Feature Story

Yee-Ann Cho

Senior Program Officer for Education Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Q: What do you do for a living?

Yee-Ann: As Senior Program Officer for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I’m responsible for leading the foundation’s efforts to replicate successful school models across the country. I manage a portfolio of more than $100 million in grants designed to help schools to grow in scope.

Q: So you work to improve high schools?

Yee-Ann: We work to help good schools grow. Most of our grantees started as individual schools and we said: “Great model, how about you do more?” Our grants and involvement help these networks of schools grow. The Education division focuses on improving high school graduation and college-ready rates, especially for underserved populations. Within my team, we specialize in “capacity building” of existing school models, and work to identify new models.

There are fundamentally different skill sets between running a singular school and running a network of schools – skills that essentially require you to be a business person. So the foundation helps to pay for business planning. We have a sense of what good schools look like and what good networks look like and what good qualities they have, so we bring that information to our grantees.

Q: What sort of “route” did you take to get where you are today?

Yee-Ann: After earning my B.A. in International Relations from Colgate University, I began my career in international education and exchange programs at the US-Asia Institute and the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, D.C. Next, I worked for three years in Estes Park, Colorado, at Eagle Rock School -a small, alternative, year-round, residential high school for at-risk youth who are not doing well in regular school. It was founded and fully-funded by the American Honda Motor Company.

Q: Is that where you began to focus on education reform?

Yee-Ann: Yes. Working at Eagle Rock was a “life-changing” experience for me-to see what a tremendous difference could be made in students’ lives. It was there that I realized my own experience of high school success leading to college was the exception rather than the rule. Working in a school where students had struggled in the traditional setting and dropped out, I saw that schools around the country were not working for a great number of students. At the time, for every student who applied to Eagle Rock and was accepted, there were four more who didn’t get in. I saw the enormous need, and I decided there had to be a way to get more small schools started.

Q: How did you set out to start more small high schools?

Yee-Ann: I said to myself: “This is what I want to do. There is a huge need. Regular schools aren’t making the grade. I want to start more small schools. How do we do that? If a Japanese company can come here and do it, why can’t we get American companies to do it, too?”

Q: So you left Eagle Rock with a goal to get American companies to help?

Yee-Ann: Yes. I believed that if I was going to approach companies, I needed to have a framework, to understand their thinking, and to have that MBA behind my name for credibility-so I went to business school with my goal in mind.

In addition, because my experience to date had been non-profit and education-related, I earned a Master’s in Education Policy and Evaluation from Stanford University’s School of Education to get a grounding in Education Policy and the history of U.S. education reform. Then I got an M.B.A. from Yale University’s School of Management to gain an understanding of the business world.

Q: You really found your passion and pursued it.

Yee-Ann: Yes, I am example of “do what you love and the money will follow.” Sometimes it takes awhile to get there, but I really believe it’s the case. Finding what you’re really passionate about is important because you spend so much time at work.

Q: You sound incredibly focused. Do you feel that is one of your strengths?

Yee-Ann: While in graduate school, I was a single-minded dog with a bone. I wanted to figure out how to start more high schools. At Yale, I had no interest in applying for a consulting job or brand management or investment jobs. I found my own summer internship in a Fortune 500 company around a school reform plan they had in Hartford, Connecticut. I found a way to pursue what I wanted to pursue. It took awhile, but being focused is really key.

When I left Yale, I went to work for another non-profit based in Washington, D.C., called New American Schools, which focused on education reform for K-12 schools. That’s where I got my experience working with organizations that help support schools, improve schools, and help think about capacity building.

Q: How’d you get to the Gates Foundation?

Yee-Ann: Someone told me there was a job advertised online. When I read it and saw that the foundation wanted to start more small high schools around the country, I realized it was meant to be.

I applied online since I didn’t know anyone at the foundation. I didn’t expect to hear back, since I was sure a ton of people would apply. As it turns out, they called about 10 days later. After some phone and in-person interviews, I received an offer within another two weeks. It was pretty amazing.

Q: Today, you’re a bridge between the worlds of Education and Business?

Yee-Ann: Essentially, yes. Many schools and most educators are mission-driven, values-driven, and they often regard business practices as bad (i.e. the big bad business world). I think that is a false assumption. There are some things you can take and apply from business to better a school’s effectiveness. For instance, a school’s leadership must be disciplined as to where they choose to grow. If you try to do everything, you’ll go out of business.

Q: It really sounds like you have your dream job!

Yee-Ann: Yes, when you look at what I do on a day-to-day basis and what I wanted to do when I left Eagle Rock in 1996, I was able to start doing exactly that seven years later. It has been quite remarkable in that respect. I feel really lucky.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

Yee-Ann: Being in a place that is “mission-driven” is one of the best things. The ability to travel and see schools is also one of the best parts of my job. The ultimate beneficiary is the student who can tell you that their school is fundamentally better than the school they went to or would have gone to. It’s what initially got me started. The fact that we’re reaching so many more kids now is really a huge driver for me. Also, the fact that I work with such really smart people who are equally dedicated to this work is really important to me.

Q: With all that travel, are you able to keep your life balanced?

Yee-Ann: I’m married with two children. My husband stays home full-time with our daughters which helps a lot in terms of balance. It’s the only thing that lets me do this job, given the amount of travel that I do.

The foundation helps too because when I’m not on the road, I’m in by 8 or 8:30 and leave by 5:30; that means I can be at home with my kids in the evenings. I am really pretty clear about being home by dinner time to spend time with my family. When I travel, I’ll work until 11 or 12 at night; it all sort of balances out in the end.

Q: Do you have any secrets for others who want to keep balance in their life?

Yee-Ann: I very much believe in having a life. When you die, you don’t wish you spent more time at work. You have to be firm with your boundaries. There is always going to be more work to do in any environment that you’re in. You have to say “this is important to me”. Everyone has to find what works for them.

Q: Did you have good role models growing up?

Yee-Ann: I was lucky to have good role models growing up. My father had his own business, and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t home for dinner. I think that’s my expectation. And today, I’m sensitive to how hard it can be for my husband.

Q: How important are good role models in work?

Yee-Ann: It’s important to be able to set examples for yourself and be able to talk to people who have more experience and can provide guidance along the way. I’ve always tried to identify mentors both formally and informally-people whose styles I really appreciate and want to emulate as I move through my career.

My mentors are generally women, but not always. They haven’t always even been in this field. And it doesn’t need to be a formal mentorship. A mentor can be someone whom I admire for the way she leads her career, the way she is with people, or how much respect she receives from people with whom she works or interacts.

Q: Will you always be in this field of high school reform?

Yee-Ann: I’d like to think so. Whether I’ll help start high schools forever or not, I don’t know. Yet wherever I am in my career, it will always have to be mission-driven. The fact that we’re helping kids is really important to me. I can’t imagine getting motivated to work every day if I didn’t really believe in the work that I do. For me, I’m passionate about social service through education. Working with young people is really important to me.

Q: Based on your experience, what’s your career advice for others?

Yee-Ann: I think it’s important to have integrity in what you do – especially if you profess certain values. I’ve learned the importance of integrity from my parents and from people I’ve identified as mentors-people who very much work so that their life and the way they treat others and their work reflects their beliefs.

I certainly saw it in my parents growing up. My father had his own company, and when organizers tried to unionize his workers, they voted unionization down-more than once. His employees felt they were treated so well that they didn’t need to unionize. That stuck with me for a long time.

Live your life with integrity both personally and professionally. Sometimes it is hard to do, but it’s important. I try to. And if I don’t, kids can see through it-they can see through any layer of adult facade-and they’ll call you on it.