Teach For America: Wendy Kopp In 1989, college senior Wendy Kopp was trying to figure out how to improve American public schools. For her senior thesis, she proposed creating a national teaching corps that would recruit recent college grads to teach in underserved schools. One year later, she launched the nonprofit, Teach for America. Today, TFA has 50,000 alumni, a budget of nearly $300 million, and continues to place thousands of teachers across the country. PLUS in our postscript "How You Built That," how a game of Secret Santa led Chris Waters to create Constructed Adventures, elaborate scavenger hunts for all occasions.
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Teach For America: Wendy Kopp

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Teach For America: Wendy Kopp

Teach For America: Wendy Kopp

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WENDY KOPP: When I walked into Ross Perot's office, I felt like I was at the end, like I had tried everything. I had tried to access everyone. And I knew, either he supports this or I just really don't know where else to turn. So I literally told myself, I won't leave his office. I'm going to glue myself to the chair in his office, and I'm not going to leave until he commits.



From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - how Wendy Kopp convinced graduates from some of the top universities to forget Wall Street, forget law school, forget big money and instead become a teacher.

So today's show is just a little bit different from other episodes you might've heard. For starters, you will not discover how Wendy Kopp made her millions because she didn't. Money was never the point. But Wendy is still a really successful builder - you could say one of the most successful nonprofit founders in recent times. And in many ways, her story is a textbook case study for how to start a business. In fact, it's probably why there's an actual case study about her at Harvard Business School - because Wendy built Teach for America from an idea in her head to a huge operation with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And it's a program that sends thousands of college graduates to some of the most neglected public schools across the U.S. each and every year.

Now, TFA isn't without its critics, and you'll hear about that. But it's also a program that's changed lives and schools. And the idea came to Wendy during her time as a student at Princeton, even though she didn't really have any experience working with underserved students. In fact, her own upbringing in Dallas was practically another world.

KOPP: I mean, honestly, I grew up in a community in Dallas, Texas, that referred to itself as the bubble, you know, for its kind of lack of diversity and disadvantage. I mean, my parents had really made it a point to buy a place in this community so that we could go to the, you know, kind of notably strong public schools there. And somehow, I managed to grow up really without understanding the extreme disparities in our country and the fact that where you're born really does so much to determine whether you have access to an excellent education.

And I - you know, you can never become aware of that really in its full extent at Princeton, but on any campus - and Princeton included - you can see, you know, evidence of that, that - I mean, my freshman-year roommate had gone to public schools in the Bronx - and I mean, honestly, one of the most driven, brilliant people to make it to Princeton. But still, through her and through her friends, many of whom were kind of other first-generation college students at Princeton, I realized how differently prepared they were to do well. So many things had turned me on to this fact that our country that claims to be and really aspires to be a place of equal opportunity really isn't one.

RAZ: And were you just thinking about this stuff, or did you start to do something about it?

KOPP: Well, actually, I had organized a conference alongside some other students at Princeton about improving our education system, and it was at that conference where we had pulled together students from all over the country, and they were some of the most incredible student leaders. And they were saying, we had no idea there was a need for teachers in urban and rural areas; we would teach.

And it was really sitting there that I thought of this idea. Like, why aren't we channeling these people's energy into teaching? And what struck me was this idea that we would essentially build a movement among the rising generation of leaders to channel their energy to teach in urban and rural public schools, knowing that that would have a really important, immediate impact in classrooms, and schools and in the lives of kids.

So I became obsessed. I mean, the minute I thought of it, I just thought this would change our country. It would change the consciousness of our country. And it became the answer to everything. Like, I need to propose this in my senior thesis.

RAZ: So you decide to turn this idea into your thesis - your, like - your research project.

KOPP: Yeah. I mean, I - you know, I looked at different things. I looked at other models. Like, I looked at the Peace Corps, and there was a federal Teacher Corps in the '60s and VISTA. I mean, I really went back, and I analyzed the policy, context. You know, would this actually work? Could we get these folks into classrooms? And also, the mood on college campuses - I mean, at all the factors - and ended up, in this thesis, proposing the creation of a national teacher corps.

RAZ: Was the idea, like, that there were all of these talented college graduates every year who were willing and could contribute a few years to teaching kids in - particularly, in low-income areas - I mean, and that just was - that that resource was being underutilized?

KOPP: Yeah, I mean, I felt like - you know, when I was thinking about my own self and all of my peers at Princeton - you know, folks were really searching for, you know, what do we want to do? And not a whole lot of people knew exactly what they wanted to do. So they were doing what was in front of them.

I mean, at the time, this is late '80s. So all the recruiters were literally investment banks, management consulting firms and a couple of brand management firms. I mean, if I was at Princeton, liberal arts majors at Princeton - I mean, those were the companies that were banging down our doors.

And so my thought was, you know, how different would it be in our country if we had many of the most promising future leaders, instead of, you know, working on Wall Street for two years right out of college, teaching for two years in urban and rural areas?

RAZ: And what - how was the thesis received? Like, when your advisor called you in to give you feedback, what'd they say?

KOPP: Well, he called me and said, can you come into my office? And I was thinking, oops. I guess this didn't go over. But he loved it. You know, he said he thought this was brilliant.

RAZ: Wow. So he was like, let's make this happen for real.

KOPP: Well, in the last week of writing the thesis, I decided, I'm just going to say in the thesis that I'm going to go do this. So he liked the idea, but he thought it was really crazy to think that I was really going to try to go do this. So I had this plan. And one of the things - I had looked at the origin of the Peace Corps. And there's this incredible paper, and the paper was this beautiful analysis that concluded that it had to start with 500 core members, that that was the smallest possible number that would seem nationally important, but that it was a workable number. Anything bigger would be unmanageable. So that became my number. Like, OK, we've got to recruit 500 people.

So the whole plan was to inspire thousands of people to apply in the first year, and select, and train and place no fewer than 500 of them in, you know, five or six communities across the country. And I had a budget saying, this was going to cost $2.5 million in the first year. And my thesis advisor became really obsessed with that number. Like, how are you going to raise $2.5 million? And he said, you know, do you know how hard it is to raise $2,500? And he sat me down. He said, I'll tell you what. I'm going to link you up with the head of development at Princeton who's going to explain how hard it is to raise $2,500.

RAZ: Yeah, and this is 1989.

KOPP: Yeah.

RAZ: Yeah. And so did that happen? Did you sit down with the head of develop - yes.

KOPP: He did. Yes, I met the head of development.

RAZ: And you said, hey, I've got this idea. I just need to raise 2 1/2 million bucks.

KOPP: Yes. He was very nice, and he did explain how hard it would be. But meanwhile, I had taken - I mean, I look back at this, and I, too, wonder, you know, what possessed me. It - I was blessed with the advantage of, you know, naivete. And I was really obsessed with this idea. I mean, I just thought - and really, it was an idea whose time had come. I mean, I would tell people this idea, and they would just say, doesn't this already exist?

In fact, I spent most of the thesis-writing just looking for it. I was just convinced someone must be trying to start this because there really was a mood on college campuses, and people really were searching for something that would enable them to make a real difference. And, you know, the fall of my freshman - or of my senior year, there was a front-page article in Fortune magazine saying, corporate America takes on education reform. And so I thought, these people will fund this. So I wrote letters to everyone quoted in the article and a few others, by the way. I would pick out, like, you know, Delta Air Lines and write to the CEO. I mean, this is, you know, the advantage of inexperience.

But believe it or not, I got seven meetings off those letters - not with the CEOs, but with people who they would pass the letters down to. And one was the head of the Business Roundtable who was the CEO of Union Carbide. And, you know, the Business Roundtable was the group that had said, we're going to take on education reform, and they had no plan. So, you know, I think my timing was just perfect. And he said, I'll tell you what. I'll let you use our office in Manhattan, and I'll introduce you to some other folks.

And I met another executive at Mobile who was just - that loved the idea and said, you know, what do you need to try to make it work? And I said I needed $26,000. I had developed a budget saying, that's what I needed to do to - you know, needed to spend three months, like, flying all over the country and really trying to put it together. And he said, OK, I'll tell you what. I'll do it if you can get Princeton to be the conduit of funds. So I called the head of development. And, literally, I mean, this is amazing, I now realize. But in two hours, he got the president to sign off on being the conduit of funds.

RAZ: What was the conduit of fund? What did that mean? Or it...

KOPP: Meaning, like, they could write the check to Princeton, and then Princeton would just give it to...

RAZ: ...To you guys, yeah.

KOPP: ...Me, even though we didn't have our tax-exempt status.

RAZ: Wow. Oh, so - but why was that important to him?

KOPP: Well, I had no credibility.

RAZ: Yeah, right.

KOPP: And you can't give - I mean, as a foundation, you can't give funds to an individual like me. So, you know, other NGOs can figure out how to be a conduit to startups. But, you know, you have to jump through hoops to be able to do that.

RAZ: So you got Princeton to agree to essentially launder this money to help you launch Teach for America.

KOPP: (Laughter).

RAZ: I mean, right off the bat, you thought, I've got to just go to corporations to get funding for this.

KOPP: Well, I had to find, again...

RAZ: Yeah, yeah.

KOPP: I had to find some funding before I graduated so that I had something to live on, and that was my biggest thing was - oh, you know, that was very stressful. It's April. I'm thinking, I've got two months to get some money.

RAZ: You know, a lot of students write college theses, right? Like, mine was on Gladstonian liberalism. That was the last time I exposed myself to Gladstonian liberalism - you know, two decades ago. But you - here we are. You know, your thesis is been your life's work. I mean, you - so what do you think it was that compelled you to stick with this idea, and to go out, and then graduate and say, I'm going to pursue this?

KOPP: Well, it is a really - it is a good idea, right?

RAZ: Yeah, it's a good idea, yeah, yup,

KOPP: Like, I mean, it's one of those ideas that, if I hadn't pursued it, someone would have figured it out in the couple years after. I'm really convinced of that. I mean, it's just one of those ideas. It's so foundational with so many other things. You know, somehow, I just landed on a good idea.

RAZ: OK, so you've got $26,000 in seed money, and then you've got this office space from the Business Roundtable. And are you guys, at this point, already calling yourselves Teach for America?

KOPP: Well, we had named ourselves Teach America, and then we found out that that was the name of a medical supply company, so we spent a full three months trying to think of an alternative until one night at midnight in the subway, I just thought, for - Teach for America. Thank heaven - right? - because Teach for America is such a better name.

RAZ: Yeah.

KOPP: Yeah.

RAZ: So you keep saying, we, so I'm assuming that you and I guess a couple of friends, like, came up with a plan to launch this thing.

KOPP: Yes. Well, our plan was, let's show people that the college students want to do this. So, I mean, that was pretty much - you know, because we were hearing, no one was going to do anything. The school districts were telling us, if you get these people from these colleges - we had a list of 100 colleges, and they would look at the list.

I remember meeting the head of human resources in Los Angeles, and I mean, he had his legs kicked back on the desk, the whole bit. And he started laughing when he looked at the list of 100 colleges and said, OK, I'll tell you what. You get 500 people from these colleges to want to teach in my schools, and I'll hire all 500 of them.

RAZ: This is the L.A. Unified School District.

KOPP: Yeah.

RAZ: So you went to meet with the head of hiring there and said, I had this plan. I'm going to get college students. Do you want them? And he said, if you can do it, sure, I'll take them.

KOPP: Yes.

RAZ: And he wouldn't have to pay any of them because you were going to get the funding for this.

KOPP: Well, no, he was going to hire them at regular teachers' salaries.

RAZ: He's going to - right...

KOPP: So I had gone through and just was really testing the feasibility. Will the districts hire them? And I was hearing, yes, if you can actually get them. And then the funders - I would meet these potential funders, and they would say, well, it's a good idea, but, you know, it's not going to work because the college students won't do it. So the whole plan became, let's just show people that the college students want to do it.

So what we did was to decide, OK, we're going to find two students at each of a hundred campuses. We're going to find one and tell them to go find someone who represents a different, you know, sort of diversity on that campus. And then those two people are going to essentially put flyers under doors and try to inspire people to apply.

RAZ: So you said, hey, if you want to teach in a low-income school, we can train you and then place you in a school, and that was it. And then - and you put that out there, and did applications start to come in?

KOPP: Yeah. I mean, the pitch was even - it was like, if you want to be part of the movement to improve education in America and ensure that we live up to our nation's promise to be a place of equal opportunity, then, you know, apply to this. And you'll teach for two years, and you'll - then you'll be part of a group of leaders who work for the rest of their lives to change things.

And one of the first people we found was a guy at Yale, actually, who drafted this flyer, and he was really the first one. He put it under doors, and within one weekend, he had 170 voicemail messages on his answering machine.

RAZ: Saying, hey, I want to apply, and I'm - I want to know more about this.

KOPP: Yes. And there was a man who some of your listeners will remember - Fred Hechinger - who was a columnist at The New York Times who - you know, I had met him along the way, and he just couldn't believe - you know, where is this outpouring of idealism coming from? The Me Generation - so he told that story in an article in the fall. It was probably October. And so one thing would lead to another.

People started realizing, wow, I mean, this generation does want to do that. So, you know, the donors who were not, you know, making a decision decided - some of them - OK, we'll get behind this. The school district started taking it more seriously. So everything was coming together. The only massive problem was that we were nowhere near raising $2.5. million

RAZ: Here's a thing that I don't get. You are going out and basically advertising to students at these hundred colleges, saying, apply for this thing. But, like, you didn't really have a guarantee - an ironclad guarantee that you could actually place them in any jobs. You were really just kind of - you were kind of just hoping that it would work out.

KOPP: Yeah, well, that is - as I look back, like you, that may be how it looks. I mean, at the time, it didn't seem so precarious. Like, there were real teacher shortages in these districts. You know, we had talked to folks in many of these districts and realized that they really wanted to hire these folks. And so it didn't seem as precarious as it sounds now.

RAZ: So how many applications did you get?

KOPP: We had 2,500 people apply.

RAZ: And how many spots could you - did you have a...

KOPP: Well, we were aiming for 500.

RAZ: Five hundred - so, wow. I mean, how many of you were now running this organization - like, four, five?

KOPP: Well, it - you know, it just kept building on itself. But we had all these applications. We had underestimated, of course, everything, like what to do with 2,500 applications.

RAZ: How do you go through five - 2,500 applications?

KOPP: Oh, yes, that's a very good question that we hadn't thought through. But, I mean, one thing we did was say, OK, we're going to send teams of two out in - you know, I actually - I got the head of Hertz to donate rent-a-cars. So we had five rent-a-cars, and we were going to send two people in each of them off to interview these folks. So they would each take parts of the country, and they would drive from campus to campus and would do these interviews.

And we had created a daylong application process that, you know, started with an essay application, and then they did a sample teaching session and interview. I mean, we had had someone go out and develop this kind of selection process. And by the way, this is about when - I mean, you know, we have these teams out on the road, and they're interviewing these folks. And I'm thinking, we don't have any money.


RAZ: When we come back - the scramble for money, a mutiny in the ranks and the struggle to stay alive. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.


RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's the spring of 1990, and Wendy is about to train TFA's very first class of teachers. The only problem is, she's short on money - like, $2.5 million short. So in kind of a Hail-Mary move, Wendy decides to contact Ross Perot, who, at the time, was one of the richest businessmen in Texas. And you might've heard of him because he ran for president in the early 1990s.

KOPP: He's from Dallas, and I'm from Dallas. And he's really into education reform. I mean, when I was growing up, Ross Perot, as a business leader in Texas, was, you know, really fighting for all this legislation to improve the schools. So I had never met him, and - but I just had in my head, he was going to fund this. And Ross Perot doesn't think I wrote him 11 letters before he agreed to see me. But...

RAZ: You did.

KOPP: We have different memories (laughter).

RAZ: OK, so you wrote him 11 letters, and he finally agreed to see...

KOPP: Finally. He called me up. I mean, I actually thought it was a friend of mine because everyone knew I was trying to get to Ross Perot, and someone yells down the hall, Ross Perot's on the line. And I pick up the phone and say, yup. I'm thinking this is one of my friends pulling a prank. And I hear his voice on the other end, you know, which is very recognizable. I'm like, oh, my gosh. And I said to him, I'm coming to Dallas. I'm going to be there next week. Can I come see you? And he agreed.

RAZ: And what happened when you went down there?

KOPP: Well, when I walked into Ross Perot's office, I felt like I was at the end, like I had tried everything. I had tried to access everyone. And I knew, either he supports this, or I just really don't know where else to turn. So I literally told myself - and I've often wished I could be as persistent - but I won't leave his office. I'm going to glue myself to the chair in his office, and I'm not going to leave until he commits.

RAZ: Until - yeah. You say to him, this my thing, this is my program. And what did you ask him for, how much money?

KOPP: Well, I asked him for a million dollars. I needed, you know, another 2 million, basically. And he spent - I mean, I was in there for probably two hours. And he spent the whole time thinking about his friends who would do this. I mean, he really loved the idea, and he kept saying, I think Sam Walton would do this.

And I kept thinking, oh, no. I know where all this leads. Like, no. Like, you are the one. I know you're the one. You care about education. You're an entrepreneur. You understand this. And he finally - like, I actually think he decided I wasn't going to leave. And he said, I'll tell you what. I will give you $500,000 if you can raise the other 1.5 million.

RAZ: Huh.

KOPP: And that was the moment I knew, it's done. Like, I knew that his credibility and that kind of leverage - I could just go back to everyone else and that they would all come in.

RAZ: You could go back to everyone else and say, Ross Perot's committed $500,000, guys. I need your money.

KOPP: Yup - in order to leverage that.

RAZ: Yeah. All right, so did you - I'm assuming you raised the money after Ross Perot made that commitment.

KOPP: Yup. So one year after I graduated, I was literally looking out on an auditorium full of 489...

RAZ: Wow.

KOPP: ...Recent grads who were all in that auditorium at USC, yeah.

RAZ: So a year after you graduated - a year after the thesis - you've done it. You've got these 489 college graduates in this room, ready for - what? - a four- or five-week training program.

KOPP: Yeah, eight weeks at the time, yeah.

RAZ: And they were all going to go to the LA Unified School District.

KOPP: No. Well, they were - during the summer, they were. But then they would go to the - one of six places where we had decided to cluster them and where the school districts had agreed to hire them.

RAZ: Where was that? Where were they?

KOPP: New York City and LA, New Orleans, Baton Rouge in southern Louisiana and then two rural sites in rural middle Georgia and eastern North Carolina.

RAZ: And they had to make a two-year commitment. That was part of the deal.

KOPP: Yeah.

RAZ: So, I mean, if I remember correctly, you were not a teacher. You did not study how to be a teacher. You did not have a teaching credential. Like, how did you know how to train 489...

KOPP: Well, I didn't know. And, you know, that's why we found these experienced teacher educators and experienced teachers who had a specialty in, you know, preparing and supporting teachers in urban and rural areas. And we really just turned the whole thing over to them.

RAZ: So how did that first summer go of training?

KOPP: Oh, it was terrifying. You know, I mean, it was the first year. We had 489 people cooped up in dorms for eight weeks - a diverse group - not as diverse as, you know, we would all hope and as Teach for America has achieved at this point. But, I mean, we had a mix of folks who had never been in an environment like this and were never - had - many of them who hadn't been working in urban, rural communities. So there was just a lot of tension and a lot of issues to sort through. And it was very - you know, it was exhausting.

I mean, you start teaching, and you see the microcosm of the world playing out in your classroom. You know, you see kids who are facing all the challenges of poverty and lack of adequate health care, and nutrition and racial discrimination - the whole bit. And it's very overwhelming. So the pioneering first core members had to kind of find their way to the solutions - you know, often, from other teachers in their schools. And we, ultimately, were learning from them.

RAZ: Once that first class of teachers went, you know, to their schools and started to teach, did you just have to get right back on the fundraising hamster wheel?

KOPP: I mean, this - and on the recruitment side - and, you know, like, it's a cycle - right? - like, every year. And so, yeah, the fundraising never stops. I mean, that's just kind of an ongoing, underlying thing that you just constantly have to be thinking about the resources.

RAZ: Because that was where all of your revenue was going to come from, right?

KOPP: From fundraising, right.

RAZ: I mean, it's a nonprofit, so it's very different from, as I mentioned, the other companies we've done on the show. But it does - you we're running a business. I mean, you were creating a business.

KOPP: Yeah, I mean, the hardest piece, as you say, was around recruiting, selecting, training, supporting them. But then there was, how do you manage something? I mean, I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I had really, really idealistic notions. You know, we should all make the same salary, and there shouldn't be any hierarchy and all sorts of things, which now, I might think, maybe there's a path to some of that. But at the time, this was just chaos.

And then ultimately, most importantly, I mean, there were also the political learnings. You know, how do you navigate the politics of education? But probably, most fundamentally, because you can't do anything without resources - like, how are we going to sustain this thing financially? Because none of those donors thought that they were going to stick with it.

RAZ: Yeah, I bet.

KOPP: And we were losing donors in, like, half-a-million and million-dollar chunks and had to completely convert the funding base essentially overnight. And that kind of threw us into what I think of as the dark years of Teach for America. You know, like, every paycheck, every payroll, I - you know, there's a question about whether we were going to meet it.

RAZ: Was there something that happened during that period that was particularly difficult?

KOPP: Oh, there was so much. Probably the most excruciating moment was when President Clinton launched AmeriCorps, this national service initiative. Teach for America was one of those first partners with AmeriCorps, and so that federal funding really gave us a big boost.

But the second year, there was, well, all sorts of question - actually, about our financial viability. And so the folks who were operating AmeriCorps wouldn't approve a grant to Teach for America. And this is about June, and we have 500 teachers who think that they're going to go into training. But we didn't have the money to even fly them there. And so I felt like, this is it. Either we get the governmental approval or we shut it down. And we were ready. I mean, we were ready to FedEx letters to all 500 people saying, we can't make it. You're not going to be able to come. And we could not get anyone in the government.

And, again, like, you know, I'm still in my 20s - 20 whatever. We still had only so much credibility. And we're dealing with these governmental officials. And, you know, we were taking ourselves a lot more seriously than they were taking us, let's just say. But, ultimately, at about one minute before we would've pushed send on, you know, the plan B of just shutting it down, they finally came through. But that was one of many, many examples of the extreme stress of that era.

RAZ: How - I mean, how much money did you need to meet payroll or to meet those costs?

KOPP: Well, I mean, I think that grant was just a big one.

RAZ: Yeah.

KOPP: You know, it was probably one and half million for us at that point.

RAZ: And why did it come in at the last minute?

KOPP: I mean, we were calling every single person and lever we could possibly come up with. And, ultimately, I guess we wore them down. But, you know, these things happen. Like, this is what happens in big bureaucracies. And it's what happens to social entrepreneurs.

RAZ: Yeah.

KOPP: You know, I mean, ultimately, it all works out because you kind of reshape the ecosystem and the environment. And that's why Teach for America ultimately thrived. But I think it's kind of the definition of social entrepreneurship. Like, you know, there aren't natural funding sources. So you almost have to create them and, ultimately, by your existence, help shape them. And until that's happened, it's just excruciating to make it.

RAZ: Wendy, I guess at a certain point - maybe it was about five years into Teach for America - the staff - like, from what I've read, like, they revolted. They rebelled. They all threatened to quit. What was going on?

KOPP: Oh, gosh. That was even earlier. I mean, I think it was our second year, actually. We were all at our training institute. And I was still - I had this notion of no hierarchy, which was a genuine notion. I just thought if we're all, you know, on the same - you know, we're on the same mission. Why do we need a hierarchy?

RAZ: Yeah, everyone's self-directed.

KOPP: But people decided this was because I wanted to control everything. And they just decided unless we can make all decisions by vote, we're all walking out the door.

RAZ: How many people said that?

KOPP: Well, it was everyone sitting in a room.

RAZ: It's like 10 people or 15 people?

KOPP: Oh, gosh, we had 60 people at that point.

RAZ: Oh, wow. So they said if we can't vote on every decision made democratically, we leave?

KOPP: Yeah.

RAZ: And so what'd you do?

KOPP: Well, at this point, I didn't know what to do. I was honestly - I still remember it was, like, midnight. I'm so exhausted. And one of our staff members, who turned into my husband later - much later - raises his hand and said, Wendy - I mean, I was making no sense and wasn't being responsive to anything - he said, what I'm hearing you say is that we're not going to make all decisions by a vote. Is that right? And even then, I hedge. Like, I should have said yes. But no. So we all left. And the next morning, I sent out a note saying, you know, we're not going to make decisions by vote. And you know what? No one left.

RAZ: Huh. I mean, was there any truth in what they were saying? Like, were you autocratic in your style?

KOPP: Let's just say I wasn't autocratic in my intention. You know, I really did have this thought that everyone should just do the right thing. And, you know, so it was just not playing itself out as intended. So I'm sure that there was some truth on all sides, you know?

RAZ: When you are, you know, 24 - whatever - 25 - however old you were at the time, and the whole team is like, hey, we want to - you know, it's essentially like a vote of no confidence, even if it wasn't. But it kind of was. Did you - did it shake you? I mean, did you feel like - did it exacerbate the self-doubt?

KOPP: Yeah. Oh, yes, it did. But I didn't know what to do. I mean, part of what was leading me to stay in it was just a sense of responsibility. Like, I couldn't figure out how to get out of it. I mean, honestly, if someone had appeared who I felt like could get us out of this and get us to a point of stability or something, I would have just turned the whole thing over to them at this point. There's no doubt about that. I mean, I was just - in fact, I was kind of looking for this. But I just - I couldn't seem to find the answer, other than to keep putting my head down and keep going at it until we could get out of it.

RAZ: So once you did get out of it and, you know, became more financially stable, were you able to start seeing the impact of Teach for America?

KOPP: Well, I think - I mean, we were seeing - even in year five, we were starting to see real evidence of, you know, the immediate impact of our teachers, of what some of our alumni were starting to do. It's like we were starting to see the big idea play itself out. These people aren't leaving. They're dedicated themselves to this. They're becoming the pioneering leaders we thought they could be. So that's what kept us going through these dark years - like, realizing that, actually, this really is a good idea. Like, it really is working because we were seeing enough evidence in classrooms and enough evidence even in whole schools that - actually, when you meet kids who are facing a lot of challenges and have a lot of assets. But, you know, with high expectations and the extra support they need, they'll excel at an absolute scale. So that recognition is what really inspired us to say, OK, how do we take this to the next level?

RAZ: Yeah. As Teach for America really starts to take off and grow and grow and get more and more attention, you also - with more visibility comes more criticism. And I'm just trying to think. I mean, you were still pretty young. You had no teaching experience. And there were professional educators who were kind of going after you and criticizing Teach for America - everything from this is, you know, white paternalism of middle-class, wealthy kids going into poor neighborhoods of color to, you know, there's not enough training to, you know, they're only there for two years. It's actually disruptive. Did that criticism hurt you? Did it keep you up at night?

KOPP: Well, you know, we were working very hard to get better. You know, and the criticism actually started pretty early on. I mean, you know, this was a constant thread during our first decade, actually. But in a way, we were our own harshest critics. I mean, we were tearing ourselves up. I mean we felt that we needed to do things a lot better. So I guess our assessment was the world isn't going to be better if we shut down Teach for America. So there's really only one option, which is to get better.

RAZ: So you just - it didn't faze you?

KOPP: Well it's not that it didn't. I mean, the fact is it made the work so much more difficult. You know, it's easy now to justify a decision to go off to work for the consulting firm for two years because you don't even - like, is Teach for America really a good thing? Like, there's enough question out there in the blogosphere, you know? And so it definitely made the work more difficult. But, you know, as the criticism became probably at its most extreme, we were seeing incredible impact in communities. I mean, when we started placing teachers in Washington, D.C., it was the lowest-performing of all the major urban districts. Its kids were two years behind the kids in Harlem. And, you know, now it's the fastest-improving urban school system in the country.

RAZ: Wow.

KOPP: You know, everything - graduation rates, enrollment rates, everything moving in the right direction. And the fact is if you took the Teach for America people out of that city, not just the teachers during the two years - right? - but the 900 teachers who are still in the system and the the school principals and the last two schools chancellors who presided over the system for a decade...

RAZ: One of whom was an alum of Teach for America, Michelle Rhee - Kaya Henderson, yes.

KOPP: They're all alums. That's what I'm saying. Like, every one of these people. And that's one city. I mean, name a city - I could tell you the stats. Like, it's really - they've become such a leadership force for change in the cities. So, you know, you can critique it all you want. But I guess my view is propose the alternatives, right? Like, we have here a deeply entrenched and systemic issue that cannot be solved from within classrooms alone, right? This is - no amount of teaching is going to solve this. We need incredible teachers. But we also need some of those people who understand what you understand from teaching and decide, I'm going to go become a school principal. I want to change schools.

RAZ: Yeah.

KOPP: And some who say, I'm going to work at the system level and some who say, I'm going to run for office because we've got to change the policy context and some who say, I'm going to start something that improves the child welfare system because that - until we do that, we will never solve this problem.

RAZ: Yeah.

KOPP: And that's what Teach for America is trying to do. So I know that. And I know that we need to stay the course because I have yet to see another thing that's made a bigger difference in really tackling the systemic challenge in its full complexity. And the critics - you know, I wish they'd dive in and help us do better, essentially.

RAZ: What's Teach for America's budget today?

KOPP: It's about 300 million.

RAZ: Wow. That's huge. It's gone from two and a half million to 300 million. How many teachers does it bring in? Does it...

KOPP: There are about, you know, 7,000 to 8,000 teachers at any given time and 50,000 alumni.

RAZ: Fifty thousand alums.

KOPP: Most of whom I will say are still in the work.

RAZ: Wendy, I mean, I think anybody hearing this could conclude that you could have been a - started a business, a for-profit company and probably made $300 million, that you have the talent and skill to do that. And I wonder whether - I mean, you could have gone on and done that. And let's say you had $300 million now. You could have just been the huge philanthropist and given $300 million to education projects. And your name would be everywhere. It'd be the Wendy Kopp Building for Education Reform. And people would be kissing up to you.

KOPP: But, see, I don't think I would have, right? I mean, who knows? But it's just not - there's really not a bone in my body - I feel like I don't even know how I would do that. Like, you know, and everyone's cut out for different things. And we're shaped by our early experiences, of course. But I don't even - I have not one instinct to do that, right? Like, I'm so - to this day, I'm - I've never been more energized, like, 27 or however many years in. You know, like, this is really all I've ever wanted to do.

RAZ: Wendy Cobb, founder of Teach for America. In 2013, she stepped down as the CEO. And she went on to run another organization she founded called Teach for All. It's an international version of the program. And today, Teach for All has more than 14,000 teachers working in 45 different countries around the world.


RAZ: Thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And when Chris Waters wakes up in San Diego on most days, he heads to his usual job. He's an account manager at a software company.

CHRIS WATERS: Yeah. It's a cubicle job. It's just desk, phone, usually talking to relatively unhappy people.

RAZ: Now, as you can imagine, Chris prefers to talk to relatively happy people, which explains how he started his side business a few years back. He was on the website Reddit. And Reddit has this thing around Christmastime where they'll connect you with a total stranger, and then you can send them a gift.

WATERS: And then I got matched with this guy who lived 20 minutes away. And I was thinking about what to give him and what I could do with this great opportunity, where he lived so close.

RAZ: And Chris was thinking way beyond the scope of this whole Secret Santa thing. You know, he didn't want to just send a boring gift card or a snack box. And fortunately...

WATERS: I was hosting a weekly poker game with my friends. And I had just happened to have won 5 weeks in a row. And so I had a lot of extra money.

RAZ: Like, almost $2,000 in extra money. And Chris thought, why not just pay it forward and put together this really elaborate and expensive Secret Santa gift?

WATERS: I like doing things for other people. I like creating something - I don't know - special and magical. And if you had the opportunity to do something truly spectacular for someone, including an internet stranger, you should take that opportunity.

RAZ: OK. So it's important to mention here that Chris is really into scavenger hunts and buried treasure and planting clues - you know, stuff like that. So for his Secret Santa guy, Chris wound up planning this incredible, daylong adventure.

WATERS: At 8 a.m., a century-old suitcase filled with envelopes and a box with a chain wrapped around it was handed over to his door.

RAZ: This was all happening around Scottsdale, Ariz., by the way.

WATERS: You know, they got to a place where there was an envelope with two tickets to the zoo. And at the animal pens, there was kind of a cipher that you used to decode the message. And then it sent them to a restaurant where the server said, we've been expecting you.

RAZ: Anyway, Chris wound up spending something like $600 of his poker money on tickets and chachkis and clues, meals all for this total stranger. And at the end of this incredible day, Chris actually met up with the guy at a local bar. His name is Blaine. And as you might guess, Blaine was pretty blown away.

WATERS: And a couple days later, Blaine posted it to Reddit. And it just blew up.

RAZ: Blaine's post about his Secret Santa experience went to No. 1 on Reddit's front page. And so Chris started to get inundated with messages.

WATERS: Just people commenting and privately messaging saying, you need to do this in Vegas. You need to do one here. I live in England. Can you come over here and do this? And then businesses saying, we would like to be a part of this.

RAZ: And that is how Chris started his business, Constructed Adventures. He puts together these personalized scavenger hunts and day-long excursions for people's birthdays and marriage proposals and stuff like that. And it's pretty good money.

WATERS: Minimum, it's probably going to cost them about $1,000 to $2,000 for the whole shebang.

RAZ: Chris has made about $20,000 over the past two years. He's just doing it part time. But we have some breaking news here. That boring office job he talked about - this is his last week. He has just submitted his letter of resignation, and he has decided to do Constructed Adventures full time.

WATERS: It is exhilarating. I honestly - I should be more nervous, and I should be scared. But if I can quit my job and spend my life doing that for other people, I'd say that's a pretty good life.

RAZ: And you can find out more about Chris Waters and Constructed Adventures on our Facebook page. And, of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're up to. And thanks for listening to the show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also download our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can write us. Our email address is hibt@npr.org. If you want to send us a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis.

Our show was produced this week by Rund Abdelfatah, with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breen, Lawrence Wu and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Dayana Mustak. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.


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