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Dr. Danielle Moss of Oliver Scholars: Why when you invest in and support Black and Latinx students they can thrive  and exceed all of our expectations

College completion for Black and Latinx students in the U.S. in a six-year period has hovered below 40%, as compared with 60% of white students, for decades. Oliver Scholars’ completion rate for the same period is well over 90%. That’s a powerful statistic, because it confirms that when you invest in and support Black and […]

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College completion for Black and Latinx students in the U.S. in a six-year period has hovered below 40%, as compared with 60% of white students, for decades. Oliver Scholars’ completion rate for the same period is well over 90%. That’s a powerful statistic, because it confirms that when you invest in and support Black and Latinx students they can thrive — and exceed all of our expectations. We’re not just helping individual students reach their potential. Oliver Scholars is having a multi-generational impact because a Black or Latinx student who graduates from a top college or university is going to make at least $1M more in their lifetime than someone who only has a high school diploma. And what that Scholar can do for their family and the impact that they can have on their communities — because we have always emphasized their obligation to give back — is profound. If that’s not a significant social impact, I don’t know what is.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Danielle Moss.

A thought leader for two decades on issues of education, access and equality, Dr. Danielle Moss has been featured in the New York Times, delivered a popular TEDWomen talk on college access and appeared on CBS This Morning and their online platform CBSN in 2020. Previously she served as President and CEO of the YWCA. Dr. Moss is the co-founder of The Ebony Vanguard and was appointed by Mayor de Blasio to New York City’s Commission on Gender Equity, among other prominent positions.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I actually stumbled into my nonprofit career. Education was supposed to be a temporary stop on my way to a Ph.D. in Black Studies and a university teaching position. But I fell in love with working with young people. I began as a middle school teacher and then discovered that I could bring innovative solutions to the fight for educational equity via the nonprofit sector. I got hooked!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I think the most interesting thing that has happened to me since assuming my current role is the COVID-19 pandemic. As horrible as this moment has been for so many Americans, I’m in awe of how resilient and innovative my staff and our young people have been in terms of creating programs and experiences that remind us of who we are as a community. It’s not the galvanizing moment I would have opted for, but my staff is steadfast in their passion for the work, and our kids have really worked hard to adjust to virtual learning and youth development. They are still just as intellectually curious and open as they’ve always been.

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?

Early on in my fundraising career, I sent out a grant proposal and decided that I could make a stronger case by including photos of our young people in action in the body of the document. Well, I got a lot of pushback within my organization telling me that I hadn’t followed the submission guidelines and that the photos made the document — which I’d already sent out — seem less professional. I was crushed. But, several days later I received a call from the program officer who’d received my proposal saying how much she’d enjoyed reading my document and how much she appreciated the photos. We ended up getting the grant. And, I learned that it’s okay to take risks and to approach things in new ways.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

College completion for Black and Latinx students in the U.S. in a six-year period has hovered below 40%, as compared with 60% of white students, for decades. Oliver Scholars’ completion rate for the same period is well over 90%. That’s a powerful statistic, because it confirms that when you invest in and support Black and Latinx students they can thrive — and exceed all of our expectations. We’re not just helping individual students reach their potential. Oliver Scholars is having a multi-generational impact because a Black or Latinx student who graduates from a top college or university is going to make at least $1M more in their lifetime than someone who only has a high school diploma. And what that Scholar can do for their family and the impact that they can have on their communities — because we have always emphasized their obligation to give back — is profound. If that’s not a significant social impact, I don’t know what is.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I have a great deal of respect for our board chair — and not just because she hired me. She’s steered this organizational ship through some awesome highs, and a pretty deep valley. But she’s never moved her focus away from our young people. And her enthusiasm for the mission is infectious.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I really would love to see true educational equality and equity. We know how to educate some kids; we do it every day. We are choosing to make sure that some children have access to great school facilities, and well-prepared teachers, and curriculum that is available intheir communities, and supplemental support that gives them added access — while countless others do not. But society and community invented this, and we can invent something else. I would also say that healthy communities where people can find work and affordable housing are a bedrock of great schools.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to enroll people in a vision that is so compelling they can’t help but be inspired to show up as their best selves. It’s about making people feel that their contribution to the vision is essential and getting them excited about advancing goals. Managers focus on compliance and maintaining the status quo. Leaders focus on inventing new approaches and ways of getting the work done.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish someone had told me earlier on that you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.
  2. I wish someone had told me that the role of a nonprofit CEO is mostly fundraising and friendraising — it’s not a glamorous program position.
  3. I wish someone had told me that everyone doesn’t share my values and everyone isn’t motivated by the same things in the nonprofit sector.
  4. I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to fail, to not have all the answers, and to ask for help when I need it.
  5. I wish someone had told me that self-care and work life balance are essential to be effective in any leadership role.

You are a person of enormous 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 would love to inspire a movement to dismantle the American caste system — which would probably require that we rebuild everything and start all over, using the knowledge we know now, about structural and institutional racism and caste structure.

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

Maya Angelou once said, when someone shows you who they are — believe them. I’m a pretty slow learner when it comes to people. Sometimes the more someone disappoints me, the more energy I invest to try and bring about change in the dynamic. I’m glad I’m learning to cut my losses. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a meal with Oprah Winfrey. I admire her as much for her flaws and how vulnerable she is about the things that haven’t gone well as I admire her for all of her incredible achievements. It takes incredible strength if you grow up in a country that was built to exclude and exploit you to dream beyond the constraints of gender and race and caste and see new possibilities for not just yourself, but others as well.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@oliverstrong_ceo on Instagram

and https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemosslee/ on LinkedIn

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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