President & CEO, "I Have a Dream" Foundation
Posted on: February 7, 2012 | Go to profile
Starting out at Teach For America working with fourth and fifth graders in Brooklyn, Iris moved up through the ranks of Teach For America as New York City Executive Director, then transferred her talent to run the I Have A Dream Foundation. Through her work with the foundation, Iris has helped to empower 15,000 children in low-income communities to achieve higher education and fulfill their leadership potential by providing them with guaranteed tuition support and equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and habits they need to gain entry to higher education. Her belief in the necessity of an early start in order to impact change in the wide pattern of educational success, Iris is a model herself of working through the secondary education system, with multiple degrees from Yale University, Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: It all started for me as a senior at Yale, when I was trying to figure out what to do next. I knew I wanted to go to law school but I wasn’t ready for three more years of studying. Then, a few days before we left for winter break, during the frenzy of grad-school applications and job searching, all the seniors woke up to find a flier under their door. The flier called upon us to join a new movement for educational equity, by teaching for two years in an under-resourced public school.
This was the start of Teach For America (TFA), the national teacher corps. Wendy Kopp, who was 22 at the time, had dreamed up the idea in her senior thesis at Princeton, and she and a few other recent college graduates were now working to turn this vision into reality. The idea was to recruit the nation’s future leaders who would have an immediate impact on the students they taught, and would then go on to become champions of education reform working from all different sectors, not just education.
By the end of that day, several of my friends at Yale had stuffed their fliers into my hands, and I knew I had found my next thing. I applied to TFA—and nothing else. That spring, I was selected, along with approximately 500 other seniors across the nation, to be a member of the organization’s first-ever teacher corps.
Several months later, after getting trained at TFA’s boot camp, also led by 22-year-olds, I found myself walking into P.S. 307, an elementary school in Brooklyn, for my first day of teaching.
It wasn’t an easy year, but I learned a lot. My fifth graders tested me relentlessly, and taught me how to be a better teacher. But the most important thing I learned was also the saddest — which was how much talent we are leaving behind as a nation.
My students at P.S. 307 grew up in the massive public housing complex near the shadows of the Manhattan Bridge, in conditions that no one, much less a child, should have to grow up in. Drug paraphernalia and worse littered their buildings and gun shots were common starting in early evening. Many of my students came to school hungry or without the glasses they needed to see. When they went home, they struggled to help take care of younger siblings and to do chores as their parents or guardians juggled multiple jobs.
It is no surprise to see what happens to the vast majority of these children. By fourth grade, they are two to three grade levels behind. By ninth grade, if they make it that far, they are reading and doing math at a fifth grade level. Only 50% will graduate from high school, and one in ten of them will graduate from college. One in ten is simply not good enough.
The tragedy is that when you get to know these children, you realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. When I was a teacher, I saw that every one of my students had a passion, something he or she loved to do. As I observed my fourth and fifth graders growing up in the toughest conditions—yet somehow getting by—I wondered how much more they could have achieved under different circumstances or with a little assistance. Sometimes my students managed to rise above their harsh realities and even excel in school. Seeing the harsh realities of their lives contrasted with the promise of my students made it difficult to walk away.
I have attempted to branch out over the years. I returned to school to earn my JD/MBA, tried summer internships at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a corporate law firm, and did a stint at McKinsey, the management consulting firm.
But ultimately, I realized that education reform was my calling, and that this was what I was meant to do.
My two-year commitment with TFA has now stretched into nearly 20, and I am even more optimistic and exuberant about this work than when I first started. In recent years the movement that TFA helped catalyze has surged in scale and scope, as more talent and resources have joined our efforts. This new generation of education reformers has significantly raised the bar for what’s possible in our nation’s most under-resourced communities, even as there is a growing awareness of the devastating state of our public schools today. It is this gap between vision and reality that has made me and so many others feel such a sense of conviction and urgency around this work, and that continues to drive my efforts today.
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: Great leaders bring a combination of extraordinary talent and determination coupled with immense humility. They bring a clear vision of what the world should look like, and drive relentlessly toward this vision even when it is hardest to do so – bringing others along the way and marshalling whatever resources it takes. Their humility leads them to live outside of themselves, focused more on impact than their own self-interest.
A person with these qualities also tends to operate with remarkable integrity, aligning all their words and actions to the broader vision – and with confidence, focusing their energy on achieving the vision rather than questioning whether it’s possible.
Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step.” Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?
A: As mentioned previously, my greatest passion is education reform – ensuring that our schools provide a promising future for every student, especially those who face the greatest hardships. That is where I find my sense of purpose and why I view my work more as a calling than a career.
Every day, I try to optimize my contributions to this effort so that I won’t look back later and wonder what could have been. Since our sector today is so dynamic, it’s hard to plan too far ahead — having too linear or rigid a path will lead to missed opportunities. We need to be ready to shift gears and jump in where most needed as the landscape changes at a moment’s notice.
As for now, we have exciting plans for “I Have A Dream” and I haven’t looked beyond getting these plans successfully off the ground. After that, my next steps will depend on where I can have the greatest impact, which is hard to predict today.
ON Career Transitions
Q: I don’t feel like this topic is talked about enough in business news. Professionals get laid off, fired, resign or change careers all the time–which can obviously be a difficult transition at first. What was the hardest career transition in your life and how did you grow from it?
A: I fortunately haven’t had to face any tough career transitions. The one ‘glitch’ in my career path was deciding to leave McKinsey several months after I started full-time at the firm (I’d previously spent a summer there). I didn’t plan it that way and would have stayed longer were it not for an unforeseen opportunity that I felt I couldn’t walk away from. Mayor Mike Bloomberg and then Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had just arrived in New York City and announced a bold set of education reforms that were unprecedented in their scope and scale. I was asked to return to Teach For America to significantly scale up our presence in the city to support these reforms and help drive them forward. This felt like a responsibility more than a job, so several months later I resigned from McKinsey, broke my lease in Boston, packed my bags, and came back.
I absolutely don’t regret my stint at McKinsey – McKinsey is an amazing firm made up of amazing people, and I learned a great deal during my short time there that continues to impact my work today. I do wish the timing had worked so that I could have stayed there longer and contributed as much as I learned. But this experience reinforced for me the importance of being clear about your life vision and staying true to it– which sometimes means jumping off the path you were on when circumstances change.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: 1) Follow your passion and leverage your talents – when you look back one day, you want to feel that you’ve given it your all and haven’t left anything on the course. Passion is as important as talent in driving high performance so find work you love to do and would jump out of bed for. 2) Be open to different opportunities and pathways and don’t be too worried about taking a detour or following the wrong path – the world is increasingly fluid and many paths can lead to the same outcome. 3) “Create your own job” wherever you land. Opportunity follows talent and talent creates opportunity. Don’t be bound by the formal job description but focus on maximizing your impact whatever job you’re in.
Q: Is there an example in your life of a time when others were against you or your dream, yet you persevered?
A: My organization is currently undergoing a major transformation and change is hard. I wasn’t hired to change the organization and our leadership at the Board and staff level didn’t initially feel the need to change. Once it became clear several months into my job that change was critical, my top priority was creating a sense of urgency around that and bringing others along. This involved exposing the leadership to what I’d seen and arming them with the information I had. Once my leadership had the opportunity to step up, to their great credit they did.
When faced with skepticism – from others or potentially yourself – it’s important to be crystal clear about your vision and to largely stick with it, even (and especially) when it is hardest to do so. Rather than ask whether it can be done, focus on making it happen. And be sure to bring others along with you – when others can see your vision and feel it with both mind and heart, they more often than not join you not just willingly but eagerly.
Q: What do you think is the key to happiness?
A: Being clear about one’s values and living one’s life in alignment with them. Channeling and fully leveraging one’s talents and passions to a greater good and living with a broader sense of purpose.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: First is achieving true clarity of vision and conviction around its importance. Next is rallying those around you to be part of driving toward the vision. Finally, preparing yourself and others for the inevitable challenges that will come up along the way – remember that middles are hard and that victories come only by persevering through them.
ON Time Management
Q: Online calendars, emailing ourselves, post-it notes… I’m still struggling to find the best way to manage my time and to do list? What’s your method?
A: I’m still refining my system but I think it’s important to be clear on 1) what’s most important and 2) what’s most time sensitive to achieve your goals, and then build your immediate and longer term to-do list and calendar around that. I start each day with a list of my ‘must dos’ in order of priority, and recalibrate the list as the day unfolds and new opportunities or challenges emerge – as they inevitably do.
It’s also important to understand and leverage your personal work habits and energy levels. For example, I’m most productive in the mornings so I tackle more critical and complex efforts early in the day and save routine tasks for late afternoons or evenings when my energy starts to flag.
Finally, surround yourself with talent so you can properly delegate the right task to the right person at the right time. This will not only make your to-do list manageable, but allow you to leverage your team and provide them with opportunities to grow and contribute.
Q: What are the top 3 things that you do to stay healthy?
A: Eat well, run with joy, and regularly step back to recalibrate my life and regain perspective.
ON Cooking & Food
Q: If you love to cook, can you share a favorite recipe?
A: I love to cook and my newest discovery is bibimbap, the Korean all-in-one meal cooked in a piping hot stone pot and made up of crispy rice mixed with meat, vegetables, egg, and chili pepper paste. I stole the recipe off the Internet and you can find great recipes there!
Q: If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
A: I have several ideas for books I’m hoping someone more talented than me can write!
Middle Management – How to optimize this critical but often overlooked part of the organization structure
‘Creating your own job’ – Going beyond job descriptions to optimize your impact, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing
Building true champions – Taking people from self-interest, win-win, to doing the right thing and being the best they can be
Execution – How to make things happen
The new nonprofit – Building agility and innovation into our organizations