Women at KIPP: Career Advice that Bears Repeating

Career Advice that Bears Repeating

By Zoe Fenson, KIPP Foundation Writer

March is Women’s History Month, a time to remember the remarkable women who have shaped our past, present, and future. At KIPP, we also want to celebrate women who are making history right now in our classrooms and schools across the country.

Female leadership is essential to KIPP’s work. As of the 2014-15 school year, nearly two-thirds of KIPP students attend schools with female leaders. Women hold the top KIPP leadership position in 15 regions, representing 65 percent of KIPP’s total student enrollment—Baltimore, the Bay Area, Charlotte, Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, DC, Eastern North Carolina, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Metro Atlanta, New Orleans, and San Diego.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked female executives from across the KIPP network to share their thoughts on leadership. In this post—the first in our Women at KIPP series—they discuss the advice that inspired them, challenged them, and helped set them on their career path.


What was the best career or leadership advice you ever received?

That it is acceptable, and expected, to ask for help when you need it and to own answers when you have them.
– Jennifer Zinn, Chief Academic Officer, KIPP San Antonio


Being a leader is not about giving out information, advice, or opinions. It’s about facilitating learning and growth in your people. It’s like what the best teachers do: they facilitate student learning instead of just disseminating information. I’m still learning how to lead in this manner, but it’s what I strive for each day.
– Monica Milligan, Chief Operating Officer, KIPP Austin Public Schools


“Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” About seven years into my career (in my first leadership position), my manager told me to slow down, to play as hard as I work so I could stay energized in the role longer. I realized I had to model this when I led my own school, so I could create an institution that would last beyond me. I make sure over the course of the year that I plan vacations and breaks. I’m in year 16 of my career in education and love coming to work each day!
– Kinnari Patel-Smyth, Executive Director, KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools


Mean what you say and say what you mean. People should not have to wonder or interpret what you stand for or where you are coming from; it should be crystal-clear.
– Valerie Hamilton, Chief People Officer, KIPP Foundation


Feedback is a gift—but there are different kinds of gifts. Sometimes you get the gift you didn’t even know you wanted. Sometimes it’s exactly what you asked for, but maybe it doesn’t work the way you envisioned. Sometimes it grows on you over time, and sometimes it never works, no matter how many times you try it on. Take every piece of feedback as a gift, wear it, wrestle with it, and then decide whether or not it’s useful for you.
– Norie Pride, Chief Operating Officer, KIPP St. Louis Public Charter Schools


Show, don’t tell. My ninth grade English teacher gave me this wisdom in reference to telling stories and bemoaning passive verbs. However, it’s proven useful in every facet of my life. Build solutions rather than complaining. Demonstrate results rather than waiting for recognition. Offer love and compassion rather than debating their value.
– Dawn Arthur, Chief Operating Officer, KIPP Eastern North Carolina


Use your calendar to make sure you are balancing your personal life with your work life. I live by my calendar, and have since my days as a principal. If you look at my calendar now, it shows my priorities: work, family, and self. My calendar contains everything from weekly meetings with my school leaders to my travel times to and from daycare each day to “appointments” for hair, exercise, grocery stores, or making a birthday cake. Some might call it crazy. I call it my sanity.
– Lauren Vance, Chief Academic Officer, KIPP Dallas-Fort Worth Public Charter Schools


If an opportunity presents itself, don’t pass it up! It’s served me well. In fact, I came to KIPP by following that advice!
– Carissa Godwin, Chief Development Officer, KIPP Delta Public Schools


Those who work with me closely might not believe this, but I used to be very shy about speaking up in group settings. I felt like every comment I made had to be monumental, or why bother? Eventually one of my professors suggested that I tally how many times somebody said something I was thinking. I did it for a while and the tally was always high. It helped me get more comfortable just sharing the thoughts that would run through my head. Now, if anything, I might err on the other side!
– Valerie Faillace, Chief Strategy Officer, KIPP Foundation


My restorative justice grad school professor said something that tipped the scales for me: “Trust your own instincts in doing what’s right. As long as you follow your moral compass, you’ll never falter in life.” That advice stuck with me and guides me in my work to this day.
– Jelena Dobic, Chief Advancement Officer, KIPP LA


Impossible is nothing.
– Sehba Ali, Superintendent, KIPP Houston Public Schools


Next time: Weighing in on leaning in.


Search our blog

Sort by