All achievers

Wendy Kopp

Founder, Teach for America

I had this idea that this was going to change the consciousness of the country.

Wendy Sue Kopp was born in Austin, Texas. Her parents operated a small business, a newsletter they had purchased, advising visitors of the attractions of Austin. They enlarged the newsletter into a guidebook and made a success of the business, moving on to San Antonio, and then to Dallas, where they settled in the Park Cities area so Wendy could attend the highly rated local schools. She was an outstanding student, and an enthusiastic participant in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. She graduated from Highland Park High School and entered Princeton University as a public policy major in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Wendy Kopp (center) and her classmate, Amy Huff, discuss newspaper layout with their high school journalism teacher, Mr. Zinn. (Teach For America)
Wendy Kopp and classmate Amy Huff discuss newspaper layout with high school journalism teacher Mr. Zinn.

At Princeton, Kopp came into contact with students from a far more diverse array of backgrounds than she had encountered in high school. She quickly became aware that students from disadvantaged communities, whatever their talents, came to college less prepared than those from more affluent areas. As an undergraduate, Kopp was so involved with other activities, such as the Foundation for Student Communication, that she neglected to choose a topic for her senior thesis until almost the last moment. At the foundation, she had organized a conference on improving the American system of public education, particularly in poorly served rural and urban areas. She knew many students who were interested in teaching in these areas, but while recruiters for financial service firms made a thorough effort to recruit outstanding college graduates, there was no comparable effort to recruit gifted students for teaching and public service.

For her senior thesis, Kopp drew up a proposal for a national service organization, modeled on the Peace Corps, which would recruit graduates of the nation’s top universities to teach in underserved areas. Her thesis adviser, sociology professor Marvin Bressler, was impressed with the proposal but saw it as more of an intellectual exercise than a practical proposal, since he doubted she could ever raise the funds necessary to implement such a scheme in the real world.

Wendy Kopp (center) celebrates her graduation from Princeton University, 1989. (Teach For America)
Wendy Kopp (center) celebrates her graduation from Princeton University in 1989. (Teach For America)

At the same time, Kopp knew she needed to find a job to support herself after graduation. She made a brief effort to find work on Wall Street, in investment banks and consulting firms, but she knew her heart was not in it. The idea of a volunteer teacher corps had captured her imagination, and whenever she read an interview with a business leader who said he was interested in improving education, she sent him a copy of her thesis, “A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps.”

In the spring of her senior year, she met with executives of some of the nation’s largest corporations to discuss her proposal. Shortly before graduation, Union Carbide offered her free office space in New York City, and Mobil Oil gave her a seed grant to live on while she pursued further support for her teacher corps. After receiving her degree in 1989, Kopp moved to New York City, and spent the summer lining up donors, visiting school systems, recruiting a board of directors and hiring a small staff of four. A grant from the philanthropy Echoing Green enabled Kopp and her staff to set up a headquarters in a larger office space donated by investment bank Morgan Stanley. After many attempts, their work came to the attention of philanthropist H. Ross Perot, who offered a three-to-one challenge grant.

Some members of the inaugural class of Teach For America, 1990. (Teach For America)
1990: Members of the inaugural class of Teach For America. They now have more than 4,000 Corps members.

Many potential donors believed the only solution to the shortcomings of the education system lay in improving the quality of training available at established teachers’ colleges and schools of education. Others believed young people of Kopp’s generation were too self-centered to volunteer for such a project. Kopp was sure they were wrong. With her growing staff, which now included her future husband, Richard Barth, she built a network of representatives on campuses across the country. The promising response to their recruitment efforts attracted media attention, which in turn drew more volunteers. Within four months, the invitation had received 2,500 volunteer applications from over 100 colleges. Kopp and her staff selected 500 to serve as the charter corps members. After a summer of intensive training, they fanned out across the country.

The success of Teach For America in its first year attracted national attention, and donations poured in. In the next years, the number of areas served by the organization expanded rapidly, and summer teaching institutes were established in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and later Philadelphia, to train the ever-growing corps of teachers. In 2005, Teach For America received a record number of 17,000 applications, and was the number one employer of new graduates on some college campuses. That autumn, Wendy Kopp created a Katrina Relief Corps to serve students and communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

Academy of Achievement member George Lucas congratulates Wendy Kopp on receiving the Gold Medal of the Academy at the 2006 International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles. (© Academy of Achievement)
Academy of Achievement member George Lucas congratulates Wendy Kopp on receiving the Gold Medal of the Academy at the 2006 International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles, California. ( Academy of Achievement)

In 2007, Kopp founded Teach For All, a global network of independent social enterprises that applies the principles of Teach For America around the world. After leading Teach For America for 24 years, Wendy Kopp relinquished her day-to-day duties as president of the organization; she continues to chair the board of Teach For America and serves as CEO of Teach For All.

By 2013, more than 10,000 Teach For America corps members were teaching in the country’s neediest communities, reaching approximately 750,000 students. They join more than 28,000 Teach For America alumni — many still in their 20s and 30s — who are assuming significant leadership roles in education and social reform. Teach For America alumni have now headed school systems at the state level, and in some of the nation’s biggest cities, including New Orleans, Newark, New York City and Washington, D.C.

24 May 2012, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA --- Founder and CEO of Teach for America Wendy Kopp receives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: EDUCATION) --- Image by © BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters/Corbis
May 24, 2012, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Founder and CEO of Teach for America Wendy Kopp receives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University. (Corbis)

Wendy Kopp has recounted these experiences in her books One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All. In her books, she not only describes how she created and built Teach For America and Teach For All, but also shares her thoughts about what it will take to realize her vision that one day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Her accomplishment has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates from Princeton, Smith College, Georgetown, Boston University and Harvard.

Today, Wendy Kopp lives in New York City with her husband, KIPP Foundation President Richard Barth, and their four children. Her work with Teach For America and Teach For All, as well as frequent speaking engagements, routinely take her from coast to coast and around the world.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2006

In the 1980s, a cliché of popular journalism held that the graduates of America’s top universities were a “Me Generation,” interested in material success and personal gratification to the exclusion of all concerns for the larger society. Wendy Kopp believed that many of her peers were eager to serve society in a meaningful way if the opportunity presented itself. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, she created a plan to build a movement for educational equity by enlisting her generation’s most promising future leaders to teach for two years in underserved urban and rural public schools. She drafted this plan for a national volunteer teacher corps as her senior thesis.

After graduation, Kopp set about making her plan a reality, founding Teach For America in 1989. With no teaching or business experience of her own, she created a multimillion-dollar organization. In the first 22 years, more than 33,000 graduates have served in the corps, reaching more than three million students in the country’s neediest communities. From coast to coast, Teach For America alumni are assuming leadership roles in education and social reform. In 2007, Kopp founded Teach For All, a global network of independent social enterprises that applies the principles of Teach For America around the world.

In her books One Day, All Children and A Chance to Make History, Wendy Kopp not only describes how she created and built Teach For America and Teach For All, but also shares her thoughts about what it will take to realize her vision that one day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

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It’s a pleasure to be speaking today with Wendy Kopp. You started Teach For America right out of college. You had the courage to ask the CEOs of these big companies to support your idea when you were in your early 20s. Where did you get that confidence?

Wendy Kopp: I think I did have a level of confidence. I think it came from a few places.

One, I just had deep conviction in the idea that I was pursuing.  Two, I really believe there’s a huge power in inexperience. You just don’t know what’s impossible, and therefore think, “Of course this can be done!”  I think there was quite a bit of that. But also, my summer job — and really what turned into a year-round job when I was at Princeton — was working at a non-profit organization, and it was student-run.  We had to support the organization through corporate donations, and I think I learned that there was philanthropic money to be had, and that if you asked for it, and you made your way high enough generally in the corporate chain, you could actually get significant funding. Even for things as mundane as conferences and magazines, let alone a big idea like this.  So I think it was having seen some of that that helped me also know what was possible.

Your parents owned their own business, we understand. Do you think their entrepreneurial spirit influenced you? What was their business?

Wendy Kopp: No doubt. They bought a very small one-page newsletter that people going to conventions in Austin, Texas would pick up, and it would show them where to go out to eat. They turned it into a guidebook that they would distribute at conventions and cities in Texas. That got two kids through college.

Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America in her first year after college, basing the program on her senior thesis at Princeton. (Courtesy of Teach for America)
Wendy Kopp founded Teach For America soon after college, basing the program on her senior thesis at Princeton.

Were there other people in your life, or experiences that you think formed your character, or led you to pursue such a lofty goal at an early age?

Wendy Kopp: First of all, I was so driven, I was over-involved. I think it was my engagement in various extracurricular activities that had a huge formative effect. I was part of the debate team, and editor of the school paper, and when I got to college I became so involved in various journalistic endeavors, and ultimately running this organization when I was a senior in college that had a budget of more than a million-and-a-half dollars. I think the colleagues I met along the way were certainly instrumental. There was actually a moment — that probably took ten minutes of my life — but I think it may have had a very seminal effect.

Keys to success — Vision

I was actually pursuing this summer job. It was the summer after my freshman year. I was stationed in the Midwest and I was supposed to go to these various corporate executives and ask them to buy advertisements in this magazine as part of this student-run publication. So we were meeting with a man who ran a big investment bank in St. Louis.  We asked him if he would support this magazine, and he swiveled around in his chair and pointed out his window and basically said, “Why would I do that?”  And he pointed down and said, “Let me tell you what’s happening down there, two blocks from the building where I’m working.”  And he was talking about all the challenges facing the kids in St. Louis who were growing up in poverty, experiencing violence every day. And he was saying, “Why would I ever support this?” when there were such more pressing needs.  This sent me into a total crisis. I didn’t want to continue with the summer job because I was just thinking, “Why am I doing this when there are greater needs in the world?”  And I resolved at that point — because I had to make the choice, “Do I keep doing the summer job or not?” —  I finally decided I feel responsible to finish the summer job, but I’m going to figure out how to do this, and then figure out how to actually address the pressing needs that exist.

What was his name? He must have been convincing.

Wendy Kopp: It was Benjamin Edwards, from AG Edwards and Company. He was very intense. It was such an emotionally laden, intense reaction to whatever it was that we were asking him. You could not have forgotten it.

Wendy Kopp in the 1990s, driving education reform. (Teach For America)
Wendy Kopp in the 1990s. Teach For America currently has an annual operating budget of more than $300 million.

You were at Princeton, and it’s one of the great colleges of the world. Do you think that that helped empower you, or was there a sense of it being too ivory tower? Or was it both?

Wendy Kopp: Having an education, and having a degree from Princeton, and having access to the Princeton network, I think it’s empowering. It has its downsides when you do this kind of work, but overall it was very empowering. I think the fact that I was saying, “I’m graduating from Princeton and I proposed this in my undergraduate thesis,” got me meetings that I never would have gotten otherwise, from people who had some connection to Princeton or went to Princeton or whatever. That was probably the biggest asset I had, coming out of Princeton.

In October of your senior year, you realized that you needed a plan for life after graduation. Tell us about that slightly lost time and how it led to your idea?

Wendy Kopp: I had just, as I said before, been just overly — obsessively — involved and busy throughout my time in college.  And for some reason, really had not registered on the idea that I gotta figure out both. I’ve got to write a thesis and I’ve got to figure out my summer job.  It just struck me in about October or November of my senior year. I started searching for what I really wanted to do, and I didn’t want to do anything. I was just in a funk.  It was late ’80s, and all of the recruiters really were investment banks, management consulting firms, brand management firms, all these companies — for liberal arts graduates like myself — that wanted us to commit two years to go work in those firms. I majored in public policy, the Woodrow Wilson School, and I just didn’t want to go work in one of those firms, so I started trying to figure out what else I would do, but there was no clear path. I was doing things like writing to people saying, “Would you ever hire interns?”  Looking for “off the beaten path” things. But nothing was striking me, and honestly I just descended into a funk. I’ve never truly been in a funk, I just didn’t want to do anything.  I didn’t even try to come up with a thesis topic.  I think I was officially the last senior that year to propose a thesis topic.

But simultaneously, I was organizing this conference for this student organization…

Which organization is that?

Wendy Kopp: The Foundation for Student Communication. It bridges the gap between students and business leaders and political leaders and in terms of fostering a discussion. We organized a conference this year about education, and what it would take to improve the American education system. And it was really at that conference that I thought of this idea.

Keys to success — Passion

Everyone was talking about all of the challenges that exist in our — particularly urban and rural — public schools, and particularly about the need for excellent teachers in these schools. And here we had all of these carefully selected student leaders from all over the country, who were all saying, “We would teach.  No one’s recruiting us to teach.” We were known as the “Me Generation.”  Supposedly all we wanted to do was go work in those firms, go work on Wall Street and such, make a lot of money.  And I just knew — I knew from my own searching, but also from my friends and others — I just knew I was one of thousands of people who were really searching for something we weren’t finding. So that led to this idea: why aren’t we being recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teach in our urban and rural public schools as we were being recruited at the time to commit two years to work on Wall Street?  And the minute I thought of it, I just became obsessed. I just knew this has to happen. I thought it would have such a huge power for kids growing up today, just to channel all this talent and energy — that’s good enough for the firms on Wall Street — but into our highest-need schools. And at the same time, I thought it would have this kind of larger power.  That we would be influencing the priorities and the consciousness of all these future leaders.  And I had this idea that this was going to change the consciousness of the country, and generate a belief that we need to do something to bridge the disparities that exist in our country.

Did you think of the Peace Corps as a model for this?

Wendy Kopp: Yeah. I had to write a thesis, so luckily this became the answer to my search for a thesis topic. As part of the thesis, I both looked at the policy context in which this would operate, and delved into the various organizations out there that could be models — the Peace Corps, and there was a federal teacher corps in the ’60s — and then developed “A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps.”

Teach For America Founder and Chairman Wendy Kopp monitors a training session of Teach For America volunteers. (Teach For America)
Teach For America Founder and Chairman Wendy Kopp at a training session of Teach For America volunteers.

In your first book, you say you had some doubts about whether your advisor would even let this thesis pass, because you had promised him you were going to write another thesis.

Wendy Kopp: Yeah, well I didn’t care that much, but this relates to my broader funk.

I was just obsessed with this idea, so I needed someone to sign on the bottom line and say that he was going to be my thesis adviser, and because I was so late in declaring a thesis I couldn’t get anyone to commit.  Finally someone sends me over to the chair of the sociology department — total legend, his name is Marvin Bressler — and he said, “No, you can’t write a thesis that’s proposing an advertising campaign for teachers. But if you want to propose a mandatory national service, I’ll be your advisor, because that’s my passion.”  And I said, “Sure.”  He signs, I never saw him again, turned it in four months later, and he calls me, three days after I turned it in.  I’m terrified at that point, but he loved it, it turned out.  His only question was, “How in the world do you think you’re going to raise the money to make this happen?”  But he ended up being a big supporter.

You wanted to make this happen immediately. It didn’t come to you after ten years of experience on Wall Street or business school. You wanted it to happen now. How did you get that sense of urgency?

Keys to success — Passion

Wendy Kopp: I just felt like the timing was absolutely perfect for this, and I just thought it had to happen.  The mood on college campuses was really so conducive to this.  I myself… and I ended up pursuing the idea of actually teaching in the New York City public schools, and that also contributed to my realizing this is actually… it could work. But I was still trying to figure out, “What do I want to do?” and that was the one thing I could think of that was inspiring.  So I just knew, for this generation, this is what we want to do.  Secondly, there were huge needs which enabled the whole thing.  There have never been headlines like this since. Just the level of teacher shortages in the big urban areas was overwhelming.  They were starting — New York, L.A. — with 1,200 teacher vacancies, et cetera. And there were various business executives in corporate America who had made this big pledge to say, “We’re going to take on the American education system. We want to improve it.”  So it just seemed like the perfect time, and it seemed like if we passed that window of opportunity, it might never happen.