Keynote Speakers

Jason Brown

Jason Brown is a native North Carolinian (Henderson) and a 2005 alumnus of UNC, where he played football and was a First-Team All-ACC offensive linemen. After being drafted in the 4th round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens, Jason enjoyed a successful professional career which included him at one point being the highest-paid player at his position.

In April 2012, Jason decided to walk away from his career in the NFL. As he describes this decision:

“God revealed to me that he had something greater in store for me and that my family should move back to…North Carolina and start a farm. This really caught us by surprise because we knew nothing about farming. Yet, out of obedience, we started looking for available farmland. This is when Tay (my wife) and I made a covenant with God and told Him that whatever place He blessed us with, we would name it First Fruits Farm and that his people would receive the first fruits of whatever is produced from the land. 

In October 2012, God poured us out a blessing greater than we were able to receive in the form of a beautiful 1,000 acre farm in Franklin County, North Carolina. Little did I know, the hard work had just begun. We labored all of 2013 getting the farm back into shape and applying God's plan as he revealed it to us. We ultimately incorporated First Fruits Farm into the Mission of "Wisdom for Life" (Jason and Tay’s ministry) and that’s sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ by sharing our hearts first and serving our neighbors with love.”

First Fruits Farm has proven fruitful indeed. Jason and Tay now raise their six children there and give away hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce from the farm each year to feed less fortunate North Carolinians.

David Gardner

David Gardner is the Co-Founder and Chief Rule Breaker at The Motley Fool, a financial services company he started 25 years ago alongside his brother, Tom. In Shakespeare, the court jester — or Fool — was the one person who could speak the truth to the king or queen without having his head lopped off. In the same way, The Motley Fool’s purpose is to help the world invest better by speaking the truth about Wall Street and empowering millions of people to take control of their financial lives. 

David and his wife Margaret both graduated as Morehead-Cain Scholars from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a recipient of UNC’s prestigious “Distinguished Young Alumni Award.” He served on the Individual Investor Advisory Committee of the New York Stock Exchange for 15 years and the Folger Shakespeare Library board for 10 years.

David currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Conscious Capitalism Institute and is a member of the Economic Club of Washington and the Leadership Greater Washington Signature Program Class of 2019.

Panelists & Moderators


Dr. Bill Roper

William L. Roper is CEO of the UNC Health Care System and is dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs at the University of North Carolina (UNC). He also is professor of health policy and administration in the School of Public Health, and is professor of pediatrics and of social medicine in the School of Medicine at UNC. Dr. Roper is on the board of the NC Study Center.

From 1997 until 2004, he was dean of the School of Public Health at UNC.

Before joining UNC in 1997, Dr. Roper was senior vice president of Prudential HealthCare.  He joined Prudential in 1993 as president of the Prudential Center for Health Care Research.

Before coming to Prudential, Dr. Roper was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), served on the senior White House staff, and was administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration (responsible for Medicare and Medicaid).  Earlier, he was a White House Fellow.

He received his MD from the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and his MPH from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.  He completed his residency in pediatrics at the University of Colorado Medical Center.

Dr. Roper is a member of the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine). He is a member of the board of directors of DaVita, Inc., and a member of the board of directors of Express Scripts Holding Company.

He lives with his wife Dr. Maryann Roper, a pediatric oncologist, and their son, Will, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Dr. Roper will speak on the panel Keep Calm and Carry On: Flourishing in the Midst of Crisis.

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Dr. Valerie Fields

Valerie has been an entrepreneur for more than 20 years. She is founder of V.K. FIELDS & CO. PR PROS, an award‐winning public relations and content creation agency located in downtown Raleigh, NC. In 2005, the company received the “Pinnacle Business of the Year Award” from the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. In August 2006, Valerie received two awards from the Triangle Business Journal: “Women in Business” and the “Excellence in Mentoring” Award; in spring 2007, she also received the organization’s ‘40 Under 40’ Leadership Award. During the fall of 2006, Valerie received the “Young Adult Leadership Award” presented by the Women’s Forum of North Carolina, and the “Lamplighter Award” sponsored by McDonald’s Corporation and Radio One. In 2009, she received the Mentoring Award from the Triangle East Chapter of 100 Black Men. In 2013, Valerie was elected as Vice President of the Women’s Forum of North Carolina and has served on the board of the Women’s Forum for six years. In 2016, she was elected to her third term as president of the Women’s Forum.

In addition to being a businesswoman, she is also an educator and teaches Public Relations, Crisis Communication, and Strategic Writing as a faculty member in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC‐Chapel Hill.

Dr. Fields will moderate the panel Keep Calm and Carry On: Flourishing in the Midst of Crisis.


Chancellor Carol Folt

Carol Folt, UNC-Chapel Hill’s 11th Chancellor and 29th in the lineage of leaders that dates back to Carolina’s founding, leads the university in the national dialogue about issues facing higher education, inclusion and diversity, protecting students from sexual assault and promoting the advancement of women in STEM fields and academic leadership. She has championed key diversity initiatives to make campus more inclusive and built a high-performing cabinet, including women and minority leaders with significant leadership experience in key positions. As Folt has said, “As a scientist, I’ve never seen an answer to a problem come from a group that all looked the same and thought the same.”

Folt came to Carolina from Dartmouth College, where she was interim president in 2012-2013 and served as a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences and academic leader. As a widely respected scientist, Folt and her students’ pioneering work on the effects of dietary mercury and arsenic on human and ecosystem health led to numerous changes in national and global policy and consumption advisories around the world. Folt graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, earning both a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and a master’s degree in biology. She received her doctorate from the University of California, Davis and undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at Michigan State University before joining the faculty at Dartmouth.

Under Folt’s leadership and following a third-consecutive record fundraising year in August 2017, Carolina kicked off For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina, the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the university’s history. The goal of the capital campaign is to raise $4.25 billion by Dec. 31, 2022, to create programs dedicated to student potential, faculty excellence, innovative teaching, experience-based learning and pioneering research to prepare graduates for success.

Chancellor Folt will speak on the panel Keep Calm and Carry On: Flourishing in the Midst of Crisis.


Dr. Farr Curlin

Dr. Curlin is a hospice and palliative care physician who joined Duke University in January 2014 where he holds joint appointments in the School of Medicine, including its Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine, and in Duke Divinity School, including its Initiative on Theology, Medicine and Culture. He works with Duke colleagues to foster scholarship, study, and training regarding the intersections of medicine, ethics, and religion. After graduating from medical school, he completed internal medicine residency training and fellowships in both health services research and clinical ethics at the University of Chicago before joining its faculty in 2003. Dr. Curlin’s empirical research charts the influence of physicians' moral traditions and commitments, both religious and secular, on physicians' clinical practices. As an ethicist, he addresses questions regarding whether and in what ways physicians' religious commitments ought to shape their clinical practices in a plural democracy. Dr. Curlin and colleagues have authored numerous manuscripts published in medicine and bioethics literature, including a New England Journal of Medicine paper titled, “Religion, Conscience and Controversial Clinical Practices.” He is particularly concerned with the moral and spiritual dimensions of medical practice and the doctor-patient relationship, and with the moral and professional formation of physicians. His areas of expertise are medicine, medical ethics, doctor-patient relationship, religion and medicine, and conscience. At the University of Chicago, Dr. Curlin founded and was co-director of the Program on Medicine and Religion.

Dr. Curlin will speak on the panel Job Well Done: The Pursuit of Excellence.


Bethany Jenkins

Bethany Jenkins is vice president of forums and content at The Veritas Forum, a contributor at The Gospel Coalition, and a senior fellow at The King's College. She has also worked in Congress, at the State Department, on Wall Street and in Big Law. She received her BA from Baylor and JD from Columbia. Bethany lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has been a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York for 14 years.

Jenkins will lead the Designing Your Life Workshop.


Ralph Pitts

While earning his J.D. (cum laude) at Harvard Law School, Ralph Pitts clerked at King & Spalding, a première Atlanta legal firm, and then continued with them as a successful trial lawyer for nearly two decades. Starting as an Associate and advancing to Partner, he was a Litigation Team Leader and member of the Firm Management Committee. Mr. Pitts is on the board of the NC Study Center.

A North Carolina native, Ralph returned to Charlotte in 1995 to become General Counsel for Belk Stores, a chain of 300 department stores spanning 16 states with $4B revenues. He began with responsibility for Belk’s legal and tax departments, and later added internal audit, real estate, architecture and store planning, corporate communications, community relations, shareholder services, corporate governance, and board management. He led a challenging merger of 112 separate legal entities into a single corporation in 1998 and was the point man on three significant acquisitions. In 2015, he led the negotiation and sale of Belk to a private equity firm for $3B.

Ralph has extensive experience and a deep passion for serving on boards, both for profit and not-for- profit. At Belk, he managed the board: recruiting members, addressing issues, and meeting SEC reporting requirements, giving him the extensive corporate governance experience required by the SEC. He also has many years of community board experience with the Boy Scouts of America—Mecklenburg Council (President of a 70-member Board, Council Attorney, CFO, and himself an Eagle Scout); Central Piedmont Community College (Board of Trustees and Chairman of the Board for ten years); Wachovia Bank (Charlotte Board of Advisors); and the Church at Charlotte (two terms as Board Chair).

Ralph and his wife, Lynn, have been married for 37 years and have been active in the Church at Charlotte for two decades. She is a successful entrepreneur, Bible study leader and event planner, and is herself on the board of the Barnabas Center. They have five adult children (including triplets) and three grandchildren, and enjoy time away at their second home in North Carolina’s mountains. Ralph is a big sports fan and plays tennis and golf.

Pitts will speak on the panel Keep Calm and Carry On: Flourishing in the Midst of Crisis.


Nathan Clendenin

Nathan Clendenin is passionate about sharing great things going on in the world. For more than a decade, Nathan has been in the storytelling business. He founded the marketing firm StoryDriven in 2011. His vision is to fill a need in the world for positive, uplifting stories. These stories take the form of concise, documentary style video production. The work is a collaborative effort between the client and the storytelling team. Nathan's aim is to serve the client by telling their story in a way that champions their cause. His work has earned 8 Emmy awards from the National Academy of the Arts and Sciences.

Nathan is an entrepreneur with a love of learning and a love for taking risks to grow. He holds a master’s in visual communication from UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. He was the first Multimedia Producer for New Media Group. He held that position until he and his wife Rebecca moved to Mamelodi, South Africa. There they volunteered in community development and storytelling work with nonprofit, Africa Revolution. Nathan’s time in South Africa reinforced his passion to pursue uplifting stories. Nathan counts leading a passionate team of story experts at StoryDriven as among his most rewarding experiences to date.

Nathan serves as Chair of the Board of Africa Revolution. He is active in his local church working with refugees. He is dad to his two boisterous and fun-loving boys. Lately, he's been tinkering at wood working. He loves creating beautiful objects from reclaimed wood sources.

Clendenin will speak on the panel Does the World Have A Story? Creative Media as a Calling.

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Muriel Smith

Muriel Smith is a Durham native and 2011 UNC graduate, majoring in Global Studies. While at UNC, Muriel was a student leader for Every Nation Campus Ministry and completed a Comparative Globalization study abroad program in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Oaxaca, Mexico. 

After graduation, Muriel moved to Nashville, Tennessee, as a first year corps member in Teach for America. In 2014, after leading three cohorts of students to show outstanding growth, Muriel was promoted to Assistant Principal of KIPP Nashville College Prep. After serving two years developing young teachers, Muriel returned to Durham where she currently serves as the 8th grade History Teacher and Grade Team Leader at Maureen Joy Public Charter School.

Muriel’s personality is marked by continuous joy, commitment to excellence in her work, and a passion to affirm and inspire the students she has the privilege of serving each year. 

Smith will speak on the panel Job Well Done: Pursuit of Excellence.


Jesma Reynolds

Jesma Reynolds is the co-creator of Walter, an award-winning Raleigh-based arts and culture magazine, where she served as creative director from inception until the end of last year. Presently she is involved in an array of design projects through her firm JAGii. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and the Radcliffe Publishing Program, she began her career at National Geographic in Washington, DC. She currently serves on the boards of CAM Raleigh, Sunday Supper, and Raleigh Fine Arts as well as New City Fellows Steering Committee, Women’s Giving Network Leadership Committee, and the Bowdoin Parents Executive Committee. She has been a mentor for the past two years for NC Study Center’s Lydia Group. She and her husband David have two college-age sons and are adapting to their empty nest. In her free time, she enjoys all outdoor activities, particularly running with her Weimaraner, Argos, as well as traveling and discovering new places.

Reynolds will speak on the panel Does the World Have A Story? Creative Media as a Calling.


Charles Merritt

In January 2017, Charles Merritt joined Hatteras Venture Partners as a special advisor and manager of the Venture Capital Multiplier Fund. Merritt spent most of his career in private equity investing, beginning as an M&A analyst advising on the sale of private businesses. He started out with Bowles Hollowell Conner & Co., a boutique M&A advisory firm serving the middle market. Following business school, Merritt served as an associate with NationsBank Capital Investors (subsequently Bank of America Capital Investors and recently spun off as Ridgemont Equity Partners), an investor in middle-market buyouts.

He worked as a private fund investor as the first director of private investments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Investment Office, where he helped build the private investment portfolio significantly. Merritt then became the director of private investments at The Duke Endowment (the Duke Family Foundation), where he managed a portfolio of over $800 million in private alternative investments. In 2003, Merritt co-founded Parish Capital Advisors, a private equity fund focused on small and niche private equity managers, and helped grow the business to $2.2 billion in assets under management before it was sold to the StepStone Group in 2012.

Merritt remains an Advisor to StepStone, and also consults private equity general and limited partners via CEM Advisors, LLC. He previously served as a professor of the practice, a social entrepreneur in residence and the executive director of the minor in entrepreneurship in UNC Chapel Hill’s department of economics. Merritt also served as an instructor at the UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He is a trustee and chairman of the board at Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill, where he chairs the Building and Land Committee and serves on the Finance Committee. Merritt also serves on the advisory board for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, North Carolina.

Merritt received a bachelor’s in economics from UNC Chapel Hill where he was a Morehead Scholar, graduating with highest honors and distinction. He received his MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth College.

Merritt will speak on the panel Job Well Done: The Pursuit of Excellence.


Matt Gilleskie

Matt Gilleskie is a senior biostatistics major in the undergraduate BSPH program of the Gillings School of Global Public Health. He currently works as a research assistant at the UNC Center for AIDS Research and enjoys tutoring students of the UNC Children’s Hospital School. He is also a member of the Chapel Hill Bible Church. The Study Center's seminar on Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue introduced him to the concept of virtue ethics. Since then, the application of this ethical system to vocation, within its proper context in Scripture, has fascinated him. He is particularly interested in the implications of virtue ethics for the student and the doctor. After graduating, he plans to apply to medical school and hopes to become a physician.

Gilleskie will moderate the panel Job Well Done: The Pursuit of Excellence.


Holly Harris

Holly Harris is a senior Studio Art and Communication Studies double major from Greensboro, North Carolina. Throughout her time in college, she has developed increasing interest in merging her passions, utilizing art as a form of advocacy. On campus, she is involved in various organizations relating to faith, art, and social justice. Most significantly, she is the current campus chapter president of International Justice Mission at UNC. She is interested in art and storytelling as platforms to further the causes that matter in the world. She is passionate about the inherent dignity and beauty of every human being, and believes their stories are worth telling.

Harris will moderate the panel Does the World Have A Story? Creative Media as a Calling.