Wisconsin Alumni Association: Announces awards

MADISON, WI (June 5, 2023) — The Wisconsin Alumni Association today announced the recipients of its 2023 alumni awards. “These individuals are a living reminder of the tremendous impact that UW-Madison has on the world through the achievements and contributions of alumni,” says Sarah Schutt, chief alumni engagement officer and executive director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

Distinguished Alumni Award

The Distinguished Alumni Award is the highest honor bestowed by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Since 1936, the Wisconsin Alumni Association has been presenting the awards to the most prestigious graduates of UW–Madison for their professional achievements, contributions to society, and support of the university.

Rajiv Batra

Batra is the cofounder of Palo Alto Networks, a multinational cybersecurity company that offers advanced firewalls and other web-security tools. “The good mentors I had taught me that if you’re going to do something, you want to be among the best in the world,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point of putting in so many hours?” Batra now travels with his wife, Ritu, and is involved in promoting cybersecurity education by sponsoring scholarships.

Steve Bornstein

Bornstein is the president of North America at Genius Sports. He joined what was then a brand-new, dedicated sports TV channel called ESPN. Bornstein pioneered ESPN’s unique mix of event broadcasting, sports news, and special-interest programing. He became ESPN president and CEO in 1990 at age 38. In 2015, video-game company Activision Blizzard recruited Bornstein to become the head of a new e-sports division. In 2021, Bornstein joined data firm Genius Sports as its first president of North America. He oversees the company’s core data business, streaming endeavors, marketing, partnerships, and forays into artificial intelligence.

William Campbell

With the help of a Fulbright grant, Campbell came to UW-Madison in 1957. He studied giant liver flukes in sheep and deer while working in the lab of veterinary science professor Arlie Todd. Todd convinced Campbell to consider working in the pharmaceutical industry, and Campbell accepted a job at Merck and moved to New Jersey. He worked with a team that developed ivermectin, widely considered a wonder drug of modern veterinary science. In addition to treating cattle and horses, ivermectin was the first convenient and widely used treatment to prevent heartworm in dogs. Campbell used ivermectin as a treatment for river blindness. Caused by a parasitic worm, river disease was the second-leading cause of blindness worldwide before the 1980s. The significant, ongoing impact of ivermectin led to Campbell sharing a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015. “I like parasites, even though I’ve spent most of my life trying to kill them,” he says. “I often compare them to flowers — there’s an almost endless variety in their structure and life cycle. It’s absolutely phenomenal.”

Luminary Award

The Luminary Award recognizes alumni who serve as aspirational examples for others through their accomplishments in the areas of leadership, discovery, progress, and service. It celebrates extraordinary Badgers who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in their professions, service or philanthropy.

Zachary Ellis Jr.

After leaving the U.S. Navy as an officer in 2006, Ellis was working as a corporate consultant and struggling to find a bridge into venture capital. An acquaintance encouraged him to accept a job at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). There he worked closely with both investors and start-ups to negotiate tech licensing deals. He also launched WARF’s first accelerator program dedicated to women and entrepreneurs of color. At the same time, he enrolled in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health’s biotechnology program, which prepares graduates to commercialize life sciences products. After stints at PepsiCo, Ohio State University, and Rev1 Ventures, Ellis launched and led a venture capital fund for Black and Brown tech founders based in Houston, Texas. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 prompted him to reevaluate his career, and he realized that he wanted to make diversity efforts a primary focus. In 2022, he launched his own fund, South Loop Ventures, where he aims to level the playing field in tech entrepreneurship by investing exclusively in underrepresented founders of color. “I know many very talented Black, Latino, and female professionals who are highly educated and accomplished but just don’t get the benefit of the doubt to operate in the tech community,” he says. “I know we have just as much potential to succeed if given the same grace, context, connections, and access to capital as our counterparts.”

Alexander Gee

Gee has spent a lifetime advocating on behalf of the Black community. Soon, his biggest project to date will open its doors: the landmark Center for Black Excellence and Culture, located on Madison’s south side. The Center will include a theater, a recording studio, an art gallery, a coworking space, a wellness space, a children’s education center, a senior space, and more. Gee was six when his mother moved the family from Chicago to Madison to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees on campus. He followed in her footsteps, enrolling in UW-Madison in 1981. As a teenager, he was already a lay preacher for a “living-room congregation” that eventually grew into Madison’s Fountain of Life Church, where he is now lead pastor. After working in a series of UW-Madison positions related to student services and minority recruitment, Gee left to found the Nehemiah Center, which aims to empower Black families and support formerly incarcerated men. In 2018, Gee launched the award-winning Black Like Me podcast to showcase other Black leaders and offer non-Black allies an honest peek into race relations in America. “We’ve got to be able to dig into whatever Black people have dug into for the last 400 years in this country that’s allowed us to survive,” Gee says. “That’s each other, our stories of resilience, and our rich culture.”

Jessi Kendall

When Kendall started nursing school as a returning adult student in 2009, she was working full-time, her mother-in-law had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and she was pregnant. Yet those challenges also gave her an unusual empathy. “I already knew that a person’s diagnoses aren’t all of who they are,” she says. “I learned that you don’t have to give up joy just because you’re sick.” After graduation, her compassion made her stand out at her first nursing job at UW Health. She was tapped to become a diversity resource nurse and underwent additional training to become an advocate for patients of color. Kendall’s struggles with mental-health challenges gave her even more empathy. As a teenager growing up in Madison, she battled depression but attempted to muscle through college as a student in New Orleans. Eventually, she came home to rest and heal. She became a restaurant server and learned how to both talk and listen to a wide range of people, especially older adults, and her interest in working in health care began to blossom. Kendall has been actively involved in various initiatives in and outside of UW Health to recruit more Black nurses into the profession. Additionally, she founded Nursing Needs You, an independent organization to support aspiring and early-career Black nurses. “Nursing Needs You is a guilt-free zone,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how long and twisted your road to nursing has been. Everything that brought you here will make you better able to help someone who needs you.”

Jay Laabs

Laabs always thought he’d become an attorney like his father — until he took a class in the Wisconsin School of Business called Analysis of Financial Statements. There he discovered a talent for finance and a passion for technology. After graduating, he took a job at a small financial software company, where he learned the technology business and gained experience interacting with clients. At age 29, he founded his own consulting company, Blue Stone, which sold in 2013 for $30 million. Laabs planned to retire early. But then he accompanied his mother on a volunteer service trip to Nicaragua, where he reconnected with his parents’ values and their commitment to making the world a better place. “I believe business can be a force for good,” he says. In 2018, Laabs launched Spaulding Ridge, a global business-technology consultancy focused on cloud computing. The company’s 500 employees commit to annual volunteer service in their local communities. Since its founding, Spaulding Ridge has consistently been named one of the top workplaces in the consulting industry, and it has implemented hiring practices to intentionally diversify as it grows. Laabs is based out of the company’s Chicago office, which dedicates its volunteer efforts to the local food bank. He is also personally involved in needs-based scholarships to UW–Madison for women and minority students. “Tech can be the great equalizer if you can learn to leverage it,” he says. “If you’re smart and willing to work hard, tech can help you move to the front of the line.”

Nicolaas Mink

While earning his UW-Madison doctorate, Mink discovered a passion for understanding the relationships between humans and sustainable food systems. After graduating, he moved to Sitka, Alaska, where he met local fishermen who were struggling to uphold sustainable harvesting practices while competing with large commercial enterprises. With one of those fishermen, Mink cofounded Sitka Salmon Shares, which is now the biggest community-supported fishery in the country. Each month, Sitka Salmon customers receive a box of wild-caught seafood on their doorstep that meets quality standards far stricter than those imposed on fish sold in typical grocery stores. For a decade, Mink helped build the company’s supply chain from scratch and establish best practices. But during the pandemic, he felt drawn to a new project. During a river-paddling trip, he and Danika Laine, who is Mink’s business partner and wife, spotted an abandoned creamery in Paoli, Wisconsin. Mink felt a calling to revive both the building and the memory of a quintessential regional lifeway. Thus began Seven Acre Dairy Company, which includes a farmstead restaurant, an upscale bar, a casual café, an eight-room inn, an event space, and a micro-dairy. “Businesses are too often understood strictly for their economic function,” Mink says. “To me, businesses are tools to explore who we are — our relationship to the natural world, to our past, and to the richness of culture.”

Patricia Marroquin Norby

Because Marroquin Norby’s ancestral pueblo, the Purépecha, is in Michoacán, Mexico, she was happy to find a robust community of fellow Indigenous students and faculty when she entered the MFA program at UW-Madison. In particular, Professor Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk) pushed her to grow both as an artist and an academic. When Lowe became curator of contemporary art for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, he invited Norby to join him in Washington, DC, in 2003 as a visiting scholar. Her work at the Smithsonian was complemented by a directorial role at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She also earned a doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, exploring intersections between art and environmental issues along the northern Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. In 2020, Norby became the first curator of Native American art at The Met, where she serves as steward of the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, which includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles, quill and beadwork, basketry, and ceramics representing more than 50 Indigenous nations across North America. Her curatorial debut at The Met, “Water Memories,” explores the significance of water for Indigenous peoples. It was selected as a top exhibition of 2022 by the “New York Times” and the online arts magazine “Hyperallergic.”

Dana M. Peterson

As a global economist, Peterson explains how macro trends affect financial markets and the world economy. She’s an expert on a wide range of themes, including monetary and fiscal policy, trade policy, debt, taxation, inflation, labor markets, and demographics. Peterson worked as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board and then moved to Madison to pursue an advanced degree. The unusually large size of her master’s cohort taught her how to persevere. “I learned a measure of competition, that not everything is going to be easy or equal,” she says. “Those principles later helped me to survive and thrive on Wall Street.” Peterson then worked at Citi, where she was a director in North American economics research for 16 years, followed by a stint as a director in global economics research. Her expertise led to frequent appearances on news outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business, and Bloomberg, along with interviews in publications such as the “Wall Street Journal” and “Barron’s.” In 2020, her public profile led to an invitation to become chief economist at The Conference Board, a global, nonprofit think tank delivering business insights to C-suite executives of Fortune 500 firms. Peterson leads the organization’s U.S. Economy, Strategy, and Finance Center. She also serves on several boards of directors, including for the Global Interdependence Center, which strives to influence world policies for the greater good.

Forward Award

The Forward Award acknowledges rising stars in various fields who exemplify the Wisconsin Idea through an emphasis on service, discovery, and progress. This award celebrates young alumni who have demonstrated exceptional early-career achievement and a positive impact on their professions.

Jon Fasoli

Fasoli’s passion for technology led him to Intuit’s Rotational Development Program in Mountain View, California, where he launched the company’s first-ever operating system for mobile devices. Within five years, he’d built the company’s global payment platform and was tapped to establish a new business in the company, dedicated to developing products and services for the self-employed. In 2019, Fasoli was named vice president of the company’s small-business segment, which grew rapidly under his leadership to more than 7 million small-business and self-employed customers worldwide. In particular, the QuickBooks Self-Employed platform grew from zero to 1 million paid subscribers in three years. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Fasoli mobilized his team to help connect QuickBooks customers with PPE loans and other tools to help keep their businesses afloat. He found himself deeply inspired by his clients’ resiliency and creativity during the bleakest months of lockdowns. In fall 2021, Intuit acquired Mailchimp, a leading marketing platform for small businesses. The $12 billion deal is Intuit’s largest acquisition to date, and Fasoli was named Mailchimp’s chief product and design officer. His team is on the forefront of developing generative AI capabilities for small businesses. Beyond Intuit, Fasoli has served as an adviser and early investor at several start-ups. He also holds 12 patents, which he says “are all very nerdy and will put an audience to sleep.”

Carlos Eduardo Gacharná’s

Gacharná’s art is closely tied to his preoccupation with migration and identity-making in foreign or hostile places. This perspective makes him a deeply empathic teacher for at-risk youth in Los Angeles. Since 2020, Gacharná has facilitated 450 art workshops, both online and in person, that have served more than 1,000 students across 40 sites in Wisconsin and California. Born in Bogotá, Colombia, during the peak years of cartel violence, Gacharná emigrated with his family at age seven. In Colombia, he was already a budding artist, using clay to create imaginative figures. But in Wisconsin, his adolescence was marred by culture shock, housing instability, and close calls with law enforcement. At 16, he took a ceramics class that changed everything. Gacharná spent all of his free time in the high-school studio, and his rekindled passion led to a precollege art program at UW-Madison, which tracked into a bachelor of fine arts degree. At the UW, Gacharná began to develop and teach workshops in juvenile detention centers, youth shelters, and other nontraditional classrooms. In 2017, Gacharná moved to Los Angeles, where he runs after-school teen programming at artworxLA, an arts nonprofit that annually serves 1,000 predominately low-income youth. According to UW assistant professor of glassworking Helen Lee, “Carlos Eduardo believes in the power of art to heal, and his work brings this to communities in deep need of this human magic.”

Alex Hanna

Along with earning her doctorate in sociology, Hanna minored in journalism and mass media. She’s Egyptian American, and her dissertation focused on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. She also took part in the historic Madison 2011 labor protest against a bill to curtail collective bargaining rights for state employees. She found this a formative experience that later fed into her interest on the impact of AI on labor issues. Hanna became an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, but she realized quickly that she wanted to make a more direct impact on the technologies she was studying. “I really want to change things so that tech doesn’t do as much harm in the world,” she says. In 2018 she moved to the Bay Area, started at Google, and found her way to the Ethical AI team. When Hanna’s manager, computer scientist Timnit Gebru, was fired in a high-profile response to her public warnings about AI racism and other issues, Hanna followed her to work at the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR), which Gebru founded after her exit from Google. Hanna is a technologist for DAIR, which aims to both shine a light on current practices in Big Tech and to model community-rooted, rather than corporate profit-driven, methods for building and implementing AI tools. “I’m proud to be imagining different ways of doing research based in thinking about what technology can do for us, rather than being beholden to profits or a set of shareholders,” she says.

Lanikque Howard

When Howard was growing up, her mother worked two jobs but was never able to get ahead. Howard wanted to help families like hers, so she became the first in her family to graduate from high school and college and then went on to graduate studies in social work at UW-Madison. Howard joined the UW’s Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) as a research assistant and worked closely with professor and then-IRP director Maria Cancian. When President Barack Obama tapped Cancian to lead the Administration for Children and Families, she chose Howard as a political appointee. Howard later became a senior programs administrator at First 5 Alameda County in California, a public initiative to help young children from birth to age five. In 2020, the Biden Administration asked her to return to federal service as the director of the Office of Community Services (OCS). “Every day, I see the vital role our programs play in helping to address persistent poverty and inequities,” she says. “I will not waver in my commitment to making a tangible difference in the lives of the people we serve.” During her tenure, the office’s budget has doubled, and she has expanded its antipoverty programs from five to nine. She now provides leadership and oversight in distributing approximately $12 billion to support a wide range of initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty.

Farha Tahir 

Tahir arrived on campus assuming that she’d go on to law school. But during a foreign policy class, she learned about an internship program that paired UW students with opportunities in the nation’s capital. Tahir joined one of the first cohorts of the program, now known as the Wisconsin in Washington Internship Program. She and three fellow interns founded an international development program that served the small island of Lingira in Uganda’s Lake Victoria, launching a farmers’ co-op, girls’ soccer team, women’s economic collaborative, and other initiatives. The project solidified Tahir’s passion for development work. After graduation, she worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a research associate and then became a program officer at the National Democratic Institute, followed by the National Endowment for Democracy. She traveled extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa and built especially close ties in Somalia, Malawi, and Tanzania. Tahir transitioned to the State Department, as a program analyst for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, where she now oversees programs that support democracy around the world. “I have always felt that everyone deserves to be able to shape their lived reality, and that’s why I care about democracy,” she says. “The power of democracy is not something we can take for granted.”

Learn more about all the award recipients at uwalumni.com/awards. Photos of all honorees available upon request.