By Xinchen Li
Leocadia (Lee) I. Zak first learned about Phi Beta Kappa about forty years ago when she was still a high school student. When Zak visited her elder sister, who was already in college at that time, her sister would tell friends that she was confident Zak would become a Phi Beta Kappa someday.
“My sister is an amazing maths coach who helps people set expectations,” Zak said. “And you never want to disappoint her.”
On January 9, the Agnes Scott College Board of Trustees announced its selection of Zak as the ninth president of this all-women liberal arts college, succeeding Elizabeth Kiss. Zak will officially start her duties on July 1.
Zak graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa in 1979 from all-women Mount Holyoke College, which also recognized her as a Woman of Influence in 2012. She earned her J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law in 1982.
From 2010 to 2017, Zak served as director of the United States Trade and Development Agency. She worked as a lawyer for about eighteen years before joining the public sector. Zak has recently taught International Project Finance as an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University Law Center and the Boston University School of Law.
“I want to set the expectations for young women that they have the ability, knowledge, and intellectual curiosity that will allow them to become members of Phi Beta Kappa.”
As a graduate from a woman’s college, Zak said her own college experience brought out her potential and laid the ground for her later career path. She developed a variety of skills during her years at Mount Holyoke College.
Being at a woman’s college meant women had to be able to do everything on campus, Zak said, referring to a photo in her college yearbook, which featured her being a DJ.
Zak is also grateful for the faculties and staff at Mount Holyoke, who encouraged her to take risks and stick to her ambitions.
“My professors [at Mount Holyoke] demonstrated to me that I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Zak said. “I didn’t know that until they helped me realize it.”
Becoming the new president of Agnes Scott is like coming home and giving back, Zak said. She hopes to empower a future generation of women leaders, just like how her college professors encouraged her.
Zak said she was attracted by Agnes Scott College’s global education and leadership experience called SUMMIT, which allows every student, regardless of major, to design an individualized course of student and co-curricular experiences with the help of a personal board of advisors.
During her seven-year-long career as head of the United States Trade and Development Agency, Zak was in charge of trading with infrastructure projects in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil. Zak hopes her leadership experience and her involvement in international affairs and law will help her continue with the legacy of SUMMIT at Agnes Scott.
“[The Presidential Search Committee] feels [Zak] is well positioned to continue the momentum of SUMMIT and to contribute greatly to our growth as a premier liberal arts institution,” said Elizabeth Daniel Holder, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees, in a press release.
Zak was also one of the initiators of The Women in Public Service Project, a project that aims to close the gender gap in leadership by establishing network and providing platform for future women leaders to exchange ideas and build real life skills. The project achieved its initial funding from the State Department with the support of Hillary Clinton, who was then the Sectary of State. It is now housed at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Zak said she facilitated the launch of the project with her friend, a graduate from Smith College, who was then an employee at the State Department. Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are both members of the Seven Sisters, an association of all-women liberal arts colleges in the United States.
“Both my friend and I recognized that we developed our best leadership skills at college,” Zak said. “[Through this project], we hope to capture the ethos of a woman’s college and help women from the United States and around the world to develop these skills.”
Zak has closely followed the news of Phi Beta Kappa although she hasn't had many chances to participate in offline events. After she assumes the role as President of Agnes Scott, however, she hopes to be more involved in Phi Beta Kappa through the college's campus chapter.
“I hope that I can be like my sister and my brother, an outstanding high school principal,” Zak said. “I want to set the expectations for young women that they have the ability, knowledge, and intellectual curiosity that will allow them to become members of Phi Beta Kappa.”
Xinchen Li is a junior at Duke University, majoring in political science and economics. She transferred to Duke from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2017. UCLA is home to the Eta of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Duke is home to the Beta of North Carolina Chapter.