Take Five with Ellen Gustafson ’02

Gustafson T5
Ellen Gustafson ’02 is a social entrepreneur, activist and author. A 2012 John Jay honoree, she is the co-director of the Summit Institute, the nonprofit arm of Summit Series and Summit Powder Mountain. One of the early entrepreneurs in the give-back consumer products trend, Gustafson co-founded FEED Projects, a charitable company that creates products that help feed the world, and FEED’s nonprofit partner, the FEED Foundation, which has provided almost 100 million school meals to children around the world. Gustafson founded the 30 Project and co-founded Food Tank, which is working to change the global food system. Her book, We the Eaters: If We Can Change Dinner, We Can Change the World, was published in 2014. She currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition and the Board of the food-tech start-up Foodstand.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

When I stepped through the Gates with my mini-fridge and extra-long twin comforter, I was both electrified and terrified. I was so incredibly proud to have been admitted and was sure that being a small fish in the big pond of Columbia and NYC would be the best thing for my growth and learning. But also, on Day One, I wore an elastic belt with my name printed on it from kindergarten and definitely had bagel seeds stuck in my teeth when I was meeting people.

I was lucky to do one of the pre-orientation hiking trips in the mountains — which was awesome — and the final night we all slept outside in sleeping bags in front of Butler Library. Sleeping on the grass of Morningside Heights under the stars and feeling safe inside the campus definitely made me start to feel at home at Columbia. It was a great way to feel some deeper connection to the vast city of New York.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived on the eighth floor of Carman Hall and had three women with pretty different backgrounds as suitemates; it was both fun and important as part of my College experience. I loved the weird, late-night conversations that would happen in the Carman hallway but hated the elevators — in a real hurry, you had to take the stairs to the eighth floor. Randomly (or maybe not randomly), a good friend from my Pennsylvania public high school and I were put on the same floor, diagonally across the hall from each other, which meant that as we both contorted to become our new college selves we had a reminder of home to check in with.

What class do you most remember and why?

My senior international relations seminar in the SIPA building and taught by Foreign Affairs magazine editor Gideon Rose. Our second day of class — on 9-11 — was canceled and when we got to class on the 13th, Professor Rose had thrown out the syllabus and started giving us reading based on the shifting international relations reality of the new world order. It was amazing to be living and learning with a foreign policy practitioner in such a confusing and important time. I started working as an intern at the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2001, due to my connection to Professor Rose, which made my senior year the perfect encapsulation of why Columbia is such a special place to learn. I had a professor who was fully engaged in the field I was studying, and I was able to take advantage of being in NYC to have a fascinating internship that led to my first post-college job.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

When I was on campus in February to speak at “She Opened the Door,” the first University-wide women’s conference (which was outstanding!), I was flooded with memories of my favorite places. I fed my baby daughter in Cafe 212 — a spot I ate at often in my later years — and walked her through the twinkling, lighted trees on College Walk, which is definitely one of my favorite things about the campus. But my probably not-at-all-secret spot was the roof of Mudd, the Engineering building. I would climb the stairs to the top floor and bring a picnic to watch the crazy NYC airports’ flight patterns and sometimes even a star or two!

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would have simply done more. Some of my most rewarding experiences were being involved on campus with the Musical Theater Society, the Opera Ensemble, the Ski Team and Delta Gamma sorority, and spending time volunteering with Columbia Community Impact and organizing our Senior Dinner. The axiom that you get what you give is so true — if I had given even more to activity groups and service organizations while I was there, I would have gotten more in return!