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If you like Wendy Kopp's story, you might also like:
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Wendy Kopp
Wendy Kopp
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Wendy Kopp Interview

Founder, Teach for America

September 17, 2013
Los Angeles, California

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  Wendy Kopp

It's a pleasure to be speaking today with Wendy Kopp. You started Teach For America right out of college. You had the guts to ask the CEOs of these really 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 Interview Photo
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.

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.

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.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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.

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 Interview Photo
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.

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.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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."

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