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An Investor's Lesson to Entrepreneurs
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With a diverse network and lofty mission to keep kids in low-income areas school, Teach For America has come a long way. Today, it’s become a global movement, expanding to Teach For All and embracing a greater purpose to “develop collective leadership to ensure all children have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.”
But remaining true to this business strategy was no easy task.
Cofounder and CEO Wendy Kopp shares key lessons, from team management to business model and strategy. The greatest challenge facing social entrepreneurs? Impact measurement and embracing the conviction that no problem is too big to solve.
What challenges of social entrepreneurship did you face early on?
I think the major challenge was the fact that there were so many challenges all hitting us at the same time. First, this is just a very challenging undertaking programmatically. The challenge of inspiring not just any college graduate, but the people who are ready and able to make a real difference for kids, to decide to do this, and to make this choice.
Then, to figure out how to train and support them so that they don’t just survive their first and second years of teaching, but succeed with their kids and learn the lessons that come from success, rather than the lessons that come from failure. That way, they leave more committed (and not more disillusioned) about the possibility of affecting long-term change. So there were huge programmatic challenges and huge management challenges.
I was twenty-one when I started off on this Teach For America journey. Within a year, we had something like sixty staff members in six or seven offices, and I had no idea what I was doing. And I didn’t want to worry about that, either. I didn’t want to spend any energy on matters of management and organization—and that really came back to haunt us. Maybe the most existential of the challenges was just financial. We just really did not have the resources to do what we said we were going to do.
I would spend every waking moment just trying to figure out how to get into doors of people who could solve that problem, whether by donating funds as companies, foundations, or individuals.
It’s a combination of all those things, and then also the politics of education. We quickly built many allies in the communities where we were working, but at the same time, what we’re doing kind of runs up against traditional paradigms around how teachers are prepared, supported, and licensed, and that generated its own set of challenges. So it was all those things confronting a very inexperienced team.
We spent a decade [on] near-death experiences, trying to figure out how to climb all these learning curves and how to stay afloat, given the lack of financial resources.
What gave you the motivation to preserve?
There were aspects of what we were doing that I just had total conviction about.
Most people didn’t believe initially that college students would do this. They thought this was a great idea. We were getting lots of positive feedback: “This is brilliant!” They just thought college students would never do it. And that was where I had reason to be confident. I had a lot of conviction that this was going to work.
At the same time, I was surrounded by people who were helping to keep me going. I think the people on our team and the few people who were drawn to this—their support kept me going.
Finally, I think just a deep sense of responsibility. I mean, you know, as I got further and further in, it became harder and harder to kind of get out of it. I didn’t really see a choice but to persevere.
What are your feelings on systemic change?
That’s such a good question. I guess I’m of two minds. For one, I really do think we should all be thinking deeply at every juncture around our theory of change because there are limited resources in the world, and we should be putting those limited resources towards the things that have potential to have the biggest impact.
If we’re not thinking about not only how to put Band-Aids on the current problem, but how to actually solve the big underlying causes of the problem, then I think we should all be thinking very critically about what’s the most powerful way to get to the underlying causes. I think that way of thinking is really important at the same time. I think we need to have an appreciation of the entrepreneurial journey.
I read a book several years ago called Little Bets. And in fact, the author sent it to me and said, “I know this doesn’t describe your journey, but it describes every other entrepreneur’s journey I’ve ever met.” And he tells the stories in this book about Steve Jobs and truly the “great entrepreneurs” and how they would start something, but then their real contribution was many evolutions later, right? It was like “little bets”—they’d start something, but then they’d just keep learning. The entrepreneurial journey is about constantly learning and getting to the “higher thing.”
So, I’m reading this book. And he had said, “This doesn’t describe your journey because you had the ‘big idea’ from minute one.” But as I read the book, I thought, “This describes our journey, too, 100%.” Because I had a notion and an idea that that was going to have a long-term impact.
How it was going to do that, I think, I couldn’t have quite understood. I mean, I learned so much through this journey about the actual nature of the problem, about the reason that this idea that we had was having an impact over time.
I think we need to all operate with an appreciation for that. I’ve met so many incredible social entrepreneurs who start with a theory of change that I might not think is going to fully change the world. Who, ten years later, I’m realizing, “Wow, those folks are making a massive difference!” Not because of what their original theory of change was, but because of how they had learned. It evolved over time.
Relationships are so foundational to life and success and also provide growth opportunities for everyone in that picture.
How do you overcome conflict with an organization?
I think we need to embrace the challenge and what we can learn about ourselves, how to better work with others, and how to be stronger and more inclusive leaders. That can all sound really great, but it’s also really challenging to get through some of these things.
Ultimately, I do think we need to be clear about our vision and purpose, and these organizations don’t have to be for everyone. People really need to ask themselves what their values, purpose, and highest contribution can be. Sometimes that’ll be working together in one pursuit, and sometimes it may require people going in different directions.
I’ve found that coaching is invaluable, by the way. I discovered a relationship coach a few years ago who has worked with some of the most incredible entrepreneurs in the world—Steve Jobs being one of them—in the very challenging relationships within their organizations. I’ve personally learned so much from her about the kind of self-awareness that it takes to really work constructively with folks who may have divergent approaches and ways of thinking.
What was the coaching process like for you?
I would say some of the work of this coach didn’t necessarily solve the issues. Again, some people just need to go different ways. But it did lead me to understand a lot about myself. It definitely caused an evolution in the way I think and operate. One of the biggest dimensions of that evolution was a value around the importance of consensus.
Maybe it was because, in the early years of Teach For America, I had internalized this idea that alignment is so important: “We need to all be aligned in pursuit of the same mission, with the same priorities and the same values!” I had built a consensus-oriented organization, which would prioritize arriving at consensus over speed. It seemed to me like the most inclusive way of operating possible, so we would step back to figure out what’s the strategic plan and engage in a yearlong process that involved hundreds of people and considered everything to the nth degree.
I never even considered a different way of operating. It felt like anything else wouldn’t be inclusive to all of the different ways of thinking. But I’ve really evolved my thinking and approach on this to think, “Actually, consensus isn’t important, necessarily.” Like, we need to make sure that it’s clear who needs to make what decision and fully consider all the different divergent points of view. And then empower the folks closest to the issue—whether it’s me in some case or someone else on our team in other cases—to make the best possible decision in their judgment.
And then, ultimately, people make their own choices about whether they want to be part of an effort or not. What I’ve seen is that people feel more included when they aren’t forced into consensus because you never have true, full alignment. It’s better to kind of embrace the reality of divergent points of view and be clear that we’re making this choice for X reason. We know there are different views, but in pursuit of speed and entrepreneurialism, and in fact embracing the diversity of our views, we’re going to progress in this other way.
What is your advice regarding social impact measurement?
The reason I’m a little bit hesitant as I answer this question is that I have seen so many unintended consequences come from choices around measuring impact. And I’ve come to realize that almost any single measure will certainly have unintended consequences.
I do believe it’s important to measure and look at data and all of that, but I think what’s most important is to try to figure out how to not lead people to get so obsessed with those metrics that they lose sight of the spirit and intended impact. I think we need to try to keep all of that in balance, and it’s led me to think about parts of the Teach For America journey. For example, we went down a path of investing so many millions of dollars, hours, and energy on measuring impact. And in retrospect, if we had spent all that energy on building culture and building strategic clarity about what we were all trying to accomplish, I think we would’ve accelerated impact more. So I think we just need a real balance.
I think the donors who have these requirements around measurement and such also ideally will have the experiences that lead them to understand how challenging it is to get that balance between strategic clarity, clear purpose, intended outcomes, and values with that kind of measurement system. So they’re not forcing us into things that lead us away from what we’re all trying to accomplish.
What are some unintended consequences you’ve seen from impact investment?
One specific example that pops to mind—I think it was about our tenth year, and we realized that we had developed such a machine around fundraising and that we were . . . much less rigorous on our programmatic side. And our assessment was that it’s so easy to measure fundraising. So, we had all these regional offices raising money, and we could just keep running the reports about which office was doing the best and what they were doing differently. It was a total machine that was so beautiful.
So we thought, “Okay, let’s create that on the programmatic side.” And we put together a task force of our most thoughtful people. They ended up spending a few months developing this new system. We decided that we wanted all our teachers to move their kids forward a year and a half’s worth of progress in a years’ time. From everything that that task force learned, our most successful teachers were already doing that. And so, we thought we should try to support all of them to do be able to do that.
Three years later, you walk around classrooms, thousands of them, and almost every classroom you would go to, you would realize that these teachers were driving at 1.5 years of progress. You’d go into an eleventh-grade classroom where the kids are coming in reading at a seventh-grade level. And this teacher is trying to move their kids one and a half years forward. They’re going to graduate from high school a year later, and the big goal is to get them to the eighth-grade reading level. And you would ask them, “Now, why’d you set this goal of 1.5?”
And they would say, “Well, that’s what Teach For America told me to do.”
No, no, no. That’s the aggregate measure of progress. On average, we want our teachers to move their kids forward one and a half years of progress, but you should be asking yourself, given where your kids are, given what’s in front of them, what are you working on with your kids? Don’t just mindlessly set 1.5. It led to this mindlessness, and it was a pervasive situation. That’s one example, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen things like that happen.
The other thing I would just say is, this work of ours across the Teach For All network is such a long-term endeavor. And you know, there are many donors who cannot fund things that don’t have measurable, scaled impact within three years. Yet in my mind, the most important investments we could make are those that generate local capacity to continuously improve and solve problems over time.
The vast majority of philanthropic resources though, are tied up in foundations that couldn’t fund this stuff, because you can’t point to quantifiable, massive results within three years. So we need to always consider again the actual outcomes that we’re trying to achieve and make sure that our measurement requirements are not creating a lot of unintended outcomes.
Who in the field of social entrepreneurship has inspired you?
First of all, I’m inspired by the social entrepreneurs across the Teach For All network.
I don’t think I ever could have predicted ten years ago that I would have been through such a learning journey with Teach For America. It feels like we’ve learned so much. What I’ve seen over the last decade is other people pursuing the same exact idea in ways that are contextualized to be very different—in both contexts. Like, a very diverse cultural context, and the different strengths of their particular leaders.
And so to see what Shaheen Mistri, who founded Teach For India, is doing, or what Yusuke Matsuda is doing here in Japan, they’ve each really added so much to my initial conception of what was possible and what was important. [They] have, I think, contributed so much to everyone’s impact across the network.
There are just so many different folks whose entrepreneurship inspires me. I’ll mention a couple who I’ve started meeting in the last few years, whose core belief is that parents need to drive the revolution. That actually fostering the leadership of parents in the lowest income and most marginalized communities so that they are fighting for the rights of their kids and pushing on the system to change as the way to really accelerate progress.
I’ve seen examples of that effort that are truly stunning in their impact in my own country. There are urban areas where the politics of education were in an absolute log jam, despite some of the most visionary political leaders I know. No progress was being made, but the parent initiative to foster parent demand has just totally changed everything: public perception, the way people are voting, and what’s possible for these political leaders to do.
You go from there all the way to India, where Teach For India alumni have built, alongside many others, a movement to educate parents about accessing their rights to a quality education for their kids. That’s already reached millions of kids. That’s just one of many examples. But there are so many important social enterprises that are putting the world on a different trajectory.
What is your advice to become a successful social entrepreneur?
What I’ve learned in the last thirty years of this work is that it is possible to solve these problems that may seem, to many, to be very intractable. I think many people view the fact that there are these incredible disparities in the opportunities facing kids, is that it’s just kind of the way it is. What I’ve learned is that we could actually solve this. We could solve it in all our lifetimes.
The only question is whether enough talented and committed people will decide to channel their energy against that issue. And I remember hearing Mohammad Yunus, when he won the Nobel peace prize. His speech was about how he’s learned that poverty is a solvable problem. It was so striking to me because I thought, “Huh, I’ve learned that educational inequity is a solvable problem.” So as all of the folks out there are contemplating what to do with their time and energy, I hope you’ll recognize that the world’s inequities really are solvable, and try to figure out where you can put your strengths to bear.
Make a meaningful difference to ensuring that we grow our collective welfare in the course of our lifetimes.