Cooper Weisman’s goal is to be the CEO of a startup company. The senior at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts has a vision and an action plan, but unlike many starry-eyed 17-year-olds with a dream, he expects to encounter a fair number of obstacles on his path to success.
Fifteen years from now, Weisman believes his biography will read, in part, that he “has failed 90 times but succeeded 10 times, spectacularly never letting anyone or himself get in the way of his vision.”
Weisman credits his reality check and unwavering sense of direction to the Solomon Leadership Program, an intense, 10-week curriculum at Palm Beach Synagogue that teaches teens the essential qualities to make them effective future leaders. Weisman completed the course in April.
“This is not a business course,” says Lawrence Sosnow, the Palm Beach philanthropist and health care entrepreneur who developed the program. “This is about how to teach young people to be good leaders. They learn how to motivate people and how to make good decisions.”
To that end, he based the curriculum on eight elements, or pillars, of good leadership: character, tolerance, communication, vision, empowerment, persistence, strategy, and judgment.
“High school students don’t get leadership training in school,” Sosnow notes. “They have no idea what vision is or how to study persistence, for example.”
Armed with the seed of an idea based on his own experience of being mentored by an uncle, Sosnow approached Moshe Scheiner, founding rabbi of Palm Beach Synagogue, in 2015. Together, the two recruited mentors and speakers from the community’s considerable talent pool. “Palm Beach has leaders with decades of experience,” says Scheiner. “Why not take advantage of their wisdom?”
Working with Solomon’s executive director, Sarah Dworcan; educational director, Miriam Taylor; and Art Johnson, a professor of leadership and organizational development at Palm Beach Atlantic University, they went on to develop a curriculum and gain accreditation for three college credits.
The first group of students, called fellows, graduated in 2016. Other communities took note of the success, and since then, three more chapters have formed in Florida—in Bal Harbour, Aventura, and Parkland—and one in Montreal. By the end of 2023, the organization expects to open approximately 10 more chapters around the country and has received inquiries from as far away as South Africa and England.
The program is now under a parent company called the Solomon Institute, which oversees the chapters. Currently, Sosnow funds it all through his foundation, but the goal is to be an independent charitable organization so they can raise outside money. Eventually, Sosnow would like to move into a chairman emeritus role and assemble a board of directors.
The name Solomon comes from the biblical king known for his wisdom and is reflected in the logo, which includes the tagline “Ancient wisdom. Modern Leadership.”
From the beginning, Sosnow stipulated that the leadership program be secular, but administered through a faith-based organization of any denomination. He and Scheiner have met with other religious organizations interested in forming chapters. The faith aspect is important, he believes, because religious organizations have the power and motivation to improve the community and recruit mentors and speakers, as well as the facilities to house the sessions. He wants to see faith take a larger role in shaping society. “Congregations need to serve the community, not just congregants,” he says.
After preparing by completing related assignments, fellows attend sessions with their mentors. Each session begins with a speaker who talks about that week’s pillar. Following a Q&A, mentors work with fellows from a curriculum that illustrates each pillar with stories that “could range from an article in The Wall Street Journal to something from the Bible,” says Sosnow. There are stated objectives the students must meet, as well as regular testing. Fellows are encouraged to think for themselves, with mentors guiding them in a Socratic method, he adds.
This past year, the program had six mentors and nine speakers (one speaker for each pillar, with two speakers sharing one of the pillars) in the Palm Beach chapter. For example, the Honorable Judge Lisa Small of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court in Florida served as a mentor, while Timothy S. Sotos, chair of Palm Beach Atlantic University’s board of trustees, spoke on the pillar of communication.
The 2022 class graduated 20 fellows this past April. Fellows apply online and, if accepted, don’t pay tuition. While being an A student is not required, says Scheiner, students must exhibit leadership skills and some community involvement to be considered. Weisman, for example, is founder and president of the aerospace and rocketry club at Dreyfoos and co-president of the Dreyfoos chapter of Empowering Youth Action, a tutoring program.
“The beauty of this program is that it’s available to those who want it, but they really have to invest themselves in it,” says mentor Sally Ann Nisberg, a local child and family advocate and founder of the nonprofit breast cancer advocacy organization LiveLikeCrazy. She’s been a mentor since the program’s inception and has worked with more than two dozen students, most of whom she maintains a relationship with.
“These fellows are already on the way to becoming leaders when they enter the program,” Nisberg says. “They are so hungry for knowledge. When every one of them graduates, the energy level is amazing.”
Nisberg also discovered an unexpected benefit from the program in the relationships she has established with other mentors and speakers. “I had the pleasure of becoming friends with people I would never have met, and it’s enriched my life. I’m in awe of the other mentors and speakers; we have people in health care, law, finance, and business. There’s just something magic about this program.”
Weisman says one of his biggest takeaways from his mentor, Michael Greenwald, who serves as global lead, digital assets at Amazon Web Services, was to persist in realizing his vision no matter what obstacles he might encounter along the way. “If I could sum it up in one sentence, it’s ‘don’t limit yourself,’” he adds. “Mr. Greenwald used to say that at each session. He also encouraged us to wake up an hour earlier each day. I use that extra hour to get my mind organized for the day.”
Speaker Paul Leone, president of The Breakers Palm Beach, selected persistence as his topic because he says it’s the one that most resonated on his own path to success. “After I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in accounting, I got a job with Coopers & Lybrand, one of the Big 8 accounting firms. I was one of 10 new college recruits; the other nine were straight-A students, and I had a B average in my major and my overall GPA was 2.6. They were way ahead of me, and I had to work double-time to keep up and be recognized.”
In the end, Leone believes, his parents’ divorce when he was 12 and the struggles he had moving from New York to Kentucky while in high school taught him more than he could have imagined. “Adversity is a good thing, and young people shouldn’t shy away from it,” he says. “It’s how we grow. I wanted to give up many times, but one of the things that really drove me was the thought of failure at something that mattered to me. I made the vow that I would never quit.”
Like everyone involved in the program, Leone enthuses about the results and believes it could be used in wider applications—in the corporate world, for example. “When I first saw the curriculum, I thought it was the best training program I’d ever seen and it would be great for my own management team,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of programs, but this one really resonated with me.”
Scheiner says that one of the keys to the program’s success is that it links generations of future and current leaders. “Seeing our teens leave the programs and their level of leadership skills growing after coming out of the program is so rewarding,” he says. “I think everyone is inspired by their enthusiasm and respect. We see how bright the future really is.”
Mentors for the 2021-22 School Year
Michael Greenwald, global lead, digital assets at Amazon Web Services
Dr. Robert Jacobson, founding medical director at Good Samaritan Medical Center and medical professor at Florida Atlantic University
Sally Ann Nisberg, child and family advocate in Palm Beach County and founder of the nonprofit breast cancer advocacy organization LiveLikeCrazy
Betsy R. Sheerr, education and communications coach and an advocate and activist for humanitarian, community, and political organizations
Ronnie Simpson, chartered retirement planning counselor, first vice president and senior portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley
Honorable Judge Lisa Small, judge of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court in Florida