The Importance of Ethics
Wendy Kopp—The Recruiter
Sitting in a lunchroom at Columbia University with the school’s star students—the senior class president, the student council VP, the premed triple major, and 15 other superachievers—Wendy Kopp is begging them to shelve their career plans to teach in America’s most troubled public schools. “This problem has to be this generation’s issue,” she tells the future grads. “We know we can solve it if we get enough true leaders.”
Kopp is talking with prospective recruits for Teach for America, the Peace Corps— like program that she dreamed up when she was a senior at Princeton. As she speaks, she frequently covers her mouth with her right hand, a nervous gesture. But the students, too, are nervous about the job Kopp is asking them to do. Seniors who compete to be Teach for America corps members must endure hours of interviews and tests designed to assess their organizational skills, perseverance, and resiliency—critical traits since recruits receive only 5 weeks of teacher training (albeit grueling) before they get plopped into a classroom in the South Bronx or some other impoverished locale. As the students voice their qualms about TFA—”What if I fail? Won’t poor kids reject Ivy League teachers?”—Kopp doesn’t sugarcoat the obstacles: “It can be really overwhelming and depressing,” she warns. “We all have bad days, and people who teach in Teach for America probably have more bad days than most.”
Kopp’s pitch is part challenge and part cautionary tale, yet the combination has been a winning one. [In 2006], 19,000 college students—including 10 percent of the senior class at Yale and Dartmouth, 9 percent at Columbia, and 8 percent at Duke and the University of Chicago—applied to Teach for America. (While local school districts cover the salaries of TFA teachers, TFA screens and trains them—and requires a two-year commitment.) “We recruit insanely aggressively,” says Kopp, 39, who accepted 2,400 of those 19,000 applicants this year. That makes Kopp’s nonprofit one of the largest-hirers of college seniors, according to CollegeGrad.com— bigger than Microscoft, Procter & Gamble, Accenture, or General Electric.
Kopp, in fact, has built such a mighty recruiting machine that corporations are angling to work with TFA to buff their own images on campus. “One of the few jobs that people pass up Goldman Sachs’ offers for is Teach for America,” says Edie Hunt, Goldman’s CO-COO [chief operating officer] of human-capital management. (First-year pay at Goldman averages $65,000, about twice what a TFA corps member makes.)
Wendy Kopp never wanted to be a corporate role model. She just wanted to reform public education. Growing up in Dallas (where her parents owned a travelguide business), she moved from parochial school to public school in sixth grade and went on to be valedictorian of her high school. Her interest in the failures of America’s public schools began at Princeton, where she helped organize a conference on education reform during the fall of her senior year. Her senior thesis was entitled “A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps,” and she wrote a letter to then President George H. W. Bush, urging him to establish such a 2-year service program. “I received a job-rejection letter in response,” she recalls.
Rejection spurred her on. Failing to land a job after college (she was turned down by Morgan Stanley, Goldman, McKinsey, Bain, and P&G), she decided to launch the teaching corps herself. Though she describes herself as “very shy,” Kopp drummed up the courage to cold-call scores of CEOs and foundation leaders. A Mobil executive named Rex Adams agreed to give her a seed grant of $26,000, and Dick Fisher, then CEO of Morgan Stanley (and a Princeton alum), donated office space. A letter to the chairman of Hertz got her six cars for TFA’s skeleton crew of recruiters (who included Richard Barth, now Kopp’s husband). Other early believers—Merck, Union Carbide, Apple Computer, Young & Rubicam, and fellow Texan Ross Perot— chipped in, building her first-year budget to $2.5 million. That was enough to recruit, train, and place 500 teachers.
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Kopp wants to continue the success of TFA. “We’re trying to be the top employer of recent grads in the country,” she says. “Size gives us leverage to have a tangible impact on school systems.” [And this she has done.] 1 18
1. How would you describe Wendy Kopp’s success based on what you have leamed in this chapter?
2. Would you apply for a TFA job? What are the ethical implications of your answer?