An Interview with Aimée Eubanks Davis, CEO, Braven
Aimée Eubanks Davis, CEO, Braven
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
The big headline in my mind is that I really followed my passions, and when I say that, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (laughter). I was a kid who grew up doing things…kinda being smart at things yet was very envious of other people my age who were so into singing, or really into dancing. I didn’t know what my passion was. (Aimée Eubanks Davis pictured at right.)
In college, from my personal background and my walk-through life, it was never lost on me that my parents drew strength from the purchase of a property in a bad neighborhood that now sits blocks from the Obama’s home. It put my family on a stronger economic course. It was not lost on me that I had been incredibly fortunate.
When I came to Teach For America (TFA) it wasn’t that I liked kids that much; it was a call to pay it forward before law school — to do something in service to my community in the black community. I taught sixth grade in New Orleans and fell in love with my students. I worked to be the best teacher I could be and realized that doing special events like Wonder Week and coordinating other teachers was my passion. Adult engagement, working with adults, and coaching them was how I was going to get this work done.
I went on to run the Summerbridge New Orleans site and then worked at The Breakthrough Collaborative where I created an experience for young teachers. I was passionate about leadership and management in the education sector. Once I zoned in on that and realized I was really good at it, I realized I was following a path that took me down that road.
What are some of your career highlights?
It all comes back to being a former sixth grade teacher, falling in love with students, seeing things that were and weren’t awesome in the world through their eyes. I was on a parallel journey with my students in terms of career.
Every single role has been a major milestone. Running Summerbridge, seeing how schools work, and running a program. It was a big leap to TFA. I don’t even know where my resume is because I don’t move that often. I am a stayer. We are at this point in time where people are encouraged to move on to the next thing. But how do we develop expertise if we keep moving?
First, I was dodging law school, then business school. I was on the senior team at TFA for 13 years — eight of those years I ran human capital and the Human Assets team experienced enormous growth. During that experience I realized that an organization that had become as big, robust, and respected (as TFA) could play an outsized role. With such diverse talent we could dig into issues of race, class, and privilege — issues that are hard to turn the corner on. TFA was going through its major growth years when I was leading Human Assets and each year we were seeing 50,000 young people apply to the teaching corps and another 30,000 apply to the staff. Students getting Pell grants were struggling to get over our selection bar. Our students weren’t getting in and some of my own students weren’t getting in. They had spent a decade working really hard, left college, and were struggling to enter the workforce.
A gap in strong skills, competencies, networks, and resources was holding them back from reaching their dream job, the middle class, and fulfilling the American Dream.
I was leading TFA’s human capital work during a time when the organization grew more and more committed to ensuring it was the best place to work for diverse talent, and this experience gave me insights into bigger problems around race, class, and privilege. I would argue that many people don’t see it as a problem. In the last 40 years even, the wealthiest black boys aren’t able to attain an equal shot according to recent research coming out of Stanford; they are scarred by racism. Actually, I think we at TFA were seeing that 10 years ago when we started to recruit more young people and see patterns. What is it about the bias in our model? If it’s in our model, then it’s in everyone else’s model. I would not have founded Braven or known what to do had I not been in that role. I have a deep sense of conviction and data that there is a bigger problem.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
What’s most gratifying to work on, has me jump out of bed, and keeps me up at night, is equity through the lens of education and now economics. As a country we promised that we live in a meritocracy and that through the doors of college comes a better life. We have made those promises to people as ideals of our country and I’m watching those not be true. Those are the kinds of challenges I want to work on. I think I have (in the humblest of ways) tools, knowledge, and insights to help.
In the human capital role there was a lot of data on the staff side that said African Americans were leaving the organization in double-digit numbers, not being promoted in double-digit numbers, and engagement was in double-digit negatives across the board.
We had a massive problem. I gathered myself and spent a year listening to every African American and Latino staff member at TFA during that time. From the listening tour findings and additional data in terms of attracting, retaining, engaging, and promoting talent, I had a set of data that gave more interesting insights and possible ways to solve the problem. One of the biggest areas we uncovered was around feedback. There was an affinity from managers that resulted in feedback for the white staff, but African American staff were not getting the feedback to grow and improve. Withholding feedback is a form of racism; it’s just not fair.
One of my biggest takeaways from this experience was the power of data and how it could inform hypotheses and solutions. In a four-year timespan, we increased diversity of staff by 270% and there were no gaps in terms of retention, promotion, and engagement. It was wild to watch that happen.
Every institution will have issues. This country is built on issues of race, class, and privilege, and with that we realized we can be far better than where we are. We got to a point where we were gaining significant traction in an imperfect place.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
It’s really interesting, I could say I’ve read a bunch of business books like Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. I’m more of a nonfiction reader than fiction. Yet the book I return to as a mother of three kids is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes before judging and Atticus Finch trying to teach his daughter Scout that. It’s foundational for every moment, even as a teacher engaging with families that sometimes weren’t happy with what I was saying. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes first, especially if it’s difficult and may be a deficit versus an asset. It’s the arc of my life and I read it as a seventh grader. I say it to my own three kids a lot: Are you being fair? Are you really looking at the person for who they are versus who you believe they are?
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate and it’s never lost on me that I worked at Jay Altman’s school. When Dr. Tony Recasner, a psychologist by training, was the leader I recall him telling me, “Listen. Listen. Listen again. Then respond.” I had such a professional learning experience during my first job out of college. When I was the Summerbridge director I was very young and that was a great learning experience.
Before going to Breakthrough, I always worked at places where I believed in the work. I hit a point where it was a short stint and drove me to work for Wendy Kopp when she approached me. There was something wrong with the business even though the product was great. I oversaw directors and sites and saw a wide variety of quality. I realized that the national organization had no ability to control any of it and said to myself that it was not the best place to spend my time. No matter what I do to coach executive directors, the organization is fundamentally broken from a business standpoint. It was a moment in my career where I got to a place that I believed in the work but not how the organization was set up to do its work.
When Wendy approached me, I didn’t even like TFA that much. I didn’t love my Corps experience in New Orleans — it was not a diverse corps and didn’t feel welcome. I told Wendy that and she said “that is why you should come and help us.” One thing I will say is that I did know ten years in that TFA had built a pretty strong business and it was very eye opening to work at TFA.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
Several years ago, I worked at Summerbridge, which was an outreach program to recruit students, and the summer and school year program was housed on the Newman campus, the most elite school in Louisiana and very white. I got along well with the Headmaster, Scott, who was from the Bay Area. Scott believed that Summerbridge was a program of Newman and that the students were part of this school. This belief did not extend to others.
Another camp, Jena Sports Camp, was on property and the head of that camp came to the Summerbridge office and said, “Your kids cannot share the pool with our kids.” I asked, “Why not, is there not enough space?” She yelled, “We need to segregate the pool!”
There were young teachers of all different races in the office at that moment. It was like time stopped and the heads on people’s bodies moved like cranes looking at me to see how I would respond.
I said, “We are not going to segregate the pool. The pool is big enough for all of them. If you have a problem, go talk to Scott.” I used her language and played it back. I knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t lose my cool. The footage from the civil rights movement where the little girls were in their dresses being sprayed with hoses and attacked by dogs — that moment taught me that in order for someone to really hear you and get your point across it’s really important to remain calm and restate what they are saying. I knew I was modeling for my team in this environment where everyone wasn’t psyched that there were black and brown kids in this program. I was reclaiming a pool that belonged to these students and reclaiming humanity for all of us.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I really fell in love with this work and I think the moment you fall in love with something, you just do outsized things that don’t feel outsized. It gives you energy even on tired days. I have realized as I have gotten more seasoned and have friends who went into more lucrative careers (and honestly at the outset that is a smart move) that for me self-care comes in the form of spending my time. I have a career where I love it. That’s been a part of my self-care. Some friends are stressing about their jobs and I don’t have that same negativity.
I do need to recharge and reset. I have a partner and kids, and as a working mom, I travel a lot. When it’s time to be with the kids on the weekend, I am fully present with them. We are learning as a family how to ski this year. I’m trying to get my husband on board with that and want them to remember that. Vacationing with family, unplugging, and looking at the world through my kids’ eyes is meaningful.
What advice would you offer other black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
It’s really important to know your strengths and true superpowers and get in tune with them. I was searching for that as a kid. Know what those are and lean into them and also understand your blind spots.
Understand your limitations. For me, and this may be different for others, I am not a person who thinks everyone wants to hear what I have to say. In the human capital role, diversity work, and other senior roles, I’ve developed a body of expertise in leadership, diversity, and getting first-generation students ready for the workforce. I try to use my voice on issues that matter to me, the country, and that I actually know what I am taking about. If someone pestered me abut health risks in the black community I would say that we need to develop the whole person and see doctors regularly, but you should really go talk to someone in public health. I use my voice on issues where I have real data and expertise. There were 80,000 applications at the height of my TFA role and I’m talking to economists a lot. I use all of these data points to help triangulate what we’re seeing at Braven.
Think about strengths, areas of growth, and the body of expertise you are accumulating about an issue you care about and then how you amplify it.