Dr. Kirsten Lee Hill: “Don’t define yourself by just one skill”

Don’t define yourself by just one skill; find the theme in what you care about and focus on that. When I first started my company, I struggled to figure out how all the different pieces of me fit together. As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, […]

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Don’t define yourself by just one skill; find the theme in what you care about and focus on that. When I first started my company, I struggled to figure out how all the different pieces of me fit together.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kirsten Lee Hill.

Dr. Kirsten Lee Hill is a researcher, creative, and entrepreneur. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania where she studied school turnarounds and led the development of citywide surveys to measure alternative indicators of success in schools. Dr. Hill is committed to making research a tool for good and has raised millions of dollars through grants for research and innovative ideas, launched thousands of survey items around the country, and coached over 150 innovators on measurement and evaluation.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Volunteering and giving back to my local community has always been a big part of my life — when I was 4, I was already handing out cookies and donuts at the local nursing home on Sundays. In elementary school, I helped develop an official volunteer program between my school and that same nursing home. As I got older, I got involved in the community in other ways — volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters and doing summer trips with my church for Habitat for Humanity. I was a senior in high school when Hurricane Katrina hit and devastated New Orleans, and that event drove my decision to attend Tulane University and be active in their new public service graduation requirements.

My freshman year in college, I volunteered as a “reading buddy” at one of the lowest-performing schools in New Orleans. I went on to found a volunteer reading program at another local school in the coming year. During that time, I observed who got to be in the room to make decisions about education — people with money and traditional credentials. There wasn’t space for community voice to be heard, and this power imbalance inspired me to pursue my Ph.D. and create more inclusive spaces for research and decision-making.

I became a researcher because I saw its immense power to create change, and was deeply disturbed that it often shut out the most important voices — the voices of students, teachers, and families. I wanted to see research done and used differently, in ways that valued and supported communities. As a graduate student, I got involved in the research-practice space, serving as a project manager for (and doing my dissertation as part of) the first-ever formal researcher-practitioner partnership between the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the School District of Philadelphia Office of Research and Evaluation.

Post-graduation, rather than going into academia or working for one of the big research institutes, I started my own company. I wanted to get started changing the research status quo now, not after I achieved tenure or climbed the career ladder high enough to “earn” the freedom to pursue my passions.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I’m taking research out of the ivory tower and making it accessible to anybody who has a question that they want to answer.

Many believe that research is something that only universities or big firms can do, or that you need a lot of people (data points), money, time, or a randomized control trial (the “gold standard” of research) to do well.

I disagree. I believe in right-size research. I believe that you can work on a small scale, in a short amount of time, with measures you create with your community and still achieve good research.

At its core, research isn’t about money or randomization — it is about making an intentional plan to collect information to answer a question you have. No Ph.D. required! We shouldn’t save research until we reach a certain stage or size in our business, we should actively engage in it now, whatever stage we are at. Cheap and quick doesn’t imply a lack of quality. I believe in what I like to call the aluminum standard for research: be practical, flexible, and accessible.

When I work with entrepreneurs, I tell them: Don’t go for gold; be aluminum. It’s practical. And, it gets the job done.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was first starting out as an entrepreneur, the biggest mistake I made was having one foot in entrepreneurship and one foot in a traditional job path — I struggled to commit to “going all in” on entrepreneurship because I was scared that it wouldn’t work out. In under a year, I put my business on hold to take a traditional job (which only lasted a few months) and in hindsight, it is hilarious that I thought I could go work in an office, crunching numbers for someone else. Lesson learned. Always bet on yourself and stay true to your values. It might be scary and it may take time to pan out, but it’s worth it.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Dr. Laura Desimone, who was the chair of my dissertation committee and is currently Co-Director of a national Bill & Melinda Gates-funded study with me has been an incredible mentor. I can honestly say I would not have graduated with my Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania without her. When I was at my lowest point, looking at leaving academia sans diploma, she stepped in and helped me create the learning experience I needed to feel like an expert. I have such respect for her approach to research and the value she places on collaboration and treating students as colleagues. The depth of Laura’s knowledge is incredible, but being an expert is not just about having knowledge it is about how you use it. Her dedication to developing other researchers; to collaboration, exploration, and rigorous research that is grounded in practical realities; and to innovation and pushing the boundaries of what we can do with research, makes her the ultimate mentor.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I don’t think that any system or structure has “withstood the test of time.” We are constantly learning and growing as humans which means society is also constantly changing.

In that sense, I think disrupting industries — being willing to change things up is a good thing. In my opinion, disruption is only negative when it is unkind or harmful to people. Any type of disruption that doesn’t value all humans and their voices has no place in society.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

To be completely honest, there weren’t a lot of big supporters of my going the non-traditional route! Here are three pieces of advice that stand out to me:

  1. Be your own authority. Lauren Wardell, a fabulous life coach, who I’ve known since junior high when we were both peer mediators has consistently reminded me to “be my own authority” — to stop chasing external validation and really own my expertise.
  2. Make a list of 10 things you like about yourself. In graduate school, I had this really wonderful therapist, Dr. Ronald Kaiser. I was going through a difficult time and he had me do an exercise on 10 things I liked about myself. I procrastinated until the last minute because it made me feel so uncomfortable and stressed, and I struggled to think of 10 things that I liked about myself. Something that I reflected on and found is that anything big I’d accomplished or something important or exciting, or even attributes about myself that I really do like, or are unique; I wasn’t giving myself credit for any of that. Or if I did, I give myself credit for these things, and then promptly forgot about it within ten minutes, metaphorically speaking. This exercise was helpful to do, and keep on hand. It’s something I still go back to when I’m having a difficult time!
  3. Don’t define yourself by just one skill; find the theme in what you care about and focus on that. When I first started my company, I struggled to figure out how all the different pieces of me fit together. I was a classically trained researcher so to speak but I was also passionate about personal development and self-care and spent time receiving multiple certifications in yoga. I vacillated between being a researcher and an expert in self-care and many business coaches advised me to just pick a lane. Finally, I connected with Maria Kathlyn Tan, who specializes in supporting multi-passionates. Her perspective was life-changing. I learned I didn’t have to give up or hide any piece of me, and instead found the theme that cut across all aspects of my work and passion: I want people to know they matter. Whether it is through research or a yoga class or a self-care seminar, that’s what I focus on: mattering. Once I realized that my message became more clear and I felt more confident about what I had to offer the world.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’d love to launch a community-led Institutional Review Board (IRB) — an IRB is basically a team of people that reviews research plans and decides if they are ethical (do no harm). Right now, IRBs are typically housed in universities, but there are a few private ones that you can pay for access to. I believe creating a community-led, philanthropically funded IRB could move the locus of control in research to the communities research intends to support. It’d be a huge step toward “open-sourcing” rigorous research methodology and tools and providing people with the right-size and expert guidance they can use to shape their data collection and evaluation processes in service of capturing “what works.”

I piloted this idea on a much smaller scale with 4.0 (2018–2020), and I think it has phenomenal potential to create access to ethical research, reduce barriers to content experts, and challenge the status quo of research by emphasizing the power of co-creating research in service of changemakers (so research that is cheaper and quicker!). Right now funders and researchers get to decide what success looks like in the social good space when really the communities should be deciding. To do that they need a seat at the research table. Collaboration is a powerful tool for change and I believe in connecting more researchers and entrepreneurs to amplify the impact of game-changing ideas.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Respect. I often find myself in rooms where people don’t want to listen to me or respect my opinion. I vividly remember a male colleague ‘mansplaining’ how to create a survey, when he had virtually no experience in that space (and I had a lot!). I also remember being called Miss Hill when the man across from me was referred to as “Dr. So and So.” Even when I’m the most experienced person in the room, people still talk over me.

It’s frustrating to feel overlooked (at best) and undervalued and disrespected (at worst). Over the years, I’ve had to worry about how I dress (too sexy or not professional enough), how I talk (not loud enough), and my choice of words (she sounds like a real you-know-what).

Over the past few years, I’ve said screw it. I KNOW I’m an expert, I know I’m valuable, see it or don’t. It’s not on me, it’s on you. My job is to keep showing up authentically and speaking my truth. I realize that it may take longer to disrupt and be heard because I’m creating my own platform, but I’m not going to waste my precious time fighting to convince someone I am an expert. I’m not an expert because some man decides I am. I’m an expert because of what I bring to the table, and at the end of the day, we all bring something valuable and deserve to be heard. That’s why I got into this field in the first place.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I read “The Big Leap” by Gay Hendricks at least once a year. In it, he talks about “upper limiting” — which is the idea that we place a cap on how much goodness we can experience. Basically, if life starts to get “too good” we sabotage ourselves. This is something that really resonates with me. Now whenever things break or I get a migraine or fall sick, I ask myself — am I upper-limiting right now? And, then I use affirmations to reground myself in the idea that I can be, do, and have whatever I desire.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to see a nutrition label for facts! Imagine if every time you read a stat or fact, you had access to a quick run-down of its history in plain language. It’ll say: Here’s who we talked to. Here’s where they’re from and some important details about their background. These are the questions we asked. This was when we collected the information.

You can’t make an educated decision about whether or not something is true or good data if you don’t know these things so why do we keep them a secret (whether it’s intentional or not)?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is one affirmation/mantra that I use every day: “Everything is always working out for me.” I truly trust that things are happening for the greater good — so when something bad happens or something doesn’t work out how I intended, I just say: Everything is always working out for me, and trust that something better is coming. Keeping that positive mindset helps me to persist in the face of challenges and feel much more relaxed as life unfolds.

How can our readers follow you online?

@klh.consulting on Instagram,

@kirstenleehill on Clubhouse

@kirsten_hill on Twitter

@KirstenLeeHillConsulting on Facebook

You can listen to my podcast at http://bit.ly/gracefulrulebreakers and visit my website: www.kirstenleehill.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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