Wendy Kopp, President and Founder of Teach for America (TFA), spoke to a packed Spangler Auditorium on Thursday, September 7th. In a forum sponsored by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative with the Social Enterprise Club and the Entrepreneurship Club, Kopp shared with students and faculty from across the University’s schools both about TFA’s past and its future trajectories. Moderator, Professor Bill George, former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic, helped guide the discussion to draw out Kopp’s journey to leadership.
TFA was first conceived by Kopp while a senior at Princeton University. After organizing a seminar on campus about the public education crisis, Kopp focused her attention on the idea of developing a national teaching corps, similar to the Peace Corps. Her idea, which became the focus of her senior thesis, called for the future leaders of our country, the brightest college graduates, to commit two years to teach in our nation’s poorest urban and rural school, with a duplicitous goal-to provide students with access to quality teaching and to provide the future leaders and decision makers of business, law, journalism, and public policy with firsthand knowledge of this difficult work and to instill in them that the achievement gap is in fact a solvable problem. In so doing, TFA looks to enlist leaders who will work in the long term to increase educational opportunity for all children.
Today, TFA corps members are actively teaching in more than 1,000 schools in twenty-five urban and rural school districts. What started fifteen years ago with a few staff and roughly five hundred teachers, has grown to a corps of 4,400 teachers, 2,400 of whom started in classrooms this month. Since its inception, Teach for America has impacted the lives of 2.5 million students, and this year alone the teachers will work with 375,000 students.
TFA is in the midst of a five year growth plan that aims to increase the corps to 8,000 teachers and the funding base to $100M. Kopp said that momentum behind TFA is strong now, although that was not always the case. In the mid 1990s, after five years of running TFA, Kopp and her team had to ask themselves the difficult question, “Should we continue?” Educational funding sources were drying up as the foci changed; Kopp saw a lack of management skills and experience; and TFA was coming under fire by members of the established public education community. Facing a critical juncture and barely having enough money to pay employees salaries, Kopp and her team took drastic actions. They eliminated two spin-offs, laid off sixty professional development staff, and began laying the groundwork for establishing TFA as a strong and stable institution.
Kopp shared with the audience her struggles and her motivations during the difficult times. “Responsibility is what motivated me more than anything else. I learned the hard way. I thought we were building a movement, so why would I need management? That led to a disaster. I learned that management is everything.” Kopp immersed herself in trying to learn everything she could about management and running a stable organization. When pressed if she would have left the flailing organization at that time if a successor took her place, she said she would have, but did not believe there was anyone else to do the job.
“People are everything,” Kopp told the crowd. “Truly, it’s all about getting greater people at all levels of the organization.” Moving forward Kopp and TFA is looking to “enlist our most promising future leaders to address educational inequities.” To achieve this unique theory of change, TFA is endeavoring to grow, create a sense of possibility, maximize the impact of the corps, and accelerate the impact of her nearly 12,000 alumni.
Though the road has been bumpy, and the TFA on the horizon looks healthy and strong, Kopp clearly pointed out, “There is no way around the hard work it takes to build any great organization.”