annual meetings of all alums always in a different place, also with the participation of the founders and management of the Obama Foundation.

About Martina Kolesárová

Martina Kolesárová has been working at the Pontis Foundation for seven years, almost four years as executive director. She started her professional career after graduating from the Central European University in Budapest. She also worked at the British Council and the Slovak Organisation for Renewable Energy Sources. During her stays abroad in Israel and the USA, she worked for a consulting firm in corporate social responsibility and the global Ashoka Foundation, which supports the best social innovators.

About the Obama Foundation Leaders programme

The Obama Leaders Europe programme was established in 2020. It builds on Michelle and Barack Obama’s legacy and strong ties to the region, emphasising shared values and ethical leadership. The Obama Foundation Leaders programme aims to inspire further, empower, and connect emerging leaders from Africa, Asia, and Europe to change their communities and the world for the better. For more information, visit obama.org/leaders.

Photo source: Obama Foundation

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