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Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America: Success in Education Requires Innovation

Elisa Villanueva Beard with UT President Greg Fenves

Elisa Villanueva Beard wants to change the face of education. As CEO of Teach for America, Villanueva Beard recognizes the need for improvement in the educational system as children nationwide face huge inequalities in education.

Villanueva Beard knows the struggle better than most. Coming from an area with a high percentage of high school drop outs, not only did she overcome the odds but she went on to become a Latina chief executive in a predominantly white male leadership world. Villanueva Beard started her work with Teach For America in the classroom, an experience she credits with providing all her most important skills for her current role as the nonprofit's CEO, a position she's held since 2013. Her advice to others is simple: Trust yourself, learn from others, and keep innovating.

Villanueva Beard spoke at The University of Texas at Austin as part of the McCombs School of Business VIP Distinguished Speaker Series.

What are the unique challenges of running Teach for America?

We are now a network that is 53,000 strong. Our greatest asset is our scale and diversity. We are in more than 53 communities. What is hard about that is we have a group that is really principled in their views and has had a profound experience that binds them together, but all these people actually have different views on the path forward.

I think we have an incredible opportunity, especially in the world that we live in now which is so divisive and polarized. The leadership we have to demonstrate requires bridge building and creating a context in which people can and want to learn from each other. Then, you have diverse thinking. Where we are today, people retreat to their bubbles and I think it creates a lot of danger.

What advice can you offer others who are seeking to lead organizations?

People often ask me how I ended up as a CEO, and the truth of the matter is I never wanted to be a CEO. What mattered is that I found a passion early on. Having a passion matters no matter what the motivation or what you strive to do. Then you want to be the best, you want to be the pace setter, and you end up deeply motivated. You see results and get noticed, and that leads to the next thing.

You build confidence through those experiences where you are deeply stretching yourself, especially for women. You have to take more risk and believe you're going to step up because a lot of our counterparts who are men have confidence that they'll figure it out. We, as women, are sometimes more measured, perfectionists, and detail oriented, and tend to say, "Wait, I really want to make sure I am ready and will succeed."

I have found that you will rise to the occasion and succeed if you are passionate about it, really motivated, and if you're resourceful and ask for help. Be really comfortable with who you are and surround yourself with people who think you are awesome and mentors who really see you as special and want to see you succeed.

During your 15 years at Teach For America, what leadership insights have you gained?

The foundation [for leading Teach For America], which I didn't realize at 22, was actually teaching. I didn't realize I was training to be a CEO but I really was when I got into the classroom. The reason I say that is because it was a crucible moment, when I was broken down and built back up. In those moments you learn what your character, your values, and your strengths are.

What are you hoping to change in education?

As a country, one of the things that we have to come to terms with is our education system was created and designed for a different time and place. We are operating in a very different context. In the 21st century, being competitive in the job market requires different skills. If you're trying to teach different skills you have to do the work differently.

I am a big believer in public education. But there's no need to protect what we have because it's not working. We recently received the Program for International Student Assessments results that come out every three years and show how competitive countries are around the globe. What those have been showing us over the years is that our education system is declining. The United States is in the middle of the pack of developed countries, we did worse in math in this last administration, and there are three dozen countries ahead of us.

Where does innovation fit into the educational world?

Innovation is central. Our strategy right now at TFA is decentralized. The idea is that we have one mission but many ideas on how to reach that goal. We've got to have learning spaces where people can develop strong theories of action, how to best train teachers, and that we are learning from each other's ideas and differences. This spurs innovation and learning.

We think the leadership needed and what we have to cultivate in our kids is not only academics but personal characteristics. Our kids need to have strong values. They need to think diversity is a strength. Education shapes the future of our country and future leaders and it requires so much that is different from what we have now. We need real entrepreneurs who are ready to be all in and solve this problem. We need to revitalize and reform our education to include these values. Innovation is so critical, without it we won't get there. 

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