Jim Olson to lead comms for African Leadership University

The United Airlines and Starbucks veteran is relocating to Mauritius for the role.

NEW YORK: African Leadership University has hired Jim Olson as chief communications officer and executive in residence.

Olson started at the organization in April. He is in the process of moving his family from Chicago to the island of Mauritius, where African Leadership University’s flagship campus is located. Olson is reporting to founder and CEO Fred Swaniker, a 2019 Time 100 honoree, with plans to be on the ground full time in August. 

Olson met Swaniker this year when he was in New York to accept Time’s award. After doing advisory work for Swaniker, he invited Olson to join the organization full-time. 

As African Leadership University’s first communications head, Olson will help Swaniker, who he referred to as the "Howard Schultz of Africa on the education side," with thought leadership and media positioning strategy. Olson is also supporting fundraising and overseeing social media.

"I will also get to go to the different campuses and teach about everything from communicating with impact to strategic storytelling to crisis comms," said Olson. "I am sharing my experiences with these emerging leaders."

African Leadership University has two locations, one each in Mauritius and Rwanda, as well as "hubs" in Nairobi, Kenya, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Founded six years ago, ALU offers accredited undergraduate, postgraduate and executive education programs.

"This was the year of African Leadership University’s first graduating class," said Olson. "So they wanted to have comms leadership and a strategy in place; the timing was right."

He added that he was hired to join the organization for one year, calling it his "gap year of service," but is optimistic that the role will last longer than that.

After six months leading communications for Steward Health Care, Olson left the healthcare network and "dusted off the wings" of his consultancy Hangar 6 Strategic Storytelling, which was launched last year.

Before launching Hangar 6, Olson was SVP of corporate communications at United Continental Holdings. His tenure included a corporate crisis resulting from the violent ejection of a passenger, union negotiations, a proxy battle with shareholder activists and #LeggingsGate. He resigned from United in January 2018. Last May, the carrier hired former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest as chief communications officer.

Before joining United, Olson was VP of corporate comms at Starbucks and U.S. Airways before the latter’s merger with American Airlines in 2013. He has also worked at WE and as VP of corporate communications at Yahoo.

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