MyCareer@PND — Uncommon Talent: Lior Ipp, Breakthrough Collaborative
How can an organization make radical systemic changes in education? According to Lior Ipp, the new executive director of Breakthrough Collaborative, it takes innovation, entrepreneurship, and authenticity.
For over three decades, Breakthrough Collaborative has been preparing underserved middle school students around the country for college while recruiting and training high school and college students to become educators. Commongood recently caught up with Ipp to discuss the challenges in education today, the next phase for growth at the organization, and his thoughts on leadership.
Commongood: Tell us about Breakthough Collaborative's approach to education and why the "students teaching students" model works.
Lior Ipp: For over thirty years we've demonstrated that poor students, students of color, and all other students adversely impacted by disadvantage are as capable as any other in society. Through our student-teacher model, Breakthrough has forcefully and continually challenged the status quo, disrupting old patterns of action and perception of what it means to be a teacher or a student. By setting high expectations for our students, recruiting passionate and talented college students as teachers, and by focusing on mentorship and training for all our participants, we have been able to demonstrate significant year-to-year improvements in student achievement.
CG: You joined Breakthrough Collaborative in March of this year. How has your career path led you to this new role?
LI: I've been fortunate to have worked in education for over fifteen years in both the public and private sectors. My formative experiences in youth services have allowed me to understand the challenges our young students and families face on a daily basis. In founding an educational software company and, most recently, in my work at Ashoka, I've had practice thinking about long-term systems change through an entrepreneurial lens. I'm now bringing these experiences to Breakthrough.
CG: How has your prior experience leading an education software company affected your thinking on how nonprofits use data and measure impact?
LI: If you don't use data to analyze your impact, how do you know if you're making a difference? We use data to inform our strategy, gauge our efficacy, and determine what changes we need to make. Because of our national presence, we've increasingly leveraged the Internet to aggregate our results and track the progress of our teachers and students. This hasn't come easily. Like many organizations we've had to learn how to distinguish between outcomes and outputs and to become adept at translating numbers into actionable tasks. We're now able to do so in real-time and with far greater facility.
CG: Breakthrough Collaborative has expanded to thirty-three sites and Hong Kong, helping over twenty thousand students prep for college. What will the next phase of growth and/or development look like at the organization?
LI: One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. education system today is teacher attrition and the overall shortage of qualified teachers. Nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within five years. Every year at Breakthrough, we train a highly selective cohort of seven hundred and fifty college and high school students as intern teachers to teach a rigorous six-week summer program. Seventy-five percent of our intern teachers go into education. Our alums are sought after by chief marketing officers, training organizations, and graduate programs across the country. Over the next few years, our growth model will enable us to quintuple the number of students we recruit, train, and mentor as future teachers and leaders. This is undoubtedly our lever for change. The more young people who enter education who are better qualified, trained, and have relevant experience, the more likely they will positively affect student achievement over a longer career.
CG: How will that impact the hiring decisions you make? What skill sets will you be looking for?
LI: What I've realized over the years is that the best-laid plans and initiatives are only as good as the people who are leading them. The scope and ambition of our plans will require people who are comfortable in a fast-paced environment, who are entrepreneurial, who are willing to take initiative, be creative, and who are strategic thinkers. Our success will be predicated on how well we staff our programs and how well we cultivate their skills and experiences.
CG: What were some early leadership lessons for you?
LI: Ten years ago, I was probably less aware of the importance of having the right people in the room. Now I spend more time in recruitment and cultivating talent. The human capital aspect is so critical. It's not only finding the right people, but nurturing their skills and talents, creating opportunities for staff to grow and succeed and allowing them to take ownership and leadership over the work that they're doing. I spend a significant amount of time and energy on this and see it as a high priority in my role as ED.
CG: What was the best advice you were given on leadership?
LI: Be authentic and be yourself. As a leader, you have multiple constituencies that you are accountable to and each stakeholder and audience requires something different from you. The common denominator is staying true to who you are and what you believe in. My vision and personal sense of integrity is what guides me.
To learn more about Breakthrough Collaborative's work in education, please visit http://www.breakthroughcollaborative.org/.
Interview conducted and condensed by Maria Peralta for Commongood Careers.