Lessons From Leading: Amy Chen ‘10

Athena Alum Network
6 min readNov 30, 2023

Lessons From Leading is a series featuring alums of the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College discussing what they learned about leadership from Athena — and what leading looks like for them now.

Amy Chen ’10 is the founder of the Athena Alum Network, the official alum network for Barnard College graduates who are affiliated with the Athena Center for Leadership. Professionally, Amy is a community, partnerships and programs leader in the technology and startup ecosystem. She believes in the power of connecting people, ideas, and resources to benefit startup founders, investors, and customers alike. Outside of work, Amy enjoys yoga (still working on crow pose) and field hockey (has been a blast to play with NYCFH for over a decade).

Amy reflects on quality Barnard friendships that inspire her, confronting perfectionism and focusing on self-compassion, and navigating unexpected experiences that ultimately build momentum for growth. She also shares her annual commitment to herself as well as a few recommended books and podcasts that might help you define what leadership means for yourself.

On appreciating lifelong Barnard friends who are also peer mentors

The deep, sincere friendships I made via Barnard (whether I met these friends during NSOP, while collaborating on SGA, or even after Barnard) have influenced who I am today. For decisions big and small, I’m grateful that I have friends I can turn to for listening and feeling heard. I see that my Barnard friend groups are trusted advisors, even when each alum in the group has had a different path that doesn’t seem relevant to the situation or challenge that I bring up for feedback. It’s a beautiful thing that we are informal peer mentors and accountability partners to each other.

I envision that the Athena Alum Network can be a Barnard friendship engine as connections among alums happen throughout the year — whether you meet a new alum friend or re-connect with a classmate you kind of knew on campus. Reaching out via LinkedIn or catching up in-person at an event can lead to a meaningful friendship. As we build stronger relationships within the AAN, the group will become a go-to place for peer mentorship, wisdom sharing and support. The Barnard/Athena community is generous and gracious- don’t be afraid to reach out within the group with specific asks, and don’t be afraid to pay it forward when you can support someone in the community too.

Selfie with my Barnard BFFs on my wedding day

On learning what leadership means for me outside of external validation

When I was a student, I used to think leadership was formulaic and I viewed it with a vertical mindset. I thought it required acquiring more and more experiences with credentials, titles and senior people. Now, I’m excited about breadth. I love being a generalist. I define leadership in a personal mindset-driven way and how leadership relates to trusting yourself as well as trusting others in a horizontal (e.g. peer-focused or cross-functional or intersectional) way.

Leadership is about trying new things, sharing what you’ve tried, and leveraging your experiences to grow and influence others.

It’s taken me years to recognize what I value most about the Athena Center’s offerings. I think the most significant offerings are forums and gatherings for leaders to present and discuss new ideas and experiments. Sometimes, a presentation you attend might not resonate fully with you until years later, and that’s OK. When I was an Athena Scholar, I was intrigued by a classmate, Stephanie Estey, who shared a business plan for a new healthy juice company. Over a decade later, I respect that I learned about leadership by being part of a program that encouraged working on new ideas, publicly communicating them, and seeking feedback. That business plan was one step in my classmate’s inspiring entrepreneurial career- now, she is a venture-backed founder of a startup!

Sometimes it’s hard to try new things since being an adult beginner can feel uncomfortable and imperfect. It’s important to confront perfectionism and recognize no leader is perfect, and perfectionism doesn’t exist. It’s important to practice self-compassion and recognize all the new things you’ve tried recently, even if they don’t seem new. Perhaps you created a new playlist or a new fitness routine recently. Perhaps you substituted ingredients when following a recipe since you realized you didn’t want to go out and buy the ingredients you were missing. Jotting these “new things” down can help you practice self-compassion, which you can control. Then, you can connect this self-compassion journey to your leadership journey. Are you sharing what you’ve tried and leveraging your experiences to grow? What does it mean for you to grow and influence others?

On receiving unexpected opportunities to lead, learn and grow in my career path

I’ve always been interested in public service but didn’t work in public service until I participated in the NYC Urban Fellows Program in 2012–2013, a fellowship for recent college graduates focused on public service and civic engagement. Following several mentorship conversations with Barnard alums I admired, I left my first job in the private sector at Morgan Stanley to join NYC government during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last term in office. With an economics degree and work experience in finance, I thought I’d be placed at the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Economic Development (or a similar office) for the fellowship, but I was placed in the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (now called the Office of Technology & Innovation). I was shocked! I thought the path forward was so ambiguous since I knew nothing about technology as a liberal arts major. I had no idea how to run technical demo nights and meetups, hackathons and design challenges. I loved learning on the job and I had no idea how fun it would be! It turned out to be a transformative experience that set me on the path I’m on now in the technology sector. I am a non-technical (i.e. I don’t know how to code) leader working with technical people around technical topics all day. Following my fulfilling time with NYC government, I led startup incubator and accelerator programs while I earned my MBA part-time at NYU Stern. Then, I joined the AWS Startups team at Amazon for 4 years where I managed business development relationships with venture capital firms and early-stage startups. Currently, I’m the Director of Community at Tola Capital, a venture capital firm specializing in investing in AI and enterprise software.

Grateful for long-distance Barnard friendship

On my annual commitment to myself

Every year, to dedicate time and energy to reflection and slowing down, I commit to taking a staycation. I love New York City. Whether a couple days or a week, I will take days off to enjoy where I live. It’s uplifting to discover and re-discover a sense of awe and nostalgia about New York City after living here for over 15 years. A few of my favorite staycation activities — practicing yoga at Sky Ting, visiting the farmer’s market at Union Square for fresh produce and bread, enjoying a museum exhibit that’s closing soon, savoring coffee and a tasty pastry at a new bakery/cafe that I’ve been wanting to try, and reading a great book on a park bench (Central Park, Madison Square Park and Hudson River Park are my top picks).

Recommended reading and listening

For any alums seeking resources to develop their definitions of leadership and reflecting on your unique leadership journey, I’d love to share these books and podcasts. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or ask me about these resources at the next Athena Alum Network event.

Visiting the Bow Bridge (Central Park) on staycation never gets old

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