This story was originally published by Inside Philanthropy on Feb. 26, 2021 and can be found on their website here.
By Connie Matthiessen | Feb. 26, 2021
In response to the events of 2020 and the growing outrage over racial injustice, many philanthropies are unveiling new racial equity and diversity programs. So the recent strategy rollout by the NewSchools Venture Fund has a familiar ring: The organization committed $100 million in diverse leaders and innovators working in K-12 education, while doubling down on racial equity work.
But one thing was different about NewSchools’ announcement: The organization simultaneously appointed Frances Messano, a woman of color who has held various leadership roles at the fund, as president. “We believe it’s crucial who leads the way into this future, which is why we will continue to focus on supporting a new generation of brilliant leaders of color,” wrote NewSchools CEO Stacey Childress in the announcement. “Here, that starts with the promotion of Frances Messano to president of NewSchools.” (The role of president is a new position; Childress will continue as the organization’s CEO).
NewSchools Venture Fund, which was created in 1998, applies venture capital principles to education philanthropy in support of K-12 leaders and new ideas. It was founded by venture capitalists John Doerr and Brooke Byers, along with entrepreneur Kim Smith, and receives funding from many big-name education philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.
Passion and purpose
Frances Messano’s commitment to racial justice in education is rooted in her own experience. She grew up in Coney Island in a working class family: Her father was a box sorter at UPS, and her mother, an immigrant from Colombia, was a school volunteer who later became a paraprofessional and then an educator.
When she was 10 years old, Messano participated in a nonprofit program called Prep for Prep, which enabled her to attend a private school. “It was at that age—I started going to a private school at 12, in seventh grade—where my eyes were opened up about the inequities that exist in our system, and how going to a high-quality school can fundamentally change your life trajectory in terms of the range of educational and professional experiences you then have access to,” she said in a recent interview.
Through the Prep for Prep program, Messano visited colleges and received a scholarship to a test prep program so she could improve her SAT scores. She also received navigational support from adults, like the college guidance counselor at her private school, who encouraged her to apply to Harvard.
Harvard was a goal that would never have occurred to Messano without the counselor’s encouragement. “I was like ‘whoa, wait!’” Messano recalled. “‘What do you mean? Do you mean that someone who came from my neighborhood in Coney Island—this is actually a dream I can aspire to?’ No one had ever said that to me. My parents had never said that to me, not because they didn’t wish it for me, but that idea was not one that was accessible. Kids like me didn’t do things like that.”
Messano attended Harvard and after graduation, landed a corporate job on Wall Street, where she worked for four years. But she didn’t find the work satisfying. “What kept on coming up for me was that my passion and my purpose was not being realized in what I was doing every day,” she said. “I was struggling to get up out of bed to do the work because I knew that there was something that was more important to me. And as I started to go through the journey we all go through in our professional lives, I thought, ‘What is the thing that really animates me?’”
Messano went back to Harvard and got an MBA at Harvard Business School, and then did consulting work, including at the United Negro College Fund, where Dr. Michael Lomax, the organization’s CEO, was a mentor.
Through various consulting jobs and a stint as a vice president at Teach for America, Messano’s goals gradually came into focus. “I knew I needed to play a role in expanding access to many more people,” she said. “So much of my time in my early career, and even going back to grad school, was that exploration, and then finally connecting to my passion and my purpose, which is educational equity.”
Broadening the tent
During her six years at the NewSchools Venture Fund, Messano has played a key role in the organization’s diversity work. She created the Diverse Leaders funding strategy and led the Innovative Schools team; she also headed the Foundation Working Group that created the comprehensive 2017 report Unrealized Impact, about diversity across the education sector. (See IP’s report on the study.)
In her new role, Messano will be overseeing all NewSchools investment areas (the fund’s term for its grantmaking programs), which she believes will strengthen the racial justice focus. “We started to think about what it will take for us to truly meet this moment,” she said. “We thought it could be really powerful to unite our investment strategies under one leader, because we had been operating a bit more siloed in the past. And we know that the work that lies ahead requires thinking across these individual focus areas, thinking about how they connect, thinking about the opportunities for collaboration.”
NewSchools’ former investment areas were Innovative Public Schools, Education Technology, and Diverse Leaders (which they nicknamed “schools, tools, and people”). Under the new strategy, Racial Equity was added as a separate investment area, and education technology will be incorporated into a new area dubbed Learning Solutions.
Like other K-12 funders today, NewSchools believes that equity and diversity require reaching beyond the usual suspects and incorporating new voices into its decision-making processes. “We believe we need to expand our tent in education, where sometimes we can have a little bit of an echo chamber in that we’re talking to people with the same ideas,” she said. “But when it comes to innovation, it is so critical that we involve folks from the community—students, parents, other leaders—who may not view themselves as a quote-unquote ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘innovator.’”
The organization is currently putting together a panel of people from outside the organization to help them in their grant review process. “We know we can benefit from those who are more proximate to the issues themselves,” Messano said.
The current focus on diversity among philanthropists did not suddenly spring to life after the events of 2020, of course; in recent years, most ed funders, and many philanthropies overall, have identified it as a priority. Still, NewSchools has been a leader among its peers in its commitment, as IP reported in 2018. (Grantmakers for Education also chronicled NewSchools’ efforts to become a more diverse organization in a 2017 case study.)
Frances Messano makes it clear that racial equity isn’t just a priority area at NewSchools. “Racial equity is the work,” she said. “When you look at student outcomes, the fact that academic results are predictable by race, that says the system is designed in a particular way to get the outcomes that we see. The fact that 50% of public school students are students of color, and 40% are Black or Latino—that says we need to do our work differently, so it will meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.”