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The Gap for Education

Monday, April 6, 2009

Don Fisher founded the Gap clothing store and revolutionized the American retail and fashion industries. Now he is setting his sights on transforming American education.

Donald Fisher is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American history. He is cofounder of Gap Inc., which he built into a retailing powerhouse. Today he is chairman of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Foundation, a national charter-school network based in San Francisco that is transforming K–12 education.

KIPP schools are known for their longer hours—the typical school day is from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.—their rigor, and the passion and enthusiasm for the enterprise shared by its teachers and administrators. They are also known for working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds—overwhelmingly minority students—and helping them succeed.

Fisher recently sat for an interview with The American editor Nick Schulz to discuss his education reform efforts.

What first prompted you to begin thinking of education and education reform efforts as a focus for your philanthropy?

Well, I realized that the country is in deep trouble educationally. I was exposed to good education. I don’t know how much attention I paid in school. I paid enough attention to get through the University of California, Berkeley. I probably had a C average plus when I got through [laughter]. But I recognized that this country cannot be great unless it has smart people. What I saw happening was devastating.

When you started looking at education reform, what specifically did you want to accomplish?

I decided that I wanted to do something where I could make a difference and I could see the difference. I did not want to give a large amount of money to the public school system and never see any results of it.

A man by the name of Scott Hamilton was working with me. I had hired him to run my foundation. I said, “Scott, I don’t care how long it takes, I would like you to find something that I could give my money to that would be meaningful.”

So he came in with several ideas over the course of a year, including these two people, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who started something called KIPP. And so my wife and I went and visited Dave’s school in the Bronx and I was very impressed with what I saw. I said, “Is this something that can be replicated?” They hadn’t really thought much about it, but they said it could. I said, “Well, I would like to invest some money and try to do this and put an organization together to do it.”

You were thinking “how do we grow this?” out of the gate?

We were thinking of it out of the gate as the Gap in education.

How is helping an entity like KIPP grow similar to building a retail franchise like Gap?

I think I’m quite creative from a problem solving point of view. But if you’ve got something figured out, why try to figure something else out? If you’ve got something good why not just jump on it and duplicate it or replicate it as much as you possibly can without trying to think of something else that you should do?

In any organization, you’re only as good as the people who are working there. Dave Levin in my opinion is the smartest K–12 educator in the country, although I didn’t know it at that time I first met him. He’s the most innovative, he understands the problems better than anybody else does, and he’s way ahead of everybody else. He’s an advanced thinker. So we decided that we would open some schools.

When I asked Dave about replicating and about expanding, he explained to me that what he would like to do is train school principals in business. Now, he had never been in business. But running a school is a business with a budget and you’ve got to meet your budget, you’ve got to hire people, you’ve got to fire people, you’ve got to have a board of directors, you’ve got to motivate people, you’ve got to do everything. You’re basically in business by yourself because there’s nobody else. Charter schools are lonesome islands. You’ve got to make your own decisions on curriculum and so on.

How is trying to build an organization such as KIPP different from the Gap?

It’s not different.

The challenges are the same?

The same, the same. We started out with Mike Feinberg as the CEO of the business and that wasn’t where his strength belonged. So after a while he went back to Houston to run the schools down there. That’s what he was best at. He loved being out of the office and talking, giving speeches, and so forth. He’s very good at what he does, but he had no experience with developing an organization.

Then Scott Hamilton took over there, running it temporarily, and then he decided he didn’t want to do it any longer. I said to Mike and Dave, “I’m not going to pick the CEO for this organization because if I do and I’ve got the wrong person the guy is dead meat, he’s out of here. You guys will make his life miserable, so I want you to be on the hook for it.”

To make a long story short, Dave really aggressively worked on it and found Richard Barth, who we ended up hiring. He is superb. He’s tireless, gets along well with people, he’s a good communicator, he’s everything you would want in a CEO.

Today I would put the KIPP organization management-wise up against any company that I know of. If you look at the business as a whole, it’s about a $160 million business. The income comes from different places. Most of it comes from the school system. But once we had Richard in place then we really got much better organized than we were and the whole thing was running substantially better. Every time I see Dave he tells me what a great thing it was to get Richard.

It seems to me that one of the challenges with scaling up and building out KIPP would be finding the teachers and other talented folks that you need, partly because more is demanded of them in terms of their time, energy level, and commitment.

The problem is the quality of the person we’re looking for. It’s a selection process: what kind of character do they have, what drive do they have, and what do they expect to do? Because we have a made a fair investment—It takes a whole year that we’re supporting them and moving them around.

There’s a lot of freedom here. These are young people. The principals probably average 30-years-old. You’ve got 28- and 27-year-olds that are running schools. But it’s an opportunity to be your own boss and you’re an entrepreneur. It’s a different thing than going to work for a school district that has the bureaucracy that runs your life and it has more regulations and so forth. Being a charter school, you have a lot of freedom.

I’m sold that the charter schools are the answer today to education in this country. I’m not saying that they have to be called charters. But the way they’re run and the freedom that the principals have to show accountability, to me it’s proven that it works, in spite of all the obstacles that we have, and we’ve got a lot of obstacles—finding a location is pretty hard to do. We’re not just sitting there with a school site offered to use all the time. It’s not easy, but to me I don’t see anything else out there that is proving it can work.

Critics are going to tell you there are a lot of charter schools that are bad. And there are. There are a lot of public schools that are bad. At least in the charter school organizations that we’ve set up we’re encouraging them to close the charter schools that aren’t good. You never close a public school that isn’t good, you just keep going along with it.

KIPP has all the contours of an entrepreneurial success story—the need to react to events as they change on the ground; the need to be flexible; encountering setbacks before you move forward; scrambling without a plan. Has that been your experience with it, that it has mirrored your experience as an entrepreneur building businesses?

There is something called the Peter Principle and it exists. When you start an organization you have people that are skilled in ways that aren’t necessarily what you need when you get farther along. It’s easy to explain and say when you start out you’ve got to have a jack of all trades, and then as you get bigger you’ve got to have somebody that’s doing the curriculum, you’ve got somebody that’s doing PR, you’ve got somebody that’s doing recruiting, you’ve got a lot of other specialty areas. It could be that the person who started out doesn’t have the capability of managing all that.

I’ve gone through that. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started the Gap. I was 41-years-old and I just kept going along and it kept working. I was constantly trying to find people that could do the job that I was doing. But you can’t hire the same kind of quality person in the beginning as you can once you get to a good size.

We are getting people right now coming out of a lot of the consulting firms that are getting paid a lot of money, and we don’t pay a lot of money. But there’s a lot of personal gratification with what they see happening. They can do a lot of things and see the results of them.

You mentioned that when you started the Gap you didn’t necessarily know what you were doing. But at some point after the Gap took off and started growing you had to look at it and say we’re going to have X number of stores by this year and growth objectives and goals. Are there goals like that for KIPP nationally?

No. We think there will be 100 schools in 2010. I don’t know what the number is beyond that. But, right now we’re at 66, so we’ve got to open 34 schools in the next two years. And I’m not talking about percentages now but just talking about 15, 16 schools a year—I think that’s quite a few and pretty darn fast. There’s only a handful of operators that have 15 schools at all. I don’t want to have this group stub its toes.

Thanks for talking to us.

My pleasure.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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