Alumni Spotlight: AiLun Ku (MPA 2008)

AiLun Ku

When AiLun Ku (MPA 2008) talks about her legacy, she doesn’t focus on her many accomplishments, or the prestige that comes with them. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of relationships and leaving a legacy grounded in kindness. When her children look back on her life, she hopes that they remember her as a good human being, someone who took on challenges with kindness. Listening to Ku talk about her career path and her current work as the CEO and President of The Opportunity Network, it’s easy to see the way this mindset shapes both her impressive vision for the future and her daily approach to the work.

Ku has had an impressive career, holding positions at NYU Wagner, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Research Center for Leadership in Action, among other social impact organizations. When asked to reflect on how she got to where she is now, she starts with her first position as a Data Entry Intern when she was an undergraduate at NYU’s College of Arts and Science. That position has had echoes throughout her career–from the tangible skills she gained, to the sense of community and support that came from her colleagues. She also notes the diversity in the office, with each employee bringing their own unique identity to the work. This job, she said, set her expectations for future jobs. Her guiding principles focused on the people surrounding her: “It's always been about the people I got to work with. What was binding us together in terms of the core purpose of the work? How do we support one another? How do we see each other? And how do we get good at something while spending time together?”

Ku found her way to NYU Wagner’s MPA program after coming to the realization that a law degree wasn’t the best way for her to make the kind of changes she wanted to see in the world. In reflecting on her own skills, she found that her strengths lay in administration, community building, thinking through processes and systems, and finding the intersections between these areas. After considering this, it became clear that NYU Wagner was the best place for Ku to invest her in professional growth. “At the time [I was applying to NYU Wagner], the Wagner tagline was ‘the interesting ideas are at the intersection.’ That spoke to me because that's how I saw my work coming into life. I also knew there were particular skill sets that I needed to sharpen and hone. Wagner had all of it.”

Currently, Ku serves as the CEO and President of The Opportunity Network (OppNet), an organization she’s been with for almost 11 years. OppNet addresses inequitable systems of access, specifically related to college opportunity and professional mobility, igniting the drive, curiosity, and agency of underrepresented students through a commitment to access and community. Ku took on her current role at OppNet in the fall of 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Her leadership style has served the organization during this challenging time as she keeps a broad awareness of what’s happening at all levels of the organization. As she looks towards the organization’s future though, she’s excited to take a step back and focus her energies on reinventing what leaders do in service of their organizations and communities. The theme of the importance of people comes into play in this part of her work–she notes that it’s not just her goals and ideas about the work that informs The Opportunity Network, but the deep relationships that the organization has with the community. “The vision that I have charted out for us as an organization is inclusive of a lot of different perspectives and different stakeholder groups. In my mind, it's so clear that there is no alternative but to cast that expansive vision forward.”

When asked what advice she has for NYU Wagner students who hope to pursue similar work in public service, Ku reflects that the challenge of public service is that the bottom line is whether or not the world is a better place. However, when the work presents challenges, she recommends going back to the people.

“Focus on the human relationships. Focus on the people around you, and what you need to do your best. At the same time though, be expansive enough to think about how you can be that for others too–because that’s really where the work happens.”