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Marcia Stepanek

Personal Statement

Some 25 years ago, just after the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ended in a spray of violence and live fire from government tanks that killed untold thousands, a Chinese colleague of mine — a fellow journalist working with me in Beijing at the time — advised his fellow writers to “be like water.” He was quoting a proverb that urged patience and persistence in the face of towering obstacles. Water, he explained, can seep through and around even the most imposing walls to get to the other side. I think of him often now in my work here at Columbia teaching digital media strategy, visual media, and the emergence of data-informed nonprofit leadership. Digital media is “the water” of our cause activism and philanthropy today, the source of new data and power among citizens to create change in society, and a critical tool for nonprofit leaders seeking to improve and scale their impact beyond traditional communities and walls. I am also passionate about the power of stories to move hearts and minds to collective action; I love teaching other professionals how to achieve social change by harnessing the technologies that support it.


Marcia Stepanek is an award-winning multimedia journalist, digital/visual media strategist, and author of the forthcoming book, Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment — about the evolving power and influence of social networks to pervasively reshape business and society. A former John S. Knight Fellow in New Media at Stanford University, she has worked at the intersection of digital media, technology, and social change for more than 20 years; she has held executive leadership positions at major corporations in the media and publishing industries, leading editorial teams for top media organizations including Hearst, BusinessWeek, Knight-Ridder, and Ziff-Davis Media. Before coming to Columbia, she also taught and developed courses in digital media strategy, data measurement, evaluation, and revision, and social media strategy at New York University and was a senior academic advisor to NYU's Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

Marcia is an expert in digital/visual media strategy and an in-demand speaker internationally on the rise of digital activism, nonprofit story narratives, and data-driven innovations in philanthropy; her thought leadership and writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Salon, techPresident.com, JustMeans.com, MSNBC, Contribute, Newsday, National Public Radio, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, among others.

As Founder and CEO of BrandStories, a Manhattan media collaborative, Marcia also has worked as a story consultant and led workshops for a range of civil society organizations including UNICEF, the philanthropy arm of Credit Suisse, China Institute, the U.S. District Court, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and New York University. She has received a variety of awards for her journalism work, including a George Polk Award and a National Press Club Award for Washington Correspondence, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a World Technology Network Award for media and journalism. Marcia holds a Master's degree in Communications from the University of Illinois.