Wendy Kopp: Stepping up at 21

Wendy Kopp
Courtesy: Wendy Kopp

As a student at Princeton, Wendy Kopp developed a passion to transform K-12 education. Growing up in a middle-class family in an affluent Dallas, TX, suburb, she lived in a community that was “extraordinarily isolated from reality and the disparities in educational opportunity.” Wendy was influenced by her freshman roommate at Princeton, who was from inner-city New York. Wendy described her roommate as brilliant but unable to keep up with her studies because her high school had not prepared her for the rigors of Princeton. Ultimately, her roommate dropped out of school.

As a senior, Wendy burned with desire to transform education but didn’t know how to get there. Not wanting to pursue the typical corporate-training track, she went into “a deep funk.” As she explored teaching, she realized many others also believed that depriving kids of an excellent education was a national tragedy.

So she organized a conference of students and business leaders to examine ways to improve K-12 education. During the conference, an idea came to her: “Why doesn’t this country have a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in public schools?” Her rhetorical question inspired her to found Teach For America (TFA), the most successful secondary educational program of the past 25 years.

Wendy’s journey wasn’t easy. Lacking management experience and permanent funding, Teach For America was constantly short of cash, lurching from one crisis to the next. Time and again, Wendy threw herself into fundraising as she restructured budgets and financing to cover deficits. After working 100 hours a week for five years to build TFA to 500 new teachers per year, Wendy felt overwhelmed by the financial pressures of raising money to keep the organization going.

When many initial funders decided not to continue funding the organization, losses mounted to a cumulative deficit of $2.5 million. A blistering critique of TFA in an influential educators’ journal said, “TFA is bad policy and bad education. It is bad for the recruits. It is bad for the schools. It is bad for the children.” Reflecting on the article, she recalled, “It felt like a punch in the chest. I read it more as a personal attack than an academic analysis of our efforts.” When some of her original team left TFA, Wendy thought about shutting it down. “Yet my passion for our cause and fear that we might let the children down kept me going,” she says.

Wendy’s experience at such a young age is the essence of authentic leadership: Find something you are passionate about, and inspire others to join the cause. TFA’s crisis accelerated her development as a leader. Twenty years after founding TFA, Wendy’s tireless efforts and passionate leadership have paid off. Today the program has more than 5,000 corps members who are teaching more than 360,000 students.