Women at KIPP: How to Find and Keep Female Leaders

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the history-making female leaders at KIPP schools, KIPP regions, and the KIPP Foundation. In the final installment of our Women at KIPP blog series, KIPP’s female executives offer suggestions for how to find, keep, and support women in leadership positions

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By Zoe Fenson, KIPP Foundation Writer

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the history-making female leaders at KIPP schools, KIPP regions, and the KIPP Foundation. In the final installment of our Women at KIPP blog series (read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), KIPP’s female executives offer suggestions for how to find, keep, and support women in leadership positions.


What advice would you give an organization that wants to attract and retain more female leaders?

Listen to the women in your organization. Appreciate their leadership style, their way of knowing, their perhaps nonconformist choices. Recognize that when strong, opinionated women come to the table as candidates, they are strong and opinionated, not harsh or brash.
Carol Bowar, Chief Operating Officer, KIPP Colorado Public Charter Schools


You have to make it okay to be a woman—a pregnant woman, a mother, a wife, a single woman. Just as work environments are accommodating and welcoming for every facet and phase of a man’s life, they have to be the same way for women.
Tiffany Flowers, Executive Director, KIPP Charlotte


Create an environment that is conducive to allowing women, and particularly working mothers, be successful and honor their families and outside commitments. Our organization has become better as we have worked to accomplish this ambitious goal.
Marcia Aaron, Executive Director, KIPP LA Schools


I think it’s worth a close look at mothers. The entire organization has to be open to doing things differently. We can’t wave a wand and change the hours that our children’s daycares and schools and doctors operate. We can’t change bedtimes or the costs of babysitters. Every person in the organization will benefit from any changes made that allow us to attract and retain parents, especially mothers. The parents I know are busy people but also among the most productive people I know.
Lauren Vance, Chief Academic Officer, KIPP Dallas-Fort Worth Public Charter Schools


Make sure you are being clear about what is expected of leaders, what ways they’ll be able to leverage their strengths, and how they’ll be held accountable.
Jennifer Zinn, Chief Academic Officer, KIPP San Antonio


Give capable, mission-driven women the opportunity, support, and pathways to develop and collaborate— then stand back and watch them flourish! It is worth noting that some of KIPP’s top executives are women who have achieved spectacular success in their respective regions in the very, very complex work KIPP does and, in the process, have moved the educational equity needle significantly, both locally and nationally.
Martha Karsh, Founder, Karsh Family Foundation and Board Member, KIPP Foundation


I recommend highlighting what the men are doing to make their own work flexible and sustainable. When I was at Yahoo, for many years my peer group was majority men. But they were struggling to balance young and growing families and spouses who worked, just as I was. This commonality and empathy for what each was juggling mattered more than our gender.
Sarah Hughes, Chief of Staff, KIPP LA Schools


Look at your board of directors. If there are no female representatives on your board, you are sending a very clear signal to potential and current women leaders that you do not value diverse contributions and leadership.
Carissa Godwin, Chief Development Officer, KIPP Delta Public Schools


There are a few things to take into consideration. One, what is the female representation at the top and throughout the organization? In this day and age, it makes a statement if a female leader is the first or one of a few. Second, what are the opportunities for advancement within the organization? Third, are you gathering productive information from those women who exit the organization? Finally, when female leaders leave your organization, where are they landing? Are they moving into similar roles, or into roles of greater breadth and scope?
Valerie Hamilton, Chief People Officer, KIPP Foundation


Strive for work-life balance. Be fair and accommodating, especially for those women who are both mothers and ambitious career women. Be reflective and thoughtful about burnout. Strive to create a culture that is both highly competitive and flexible, one that nurtures everyone’s talents and meets the needs of everyone’s work and home lives.
Jelena Dobic, Chief Advancement Officer, KIPP LA


Examine your biases. What practices are in place that may be preventing women from being successful in leadership roles? Do women have a voice? Do women have colleagues or mentors to help them grow? In order to attract and retain female leaders, an organization needs to recognize the importance of understanding women’s needs, especially if the organization has been dominated by men in leadership roles.
Kimberlee Sia, Executive Director, KIPP Colorado Public Charter Schools


It’s important to be open to different styles of leadership and give people exposure to different models. I studied economics and computer science and then went into investment banking and strategy consulting before coming to KIPP. While those are male-dominated fields, I had the privilege of working with lots of different managers and partners (male and female). And while there may be styles that have been traditionally associated with one gender or another, even within a given gender, people exhibit lots of different styles of leadership. I learned there is no one “right” model of leadership, and seeing those different styles has made me a better manager and leader.
Valerie Faillace, Chief Strategy Officer, KIPP Foundation


Ask why people leave, and why they stay away. When I was working as a consultant, a big part of what we advised clients to do was exit interviews—not just talking to people who left, but polling people to whom you offered jobs and who decided to go elsewhere. That data is gold. If the last 10 women who left you said it was a culture problem, then you need to take a look at your culture. It’s about having the toughness of skin to grapple with these issues before you dismiss them.
Norie Pride, Chief Operating Officer, KIPP St. Louis Public Charter Schools


Did you catch the first post of this series? Read about the advice that inspires female leaders at KIPP >