If you’re part of the CU Denver community, you’ve likely worked with or heard the name Leanna Clark. During her tenure as vice chancellor of University Communications, she’s led CU Denver through a number of significant accomplishments: two successful branding campaigns, “Learn with a Purpose” and “CU in the City,” the launch of Boots to Suits to support military and veteran students, the creation of our beloved mascot Milo, the formation of the Comcast Media and Technology Center, communications and town halls surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. Along the way, she’s built a mighty communications and marketing team that has been instrumental in helping establish the university as an important asset to the city of Denver.
At the end of May, Clark will be leaving CU Denver to begin a new endeavor as CEO of the Girl Scouts of Colorado, a statewide nonprofit with 125 full time employees, 20,000 members, and 10,000 volunteers. In her new role, Clark will set organizational vision and strategy, oversee all operations, and work to expand visibility and create opportunities for strategic partnerships. She will be greatly missed at CU Denver, but her skills and expertise will undoubtedly take this preeminent leadership development organization for girls to the next level.
“Leanna brings a wealth of experience and relationships to Girls Scouts of Colorado as she leads us to a new tomorrow,” Board Chair Rae Ann Dougherty said in a message to the Girl Scouts of Colorado staff. “I anticipate you will quickly learn, as I have, that she is energetic, fresh, dynamic, exciting, connected, and polished. This coupled with her strong PR and marketing skills will position our council for the future. As a beneficiary of Girl Scouts herself, Leanna is a poster child for demonstrating courage, confidence and character.”
As Clark moves on to the next chapter of her career, she leaves behind a university that greatly benefited from her leadership.
“The community’s awareness of and regard for CU Denver have been enhanced immeasurably by the work and leadership of Leanna Clark, and she’ll be greatly missed,” said Chancellor Dorothy Horrell. “Her love for this university has been manifest in the countless ways she has helped tell our story and create valued community connections and partnerships. The Girl Scouts of Colorado has made a brilliant choice in selecting Leanna as their new leader. It’s a perfect next step for her, and we wish her much happiness and continued success!”
To say farewell, we (virtually) sat down with Clark to ask her some questions about her time at CU Denver and how her experience has prepared her for her next role.
Prior to CU Denver, you were the business owner of one of Denver’s largest marketing and public relations firms as well as did nonprofit work traveling to developing nations. What inspired you to make the shift to higher education?
At the time, Jerry Wartgow was chancellor of both CU Denver and Anschutz. He and I had known each other for many years, from when he had served as superintendent for Denver Public Schools, so I was excited to join him and take on a new challenge. When I came on board, marketing and communications lived in many different pockets throughout the university, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to pull these functions together and build a solid team to help tell the CU Denver story.
I was also attracted by the mission of CU Denver, the grit and determination of our students, the amazing brilliance of our faculty, and our contributions to the greater community. I was pretty quickly bitten by the CU Denver bug. And here I am, nearly ten years later!
How did the university evolve during your tenure?
When I started, we were CU Denver | Anschutz, so my team supported both campuses. That has shifted, which has been a good thing in that we are now fully focused on advancing CU Denver. Chancellor Horrell coming on board also helped evolve the university and take us to a whole new level. Our five strategic priorities now anchor us with common goals and a clear path to guide us. Over time, especially under Chancellor Horrell’s leadership, I have seen us become more collaborative, more nimble, and more engaged with the broader Denver community.
You were instrumental in implementing two brand campaigns at CU Denver, “Learn with a Purpose” and “CU in the City.” How have these campaigns transformed the university?
Learn with Purpose was the first truly proactive, external ad campaign and tagline the university had ever had. It was the first concerted, umbrella effort to put a stake in the ground around who we are and what we stand for. LWP truly captured the passion and determination of our students and why they are here. It was also important in that it was such a collective effort, with my team working with students, faculty, and staff to define what made us special and develop a joint effort to then communicate that outward.
Learn with Purpose was a great precursor to CU in the City, which had actually been used many years ago, mostly internally. Under the leadership of Chancellor Horrell, we reinvigorated CU in the City and reclaimed it. And it has truly helped define us.
The CU in the City brand has helped us claim our rightful position as the public urban research university in the heart of a great city. It speaks to the importance we play as an asset to Denver and also underscores the symbiotic relationship we have with the city, in which our students have access to real-world learning experiences while we help define the vibrant and diverse nature of the city we call home.
We do a regular tracking study where we ask metro area residents what they think about CU Denver as well as other Colorado universities. Our work with CU in the City has helped us significantly increase our image and awareness, with huge gains in areas like quality of education, likelihood to consider a CU Denver education, and likelihood to hire a graduate.
But just as important as this external impact, it’s been so gratifying to see how our Lynx community has embraced CU in the City. It’s helped instill a sense of pride in our students, faculty, and staff and has become a rallying cry of sorts for us. I am very proud to have played a role in helping to make that happen.
As you look back on your time at CU Denver, what are you most proud of?
First and foremost, building what is a very strong University Communications team. Across the board, they are talented and dedicated people who do a fantastic job, and it’s been a privilege to help form and lead that team. I would also say, now more than ever, being part of CU Denver’s leadership team has been a huge honor. Throughout this COVID-19 pandemic, the leadership team has worked tirelessly to try to do what’s best for the CU Denver community, and I am incredibly proud to have worked side-by-side with such remarkable and passionate people.
As for things that we’ve done over time under my tenure, certainly the birth of our beloved Milo is a huge pride point. My team worked with students more than six years ago to establish a mascot for this campus and finally put an end to the misconception that we are Buffs! Coming up with the idea, the name, the look and feel, his personality, and to see him thriving after his sixth birthday, is really satisfying. And certainly, the success of the CU in the City brand is very gratifying for me as well.
I’m also very proud of Boots to Suits, which I helped launch in my first year at CU Denver and continues to thrive. I helped develop the overall structure of the program and brought partners to the table, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which became our mentor partner for our veteran and military students. I’m very proud of the benefit this program provides to this very important segment of our student population that has done so much for our country.
I would also point to the Comcast Media and Technology Center. I helped conceptualize the idea and bring in the gift from Comcast that made it possible.
And finally, driving the effort to establish a mobile food bank for our students facing food insecurity during this uncertain time has been really rewarding for me. Working with Food Bank of the Rockies, as well as MSU Denver, CCD and AHEC, to bring everyone together to create this important resource on campus during this difficult time has made me very proud.
What does it mean to you to be a Lynx?
Being a Lynx means you are tenacious in pursuing your dreams. It means you have grit and stamina and the smarts and determination to overcome the obstacles life may throw at you. And it means you’re part of a diverse community that respects and treasures what each of us brings to the rich tapestry of this university and this city. It’s those Lynx-like characteristics that I know will carry the CU Denver family through this tough time we’re all facing.
You’ll be going to work for Girl Scouts of Colorado as the organization’s new CEO. What in your role at CU Denver has prepared you for this new challenge?
Most definitely, I will benefit going forward from what I learned at CU Denver about working in a complex environment, where you need to build consensus and bring people together to get things done. Being part of the CU System, coupled with the tri-institutional nature of the Auraria Campus, and with various, disparate internal and external stakeholders—well, as Provost Nairn likes to say, “It’s complicated!” Figuring out over time how to navigate that complexity is going to serve me well in my new role.
Also, my time here has underscored the importance of communication and transparency in building community across different audiences. That’s something I have done a lot of in my role at CU Denver, and I think it is vitality important in building culture within an organization, as well as how you position yourself externally. In addition, I’ve been involved in several key partnerships with the business community and other like-minded organizations during my time at CU Denver. Working through how to structure these so that everyone benefits is something I will continue to lean into going forward.
Finally, I would say CU Denver has taught me how important it is to have respect for diversity in all its forms and that we have a responsibility to lift each other up and work together to make our community a better place.
What about Girl Scouts of Colorado inspired you to pursue the opportunity to be its leader going forward?
I have long believed that talent is widely distributed but opportunity is not. I think it was my work in developing nations when I worked for Project C.U.R.E. that first opened my eyes to that reality. And it’s what has inspired me about our work at CU Denver. We are helping to open doors to opportunity for students who have often had the cards stacked against them. Every day, I am inspired by their determination and perseverance.
My daughter was a Girl Scout at the same time I was named a Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of Colorado a few years back, which was a great honor for me. At that time, the Girl Scouts asked my daughter to be the keynote speaker at the Women of Distinction event. When she spoke—in front of 800 people at the age of 12—she credited the Girl Scouts with giving her the courage and confidence to become student body president at the time.
My daughter was born into opportunity, but so many girls are not. I want every girl in Colorado to be able to make a statement like my daughter did that night: to say that Girl Scouts helped empower them to change their lives and change the world.
It’s an honor to be stepping into the leadership of an organization that can help make that happen. And I credit CU Denver with helping me have the courage and confidence to do so.