Alumni Profile of Panagora President and CEO Betsy Bassan: “Alum Continues Pioneering Career in International Development”
This article originally appeared on the St. John’s College website on June 29, 2020. You can read the full article here.
Alum Continues Pioneering Career in International Development
June 29, 2020 | By Les Poling
Nine years ago, Betsy Bassan (A75) decided to start her own company. For many, founding a business would be the culmination of a lifelong journey—the highest peak on the highest mountain of entrepreneurship. For Bassan, though, it’s something different: the next step in a life devoted towards bringing the private, public, and nonprofit sectors together to help those in need.
Bassan arrived at St. John’s College Annapolis in 1971. Initially, she intended to bypass United States higher education altogether. During high school in Seattle, she recalls, “I was very bored, and feeling like the American educational system wasn’t getting me very far.” She left school early, finishing her final semester while living in Belgium, and she intended to stay overseas. “I told my dad I was just going to stay in Europe and go to the Sorbonne, because I just didn’t feel that [American higher ed] had anything to offer.”
But her dad gently maintained that she should at least have options. One night at home, Bassan was doing the dishes while he read out loud from a college reference guide, including a description of St. John’s. “Wait, go back over that one,” Bassan remembers thinking. “That one sounds interesting.” Her curiosity piqued, she decided to interview at the Annapolis campus; shortly after, she applied and was accepted. What she didn’t know at the time was that her dad already knew about St. John’s—in fact, he had wanted to go there himself. “He knew not to tell me,” she laughs.
For Bassan, St. John’s was the perfect fit. “The experience overall was like a conversion, learning to learn in a whole new way” she remembers. “I loved the discourse, the ability to delve deeply and discuss collaboratively, and experience this conversation that played out over time.” She also treasured the campus and the college gym, where she was a regular. She stayed active in intramurals throughout her four years; along with another student, she formed several new women’s teams and helped advance gender equity in the athletics program, even serving as women’s athletic director in her junior year. From the gym to the classroom, she loved forging intellectual bonds with her peers.
“You’re a part of this community of learning, of learners. And it’s a treasure,” she says.
She was led to a career in international development by both her St. John’s education and a formative gap year spent in Greece, where she lived in an apartment in Athens, took classes, and embarked on excursions all over the country, including a month-long stay on tiny Astypalaia—an island less than 40 square miles in surface area. It was a time of massive upheaval in Greece, and for Bassan—who grew up in a comfortably middle-class family—it was eye-opening. “I had never honestly seen poverty,” she says. “It formed my decision about what I would do with my career and my life when I was finished with St. John’s.” While she didn’t know the specifics, she had utter certainty that she wanted to fight global inequality.
“[There’s an] Aristotelian idea of a person’s potential, and cultivating that and allowing them the opportunities to fully reach that,” she says. “I remember feeling that so many people in the world, who were unknown to me before, just didn’t have the conditions that allowed them to reach their potential.”