• Susan Akkad

    Tandem Alum Susan Akkad (TFS ‘81), Senior VP for Estée Lauder, Working to Create a More Just and Inclusive World

    Susan Akkad (TFS ‘81) has been honing her skill for finding important connections between unrelated topics since adolescence. Now, as Senior VP for Estée Lauder’s Local and Cultural Platforms and Corporate Innovation, Akkad uses her expertise to create a more just and inclusive world where all people can be seen as beautiful. Innovation is a hybrid discipline – a mix of strategy, marketing, and product development – and it requires intellectual creativity, flexibility, and tenacity to succeed.

    Akkad credits Tandem for nurturing that holistic, interdisciplinary perspective of looking at the world and solving problems. “Having that holistic view is everything for innovation because the job is to connect the dots that other people haven’t connected.” 

    However, Akkad didn’t always have nurturing and supportive education. “Tandem was sort of a godsend for me – before I went to Tandem, I told my parents I was quitting school. I had a horrible public high school experience and stopped going to school for three months. My parents considered homeschooling but they were both UVA professors, working full time.”

    Akkad’s parents also had a strong philosophical commitment to public schools. “They felt like they should be role modeling public schools because what happens when all the parents who have interest take their kids out of public schools is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – so it was a really big deal for them to take me out of public school.”

    But Akkad’s parents knew many of the families who sent their kids to Tandem and they had shared values and were “fighting the good fight on social and racial justice issues together,” Akkad explained. So Akkad joined Tandem in 10th grade – at the time, Tandem was unaccredited and there were only 81 people in the entire school (8th-12th). But these potential drawbacks ended up being additional blessings for Akkad and her classmates.

    “We all understood the pros and cons of not being accredited,” Akkad explained, “but our teachers didn’t need to have a Masters in education, so they were usually PhD students from UVA. For instance, my English teacher in 11th & 12th grade is now a department chair at Dickinson – so we had amazing teachers.”

    “I remember studying the post Russian revolutionary time period at the same time we were reading Babette, at the same time we were looking at outsider art – it was all coming together. So then when I went to Harvard, I took this ‘literature of the outsider’ course and was like, “I already read most of this stuff in 11th grade...”

    Graduating from Harvard with a degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Akkad did not expect to find herself in the business world. But her innovative drive and creative mind made her the perfect leader for her multicultural position at Estée Lauder. “Tandem’s interdisciplinary style of teaching continues to really serve me well in my work because things are not compartmentalized.”

    “I’ve been at my company 23 years and I’ve been running the Skin of Color Center of Expertise since 2008. We are now expanding into Ageless Beauty which I am incredibly excited about because I think it is such a stereotyped, misunderstood, poorly served, age cohort for women 45+ and honestly our industry has contributed to that so I think it’s our responsibility to unpack and change it. And no, we do not cure cancer with lipstick, but giving people a sense of agency and control while also giving them a sense of joy and pleasure – that matters.”

    Akkad’s advice to current students is not to stress over what’s the right subject to study or major in, instead, focus on mastering the ability to learn. “The study of human beings and culture has ended up being the most valuable thing I could have done because I am basically in the beauty anthropology business.”

    Akkad is expanding her leadership and impact to include Ageless Innovation: Center for Expertise (“Ageless Beauty” for short). To learn more about Susan Akkad’s innovative marketing diplomacy at Estée Lauder, you can follow her on LinkedIn.
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  • Dr. Mara Gibson

    Tandem Alums Collaborate on Music/Poetry Creation

    Composer Mara Gibson (TFS ‘90) and poet Rebecca Morgan Frank (TFS ‘87) reconnected as most people do – online. They remembered each other from their Tandem days, but it wasn’t until Gibson attended one of Frank’s book events that they started their creative collaboration. 

    “I do this a lot with performers; if I find a synergy with somebody, I keep working with that person because it’s so rare when there’s this dialogue between composer and performer,” says Gibson.

    Frank had years of experience collaborating with composers, having her prose set to music and working within that shared space. Singers, musicians, or writers were always part of the process in Gibson’s compositions, so the collaboration came naturally to them both. 

    “For this recent collaboration," Gibson shares, "we worked with two of her poems, which meant two very different things to her than they did to me – and that is art – we all see things differently, and celebrating those differences really allows us to get deeper into what we’re trying to say or figure out.”

    Despite the challenges of COVID, Gibson and Frank collaborated over several months and finally debuted Gibson’s composition Galatea’s Dream, featuring poems from Frank’s books Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country and Oh You Robot Saints! You can watch the live performance here and learn more about Mara Gibson here and Rebecca Morgan Frank here.

    More About Mara
    Mara Gibson (TFS ‘90) has always been drawn to puzzles and visual conundrums. As a composer and professor of composition at Louisiana State University (LSU), Dr. Gibson leads students and audiences alike on the journey of mapping and creating the architecture for sound. In her role as professor, Dr. Gibson offers a creatively challenging curriculum that encompasses multimedia aspects from music theory and history to performance and collaboration. 

    “There's no formula for teaching composition – if anything, it's about asking questions – it's me leading students to their own answers and that's similar to how we were taught at Tandem.”

    In her work as a composer, she celebrates collaboration, creating soundscapes that draw together poetry, painting, and interpretations of space. There’s a synergy to collaboration that drives Dr. Gibson – a dialogue between performer and composer that can only be reached when creating in tandem. 

    One recent collaboration is with fellow Tandem alumna, author Rebecca Morgan Frank (TFS ‘87), who teaches poetry at Northwestern University. Frank’s poetry has an evocative quality that resonates with Gibson’s composition style. Poems from two of Frank’s books, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country and Oh You Robot Saints! are set to interpretive music in Gibson’s 2021 composition, Galatea’s Dream.

    Galatea’s Dream has an asynchronous quality that is quintessentially Mara Gibson. Sounds masked into distortion, spoken words striated with orchestral notes, ensemble music punctuated by rhythmic breath. Her pieces are always experiential and intellectually rich. The ascending and descending of a painted staircase interpreted through music. The lunar phases of our moon reimagined in auditory form. Each piece is a sculpture of emotion and sensation. Her work is endlessly layered, challenging, and complex.

    By challenging herself creatively, her work as a composer feeds her passion for teaching. She discovered her passion for teaching while at Tandem, teaching piano after school, and found that she not only loved it – but that teaching itself is a creative pursuit.

    “I’m not the kind of teacher who is teaching in order to do their art on the side or to get health insurance – I’m inspired by my students. I love, love, love teaching. Especially undergraduates because they are so hungry and they haven’t had that moment yet where it all clicks. I help them get there.”

    Dr. Gibson is currently working on her next ensemble composition. If you’d like to learn more about Mara Gibson’s work, you can find her at

    More About Rebecca
    Rebecca Morgan Frank (TFS ‘87) has used writing as a lifelong practice of paying attention to what sparks her interest. Her research and writing process of “follow the curiosity” has produced four books and brought her teaching positions at such institutions as Brandeis University and Northwestern University.

    Within Frank’s writing, there’s the tension of a seasoned observer. Her words form vessels that hold nuance and direct comparisons equally. Read aloud, her words take on new power – the cadence creates connection on and off the page. From the outside, good writing looks easy – but the practical aspects of being an artist have never eluded Frank. Writing takes resilience, and she credits her early years as a ballet dancer for familiarizing her with rejection. 

    “The thing that you need to succeed in the arts is persistence", says Frank. "And I say this as a longtime teacher, too. You have to be able to keep going and that’s the real division of who ends up succeeding or not – do you give up?”

    Even at Tandem, she was always writing in her notebook; it was a habit she never gave up. But it wasn’t until she took a free two-hour poetry workshop that she felt "there is room for the stories I want to tell." That workshop led to an MFA and doctorate in creative writing. Now, Frank is the one teaching people that there is room in the world for their stories. 

    “My life is enriched by working with writers of all ages. I have students from 18 into their 70s. And working with someone in their 70s who is finally allowing themselves to explore poetry, it’s wonderful – they are having that moment I had in my 20s, and it’s a powerful moment.”

    Poetry enriches people’s lives – reading it and writing it. And Frank regularly collaborates with other artists to expand her creative world and share the magic of poetry beyond her readership and students. Her recent collaboration with fellow Tandem alumna, composer Dr. Mara Gibson (TFS ‘90), is called Galatea’s Dream. Currently, Frank is following her curiosity and researching her next book. If you’d like to learn more about Rebecca Morgan Frank’s work, you can find her at and @poetmorgan on Twitter and Instagram.
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  • Eric (TFS '08) and Mary (TFS '02) working on video together on campus

    Two Tandem Alums Working Together for Admissions during COVID

    Something you always have in school admissions is a visit day. In the time before the pandemic, prospective Tandem students would spend a full day on campus, sitting in on classes, meeting teachers and staff, and socializing with current students. You’d get a real sense of the community that Tandem is renowned for – plus it was fun and exciting!

    But COVID put an end to all that. Once campus tours abruptly ended in March 2020, Tandem Admissions Director and alum Mary Lyman Bias (TFS ‘02) quickly realized she needed a new strategy for showcasing Tandem Friends School to prospective families. “We needed a way to communicate the warmth and depth of our community to prospective students who couldn't visit campus,” Mary explained. And this wasn’t an entirely new problem – over the past few years, more families have relocated to the Charlottesville area for work and wanted to send their children to Tandem but weren’t able to come for an in-person tour before the school year began. 

    Tandem decided to live stream their 2020 high school graduation for the friends and family who couldn’t attend, and that virtual pivot sparked a solution: High-quality, cinematic videos that give prospective families a feel for the home-like quality of Tandem’s campus and community – and a true sense of what it could feel like to attend.

    “One of the first things I did when I started working at Tandem was sit down with our Head of School, Whitney Thompson, and share my goal of working with more alumni. We have so many amazingly talented graduates whose skills tie right back into the school. Once we decided to produce virtual tour videos, we knew we wanted to work with Nite4Nite and fellow alum Eric Stumpf (TFS '08),” Mary explained.

    Nite4Nite is a Charlottesville-based film production company owned and operated by Tandem alumni Eric Stumpf (TFS ‘08) and his production partner Marcus Goldbas. Mary, a professional photographer herself, worked directly with Eric and Marcus to produce three multi-dynamic videos that showcase Tandem’s values, student life, and community. “It was a great experience. Tandem is a place that values creativity and it’s easy to make Tandem look beautiful,” said filmmaker Eric Stumpf.

    “So far we’ve made two videos for Tandem," Eric shared. "One video is an overview with a little about Tandem's vision, mission, and goals. Another is a cinematic walk through the spaces at Tandem – you see what it's like to walk through the math/science building, the gym, the meditation garden. A third video will focus on student life – following students around from one activity to another, spanning 5th to 12th grade. You get to see the connection between upper and middle school – it’s more nuanced.”

    Of course the video production had its own challenges. “It’s hard to visually show community with social distance and masks" Eric added. "Even though you can see it in person, it’s tough to show that connection on film because you can’t see anyone talking or touching. We’re adding warmth with music and voiceover. Showing emotion through a mask is challenging. I’m a photographer myself, and a lot of the time when you look at photos, your eyes immediately go to someone's face. Now with the pandemic, we’ve learned to read each other in new ways. How we look at other people, their environment, their eyes – it’s changed. Now when we are taking photos, we tend towards wider angles – capturing more body language and natural environment.”

    “Even with the challenges of COVID, working with Eric and Marcus was so easy and fun,” Mary added, “because they already understood what’s special about Tandem and had great ideas about how to communicate that on film. Especially the drone shots from Carter Mountain, showing Tandem Friends School in the context of the greater Charlottesville community. First you see this tiny, sweet campus, and then you zoom out and you see how close everything else is to us. I know for high schoolers that it's important to see what’s actually around the school. And for families relocating from out of state, it shows them how beautiful Charlottesville is.”

    At the end of the day, what these virtual tours really do is help students who will thrive at Tandem, connect with Tandem. “What I’ve experienced as a student at Tandem, a parent at Tandem, and now working at Tandem, is that the kids who thrive at Tandem are the ones who want to be their authentic selves,” said Mary.

    The Student Life video is in final production but you can check out the other two videos below:
    Learn more about Eric's Nite4Nite business here and Mary’s photography business here. 

    Bonus Alumni Fact
    Eric also shared, “Tandem has played a bigger part in my life than I ever expected…I had a crush on a girl when I was in 6th grade, all the way through 12th grade (Courtney Newman, TFS '07); she was a grade ahead of me, and she is now my wife – we reconnected at a Tandem alumni event.” Eric and Courtney worked together on campus recently to film the Class of 2022's graduation.

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