Yasmin Bhatia has been the CEO of Uplift Education in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for seven years. Prior to joining Uplift, she was at McKinsey & Co. for nine years. Yasmin graduated from BHP in 1998 and went on to receive an MBA from Stanford. Uplift operates a total of 34 schools with 14,000 students enrolled.
Tell me more about Uplift Education and the goals of the organization.
Uplift is the largest network of high performing public charter schools in the North Texas area. Our mission is to help children who are economically disadvantaged or educationally underserved and provide them with a high quality education to help them get into and complete college. This year, more than 75 percent of our graduating seniors are the first in their family to go to college. We have a track record of 100% college acceptance for our graduating seniors. We are all about making college accessible for students who don’t come from a family where that has been part of their history. Ninety percent of our students are minorities and 74 percent are classified as low income by the federal government. We were founded 20 years ago in the DFW area.
What drew you to education?
At every avenue (BHP, McKinsey, Stanford), whenever there was an opportunity to do pro-bono or community engagement work, I always picked things related to children. When I decided to leave McKinsey, I identified that I would like to do something at a high level to help children. I wanted to focus on one organization, not have to be spread out among clients, and not have to be one step removed from making a direct impact. Uplift was looking for a new CEO, and they were looking for someone to help them grow while maintaining and increasing academic quality. The board really respected my strong sense for systems and process, my focus on talent being an important driver to an organization’s success, and how to grow Uplift in a sustainable way that improved the outlook for the students. There was and still is a huge demand for Uplift schools, so they wanted to ensure they did not implode from growing too quickly. When I joined, we were at 3500 students across 15 schools, and now we are at 34 schools with 14,000 students. We are considered one of the best charter school networks in the nation based on academic outcome.
What do you attribute to that growth?
When you have a high quality product, parents will talk about it. Last year there were 2,500 open spots, and we had 20,000 applicants for those spots. We basically run nine applications for every one opening at Uplift. The demand was driven by the quality. Luckily we had donors who cared about increasing access to college for students who have previously been locked out due to family circumstance.
How would you like to see education transformed in the next 5-10 years?
I try not to pontificate on what is going to happen. At Uplift, what we believe to be true is that you will see more opportunities for more personalized and differentiated education in the classroom. This is critical because it is hard for teachers to teach to one set of students in a classroom who may be at different levels. Teachers able to differentiate for students at different places in their learning helps them grow faster academically. In the future, there will also be an increased focus on social and emotional learning, as well as character development. We want to help students make good decisions, be strong leaders, and productive citizens to society. We are currently running pilots on different character education in a meaningful and purposeful way.
What immediate goals are you pursuing and what is most challenging in accomplishing those goals?
Two things and they both have to do with leadership and human capital. First, is finding people who want to come teach in schools like Uplift and who are qualified. We have very high expectations. We value teaching for what it is. It is an intellectually demanding exercise with a lot of planning. It is a rigorous and demanding job. Teachers need to be thoughtfully planning for students in their classroom. The second challenge is keeping those teachers. They get hired away by school districts who can pay more since traditional public schools receive $1,000 more per student in State funding than charter schools. How can we keep teachers for upwards of 10 years, when the average is only 3, is a major issue.
It is also a challenge to find people who want to be a principal. It is incredibly demanding. You are basically managing a small company of 30-40 employees including a board, parents, students, and the teaching staff. The principal is tending to those stakeholders, and complying with the overarching state accountability system. We rapidly promote teachers who demonstrate leadership potential because we have to. You could be a principal in our network at 28, which is hard to do in a company, so it is a great place to come and grow. Then later in life, these individuals can move on to newer industries with real practical management knowledge. Sure, students can go to famous firms, but if they want to become a manager, they can go faster working in a high performing school network like ours.
When you were with McKinsey, you were working with some of the foundation clients. How did that work prepare you for what you are doing now?
Our foundation clients helped me understand the sector, the multiple stakeholders and political forces that exist in social issues. There is an underlying political dialogue that is happening in education. It was helpful to understand the complexity behind the social issues. It comes into play on a regular basis in my position. I have to manage community perceptions. We just spent a month on a public fight we got drawn into with a Dallas ISD trustee who didn’t want another charter school in her elected district. It created dialogue with the media about whether the ISD should be allowed to choose if it has competitors, and whether the ISD has to meet or beat the competition, as opposed to denying a competitor’s ability to exist in order to limit competition. At the end of the day, we won 7-6, but it was controversial, and was mostly about the overarching politics.
What did you most enjoy about your time in BHP and at UT?
I loved my time at UT. I loved having a cohort. I really got to know everyone in my cohort and I loved the case-based learning and the caliber of the people in the program. There were no slackers. I loved being surrounded by smart, leadership-oriented peers. I became involved in HBA, Business Council, Forty Acres Fest, and I loved being involved. It helped build early leadership skills that laid a foundation for going on to McKinsey and Stanford.
How would you recommend graduates go about getting involved in their communities and finding the organizations that fit their interests?
The best thing to do is to find a couple of nonprofits you really enjoy and be an active volunteer. People will draw you into board roles. They will be more likely to put you on a board if they see you give of your time first. In Dallas, there are organizations like Leadership Dallas. Organizations like these which are taking young people into service projects and teaching them about civic issues in their community are great. Gain exposure to different organizations, and different leaders, and you will start to build a peer network. Pick one or two organizations to be involved in and go deep with those so you can put yourself on a path to join the board.
My husband and I actively volunteered for Make a Wish because we believe in the mission of giving hope to families through the granting of a wish to a child who has a life threatening illness. We did that for several years and then my husband was approached about joining the board. On that board were CEOs of other major companies that he has been able to connect to. Take a long range view of this. In some ways it is like college in becoming a member and then becoming a leader of an organization. You have to do that as well in the working world, and in the community. You have to start laying foundations that you can build on later.