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‘Think big, act small’ to make real change

Former fundraiser for N.Y. public schools transforms Governors Island with creative cultural ideas

Career choices of Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, have been far from typical.

The 49-year-old was once an executive at Microsoft. She later became a successful fundraiser for public schools in New York City. Then, she took a challenging job in 2006 to transform an almost-deserted military base on an island in New York Harbor, to a lively place for New Yorkers to spend their summer weekends.

Before Koch joined Governors Island in 2006 to redevelop the island, it attracted only 8,000 visitors in the summer season from the end of May to the end of September. During the same season last year, the number reached 443,000, she said, adding that half a million was the goal for this year’s season.

Located between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, Governors Island can be reached on a ferry either from lower Manhattan or Brooklyn.

The secret to motivating people to come to the island and boosting the number of visitors was in “thinking big and acting small,” Koch said, who graduated summa cum laude in history from Yale University and received a master’s degree in management also from Yale.
Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, speaks during an interview in Seoul, Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, speaks during an interview in Seoul, Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“Five years ago when we started (redeveloping the island), we had all these people coming with new big ideas. But every day, you have to think small and get done with things you are going to do,” Koch said in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

“Whatever job you have, making sure that you strike the right balance between thinking big and acting small is the biggest challenge. If you just think small, answer your e-mails, you don’t change things.”

A lot of changes have taken place since Koch joined aboard. The island has many cultural programs including sculpture exhibition and miniature golf course developed by an artist. Every week, it holds different festivals such as a classical music festival and a hip-hop festival that ran just last weekend. The island also has “Free Bike Fridays” so that anyone who comes to the island on Friday can pick up a bike and ride it for free.

Koch said Governors Island can be a showcase for countries including Korea to show all the aspects of culture ― from food to arts to dance to music.

“Korea has such an exciting and dynamic new culture with great tradition but people outside Korea may not understand as much about Korean culture as they know about Chinese culture,” she said.

Koch said she particularly noticed the “energy” of Korea where much focus is on education, openness to the West, technology, innovation, design and art, and that she would promote Korea by relating all those ideas to each other.

“With Korea, it is important to communicate that energy and think about how culture is feeding the economy, and vice versa,” she said.

By Kim Yoon-mi (
Korea Herald Youtube