This year's roster at Willow Creek's Leadership Summit conference includes an impressive lineup of leaders from both the ministry and secular business realms. Pastors John Burke and Efrem Smith, and Bill George (current Harvard Business prof and former CEO of Medtronic Inc.) spoke yesterday, as (of course) did Bill Hybels. Today we heard from Craig Groeschel and Chuck Colson, and later from Brad Anderson, vice-chairman and CEO of Best Buy. But for my money, the two most challenging and inspiring presenters were relative unknowns–two women who lead small but incalculably influential organizations.
The first was Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America. When she was a senior at Princeton, Wendy was confronted with the reality of educational inequity in the United States. That is, she realized that where a person was born largely determines his or her educational prospects, which determines, to a great extent, that person's career prospects. She became aware that 13 million kids in the U.S. live below the poverty level. Only half of them will graduate high school. The other half will perform at an eighth grade education level.
So Wendy founded Teach for America, an organization that scours college campuses for the most promising graduating future leaders. She asks those students to invest two years of their lives in teaching children in under-resourced urban and rural schools.
The second was Catherine Rohr, founder and CEO of Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program. A couple years into a lucrative career in New York City, Catherine was invited to visit a prison in Texas. Her experience there change her; she realized her talents were best spent training these men, many of them gang leaders and drug dealers, whom she calls "natural entrepreneurs," to be positive and legitimate business leaders after their release.
The result was Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a four-month diploma program for inmates nearing the end of their sentence. Participants learn business practices, develop character, network, and create a business plan. The program boasts a 98 percent employment rate and a single-digit recidivism rate (compared to the national average of 50 percent).
Wendy and Catherine were both motivated by the deep conviction that the seemingly insurmountable obstacle they faced could indeed be overcome. And, in Wendy's words, "if it's solvable, we have a moral responsibility to solve it." Not only do they believe these desperate situations can be changed, they both are firmly convinced that people will rise to a challenge. For example, while many people blame the poor performance of poor children on the children's laziness or the family's lack of involvement, Wendy blames the low expectations of educators. "When given opportunities," she explains, "kids excel."
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