Schooling corporate giants on recruiting
Wendy Kopp has turned Teach for America into one of the largest hirers of college seniors. Now Amgen, Goldman and others want to partner with the nonprofit on talent acquisition, says Fortune's Patricia Sellers.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Sitting in a lunchroom at Columbia University with the school's star students - the senior class president, the student council VP, the premed triple major and 15 other superachievers - Wendy Kopp is begging them to shelve their career plans to teach in America's most troubled public schools. "This problem has to be this generation's issue," she tells the future grads. "We know we can solve it if we get enough true leaders."
Kopp is talking with prospective recruits for Teach for America, the Peace Corps-like program that she dreamed up 17 years ago when she was a senior at Princeton. As she speaks, she frequently covers her mouth with her right hand, a nervous gesture. But the students too are nervous about the job Kopp is asking them to do.
Seniors who compete to be Teach for America corps members must endure hours of interviews and tests designed to assess their organizational skills, perseverance and resiliency - critical traits since recruits receive only five weeks of teacher training (albeit grueling) before they get plopped into a classroom in the South Bronx or some other impoverished locale.
As the students voice their qualms about TFA "What if I fail? Won't poor kids reject Ivy League teachers?" Kopp doesn't sugarcoat the obstacles: "It can be really overwhelming and depressing," she warns. "We all have bad days, and people who teach in Teach for America probably have more bad days than most."
Kopp's pitch is part challenge and part cautionary tale, yet the combination has been a winning one. This year, 19,000 college students - including 10 percent of the senior classes at Yale and Dartmouth, 9 percent at Columbia, and 8 percent at Duke and the University of Chicago - applied to Teach for America. (While local school districts cover the salaries of TFA teachers, TFA screens and trains them - and requires a two-year commitment.)
"We recruit insanely aggressively," says Kopp, 39, who accepted 2,400 of those 19,000 applicants this year. That makes Kopp's nonprofit one of the largest hirers of college seniors, according to CollegeGrad.com - bigger than Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Accenture, or General Electric.
Kopp, in fact, has built such a mighty recruiting machine that corporations are angling to work with TFA to buff their own images on campus. J.P. Morgan (Charts) executives, who found themselves competing with TFA for the same top prospects, called Kopp last year about a recruiting partnership. Now the investment bank and TFA are staging joint events at two dozen colleges; Morgan will offer job deferral, relocation bonuses and summer internships to seniors accepted into both programs.
"We want employees who are committed to serving the community as well as to serving shareholders," says David Puth, Morgan's head of global currency and commodities.
Goldman Sachs (Charts) hopes to set up a similar program with TFA: "One of the few jobs that people pass up Goldman Sachs offers for is Teach for America," says Edie Hunt, Goldman's co-COO of human-capital management. (First-year pay at Goldman averages $65,000, about twice what a TFA corps member makes.)
Amgen (Charts) is also partnering with TFA to capture top science and math students. And at Wachovia (Charts), senior EVP Shannon McFayden, who heads human resources, is so impressed with Kopp's success that she is using TFA as a benchmark in redesigning the bank's recruiting: "We think Teach for America is the best college recruiting organization in the U.S."
A growing interest in education reform
Wendy Kopp never wanted to be a corporate role model. She just wanted to reform public education. Growing up in Dallas (where her parents owned a travel-guide business), she moved from parochial school to public school in sixth grade and went on to be valedictorian of her high school. Her interest in the failures of America's public schools began at Princeton, where she helped organize a conference on education reform during the fall of her senior year.
Her senior thesis was entitled "A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps," and she wrote a letter to then-President George H.W. Bush, urging him to establish such a two-year service program. "I received a job-rejection letter in response," she recalls.
Rejection spurred her on. Failing to land a job after college (she was turned down by Morgan Stanley, Goldman, McKinsey, Bain and P&G), she decided to launch the teaching corps herself. Though she describes herself as "very shy," Kopp drummed up the courage to cold-call scores of CEOs and foundation leaders.
A Mobil executive named Rex Adams agreed to give her a seed grant of $26,000, and Dick Fisher, then-CEO of Morgan Stanley (and a Princeton alum), donated office space. A letter to the chairman of Hertz (Charts) got her six cars for TFA's skeleton crew of recruiters (who included Richard Barth, now Kopp's husband).
Other early believers - Merck, Union Carbide, Apple Computer, Young & Rubicam and fellow Texan Ross Perot - chipped in, building her first-year budget to $2.5 million. That was enough to recruit, train, and place 500 teachers.
"It seemed like nothing could stop us," Kopp says. Then the startup grants dried up, and TFA headed into a period of "near-death experiences and tremendous learning curves," she says.
By 1996 money was so tight she called together her staff to discuss shutting down. "We decided we had to make this work. We cut our budget almost in half and laid off 60 people. We set priorities around strengthening our management systems, diversifying our funding base and strengthening our program."
They hit a turning point in 2000 when Don Fisher, who founded the Gap (Charts), agreed to give TFA an $8.3 million challenge grant, contingent on raising that amount from other donors. California billionaire Eli Broad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, who had former TFA staffers running their foundations, were among the big players who responded. TFA raised $25 million in four months.
Kopp used much of that money to crank up recruiting. TFA now has 128 full-time employees on campuses, headhunting top student leaders and organizing recruiting events. TFA also hires "campus campaign managers," students who, for $1,000 a year, surf Facebook for prospects, write personalized pitch letters and promote TFA to their friends. The goal isn't just volume but top-quality talent.
Changing the world
"People are everything in education, just as in the corporate world," Kopp says as we ride down a dusty two-lane road through the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, one of 25 regions where TFA sends corps members. "Our teachers are operating just as effective leaders in the business world do. They set a vision that most people think is crazy. They convince the kids why it's important to accomplish the goal. And they are totally relentless."
As we visit schools in this area, one of the poorest in Texas, it's clear that TFA imposes enormous burdens on its teachers. Typically TFA teachers arrive at school at 7 a.m., stay until 6 p.m., and spend hours tutoring. Many work 80 to 90 hours a week.
Pointing to banners that hang in the Texas classrooms we visit - Big goals, no excuses, your 'I will' is more important than your IQ - Kopp says, "The teachers are trying to build the same culture in the classroom as we're building in the organization."
At Edcouch-Elsa Middle School, Rochelle Bell, who majored in psychology at Harvard, says she felt desperately inadequate teaching sixth-grade science until TFA's program directors stepped in with guidance. Principal Tony Garza says that Bell and three other TFA corps members are among the best teachers he has.
Principal Nancy Castillo, who employs 19 corps members at Sauceda Middle School in nearby Donna, wants more TFA teachers, despite the fact that some veteran teachers resent the young idealists.
"Generally, the TFA teachers are much less excuse-bound and more entrepreneurial and creative," says New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who tapped TFA for almost 8 percent of the city's new hires this year. "I've got 1,000 teachers [from TFA] affecting 70,000 or 80,000 kids, and I keep ramping it up."
Some locales are even more devoted: Newark took about 30 percent of its new hires from TFA. Says TFA board member and Allen & Co. investment banker Nancy Peretsman , "Wendy is building the bench for national school reform."
Kopp wants to double TFA's corps to 8,000 by 2010. "We're trying to be the top employer of recent grads in the country," she says. "Size gives us leverage to have a tangible impact on school systems."
TFA's budget is $70 million this year; 30 percent comes from the government, the rest from private donors. Texas billionaires Michael Dell and Richard Rainwater recently pledged $10 million each, and hedge fund honchos Julian Robertson and Steve Mandel, $5 million.
Wachovia has upped its annual giving to $2 million. Says Wachovia CEO (and TFA board member) Ken Thompson: "I'm bowled over by Wendy's absolute belief that TFA can change the world."
That's her dream. Beyond expanding the teacher corps, Kopp and her staff are creating programs to help TFA's 12,000 alums move into school leadership positions and political office. "We need to fuel the larger movement," she says. Spoken like an idealist fresh out of Princeton.
From the November 27, 2006 issue