Becoming the Next CEO of NewSchools

By Frances Messano, President

In March, we announced that I will succeed Stacey Childress as CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, beginning in 2023. I am grateful for Stacey’s extraordinary leadership and intentional transition planning. She supported my growth, giving me stretch opportunities over time and the freedom to lead different parts of our work, which included infusing a deep commitment to equity across everything we do. During this period of transition, I have reflected on why I am excited to step into this leadership role and what it means for me, for the field, and for the students, educators, and families at the heart of this work. It’s clear to me that everything I’ve done and everything I am has prepared me for this opportunity. I am on a mission, and I am meant to lead at this time. 

NewSchools has been at the forefront of catalyzing innovation and excellence in public education for over two decades. Over the past 25 years, we have led the field in many ways, but we have never had a CEO of color. I will be its first. While I am excited for this opportunity, I wasn’t always sure I wanted it. Honestly, I enjoyed being a number 2, and I was great at my job. I worried about whether I could lead NewSchools into the future. Not because of my skills or capabilities, but because as a woman of color, I am still navigating environments that are not hospitable to me and because many donors are reluctant to make big bets on leaders of color. I was afraid that my Latinidad would become a liability for NewSchools and wondered whether we would garner the same level of support with me at the helm. I also contemplated whether I wanted to armor up as a woman of color to fight the battles that would certainly come my way. A frank conversation with a fellow woman of color in philanthropy helped me think differently about what it could mean to take this step. She encouraged me to “do it afraid and do it one step at a time.” Her words have been animating me ever since. 

This last year as President also provided some of the validation I needed to know that I can lead NewSchools into the future. I received an outpouring of support from many leaders in the field and I realized that I am not alone. I stewarded the creation of our strategy and fundraising efforts, and 2021 was our most successful fundraising year yet. We received a record amount in donations, including the largest single gift in our organization’s history, a $35 million gift from MacKenzie Scott. Another proof point was the sustained impact of the schools and organizations we fund. During an incredibly challenging period in education, schools in our portfolio led by diverse leaders were outperforming those in their neighborhoods. What spoke most powerfully to me, though, was the unanimous support for my candidacy from our board of directors and the way they approached the CEO decision-making process. I didn’t have to pitch for the role because they had witnessed my work and leadership over the years, and they trusted me to lead NewSchools into our next chapter. Their enthusiastic support for me made me feel seen, heard and supported, which is key as I take this next step.

I am prepared to step into this role, not only because of my professional accomplishments but also because of my personal experience and the legacy of strong women in my family. My work is a tribute to my mother Ana Nelsy who left behind her family in Cali, Colombia, and came to New York City seeking opportunity. She was a garment worker who went on to become a paraprofessional and eventually a kindergarten teacher after putting herself through college and attending classes at night and on weekends. Seeing her juggle work, school, and family taught me the value of hard work and striving for excellence. All these years later, she keeps me grounded and connected to my values and fuels my passionate pursuit of creating a better future for young people. Being a “bonus” parent to three children has also been deeply instructive, and I am proud that they attend one of our portfolio schools. My experiences in navigating the school system with and for them also informs my work and what my role is in creating a better education system for everyone. 

Many leaders I deeply respect and admire reached out to congratulate me and offer advice as I transition into the CEO role. They called on me to be bold and to recognize that now, more than ever, we need to bring people together to do hard things. A former schools superintendent told me: “People are tired and fatigued. We need to honor that, but this is the moment for bold change.” Another education leader offered this: “We need leaders who can cast the big aspirational vision… (and we) need a much bigger tent that supports the real problems that exist right now. We don’t need more frustration or more divisiveness.” 

The need to innovate has never been greater than it is today, and NewSchools knows how to find, fund and support leaders with bold ideas for change. I am committed to growing the tent and supporting a broad set of innovators with the solutions we need most right now. But what has become clearer is the path we must take to advance our vision for impact – one that keeps equity and excellence at the center. At the start of the year, I laid out our promise and plan for the year ahead, and we’re committed to seeing it through. As I prepare to step into the role of CEO, I am excited to think about how we might go further and faster together, and look forward to new partnerships that will bring about the change we seek.