Khari Brown of Capital Partners for Education: “ Be ready for the change you’re implementing”

First, I’ve learned about the importance of infrastructure, general support and creating efficiencies and strength through processes. A challenge so many non-profits face, and also many for-profits, is that when you grow, you’re always catching up to build the capacity on the back end. You have these inflection points and moments of growth and you […]

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First, I’ve learned about the importance of infrastructure, general support and creating efficiencies and strength through processes. A challenge so many non-profits face, and also many for-profits, is that when you grow, you’re always catching up to build the capacity on the back end. You have these inflection points and moments of growth and you never expect to be so unprepared on the other side.

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

Khari is the Chief Executive Officer of Capital Partners for Education (CPE), a 26-year-old nonprofit organization that mentors low-income high school and college students from the Washington, D.C. area to provide the skills and experiences they need to successfully complete college and excel in the workforce. Khari joined CPE in 2001 as the organization’s Executive Director and become CEO in 2015. At the time Khari joined, he was CPE’s only employee and has since built the organization from a niche program that reached only 50 students per year to a burgeoning organization that is currently supporting 470 students and has grown by 400% since 2012.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started working with young people through sports and coaching. After my professional basketball playing career ended, I spent six years coaching high school and college basketball in the Boston area. I’d been looking for a way to make a career out of coaching — I’d thought about being a trainer, and briefly owned my own fitness and sports performance business serving individual clients and offering clinics and camps for high school and college athletes.

What I really loved was helping younger people and students. That inspired me to go back to school, for a master’s degree in Education. I thought I would be a history teacher but I realized I didn’t want to be in a formal classroom setting.

Through some relationships in my program I was connected to Capital Partners for Education. It was a scrappy, young organization that needed help. They asked me to be their Interim Executive Director and I became a full-time staff of one. That’s how it started.

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

We’ve had a lot of really remarkable mentors at CPE, and one of them was President Obama’s personal assistant. He was part of a group that helped arrange basketball games for the President and find people for him to play with. One weekend I got the call — I was invited to Camp David to play basketball with President Obama. It was the most exclusive game in town — a dream come true. And it happened because of the community of mentors and leaders we’d built.

I would say though as well that the last year has been an education for me and for anyone who serves young people. Seeing what they have experienced in COVID has been devastating but also the perseverance and grit young people have shown is remarkable. We have students who are staying in school, both High School and College, from shared bedrooms through screens while their families experience almost unimaginable hardship. CPE has dramatically expanded our emergency grant program, from 25,000 dollars a year to nearly 8x that just to help students pay their rent, utilities and food.

The challenge before was academic success. This last year it’s been survival, which has been humbling but very inspiring.

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

Capital Partners for Education helps students in the academic middle achieve educational success. We help high school students make it to college, and college students stay there through mentorship and tutoring. We also give emergency funds and grants to students who need them and apply.

This is really urgent work, and very meaningful, helping young people to see what’s possible and navigate their next step. The “academic middle” is students who are largely forgotten — they don’t get the praise of the highest performers or the wrap around support of students who are at risk of failing out. They’re invisible.

CPE has tutored, mentored and supported thousands of young people, mostly low income students of color. It’s very rewarding work — we have direct impact, with hundreds of people achieving milestones and advancing in their education and careers who otherwise might not have been able to.

What I’m most proud of, though, is how many CPE students go on to succeed in ways that pay it forward, give back and further our mission. We have former students who are on our board. We have so many former students who are educators, or who are working in health or in human related fields.

This work has created a culture of mentorship in the Washington D.C. region and beyond. Each year we engage more than 500 volunteers in work that is good for them, for students and the community. The reach this work has had means a lot.

I’m also proud that CPE has been here for 26 years. There are not many nonprofits that have been around as long as we have. So our social impact is direct, but also the ripple effect and the culture we’ve helped to create.

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

In doing this work I think more and more about the ideals of America, “American exceptionalism” and how we apply that concept. I think it’s really important that we reframe and rethink our values and embrace a greater shared purpose around the idea that all students should have an equal opportunity to learn. We should be investing more and more equally in our future leaders.

There shouldn’t have to be a Capital Partners for Education to ensure more equity for students who don’t have it.

To get there, here are the three things that I think community, society and politicians can do:

One, we need to look at and revise our school funding model. It reinforces poverty and disinvestment, and by over-weighting the local tax base in determining a school districts funding, you make it impossible to break a cycle of inequality.

Two, in ways big and small I think we should be investing in service. I recently wrote an op-ed calling on the District of Columbia to support increased support for mentorship and tutoring. Funding mentors and tutors is a relatively modest ask for local, regional and national governments; becoming mentors and tutors is a very doable ask for corporations and individuals who want to engage in their communities.

We could think more ambitiously — I told you I played basketball and lived in Finland. Finland has a year of compulsory national service for everyone — military, non-military. Everyone participates in national service. They even use the word citizen as a verb, not a noun — it’s part of the culture.

Third, the entire push we’re seeing for equality and inclusion needs to be meaningfully embraced and implemented in real ways. It can’t just be jargon. It really matters.

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

Leadership, fundamentally, is getting people to follow you to do things that you want to accomplish. It’s leading towards a vision and mobilizing people to accomplish big goals.

I’ve led CPE for 20 years, and in that time there have been some inflection points and pivots that have driven success and helped move the organization forward.

What we used to do was provide private high school funding — we gave out dollars, essentially, probably 80% scholarships and grants and 20% mentorship. What I realized was that we had a good program but it was just not very scalable. There were only so many openings in these schools, and only so many students that we could help. It was a very small program with no opportunity to grow, and no opportunity to create bigger, systemic change.

I knew we could accomplish more, and that if I set a vision, I could encourage our biggest donors to come along.

Through this process we reshaped our program model almost entirely — we moved to enhanced mentoring and tutoring, added career prep and changed the age of students. We also looked at who really needed our help and settled on the academic middle as a largely forgotten group where we could make a big impact. We eventually shut down the private school program completely and reshaped our program model into something bolder and more dynamic.

That’s leadership — don’t rest on your laurels, and don’t be afraid to challenge sacred cows.

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

I didn’t know anything! Or at least I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was a staff of one.

I’ll share two lessons.

First, I’ve learned about the importance of infrastructure, general support and creating efficiencies and strength through processes. A challenge so many non-profits face, and also many for-profits, is that when you grow, you’re always catching up to build the capacity on the back end. You have these inflection points and moments of growth and you never expect to be so unprepared on the other side.

That’s a big lesson — be ready for the change you’re implementing.

The second is specific to education and how we help young people. When I first came to education, I had this ideal that change could happen through repeated excellence — one teacher, one mentor, one excellent Principal, one student could overcome anything and change would gradually happen. It’s a very seductive idea.

What I’ve learned though is there is also a need to address the bigger picture. As educators and mentors helping young people, we have to think about investing in the social safety net, and in programs that will address the bigger engine of inequality.

People have created this false choice, but it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and, working to help students and mentors find individual success but also keeping a view of the bigger picture and societal context. An effective organization helping young people can do both.

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. 🙂

All students should have an equal opportunity to learn. That should be a fundamental American value and there should be an unyielding movement to get us there. Equal access and opportunity in education for all students, everywhere in America, no matter what.

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 really admire Bryan Stevenson — what he has done is incredible and reflects what I said above about both striving for personal excellence and keeping a view of the wider culture and bigger picture. I also think William Barber is an incredible leader and very inspiring.

My lunch though would probably be with Lebron James. When you look at other generations of athletes who use their platform for good, there aren’t many people like him. Maybe Muhammad Ali. He is someone who has taken his fame and celebrity and created really substantive programs and institutions. There was no one like him in the NBA when I was growing up.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m most active on LinkedIn —; I’d love folks to keep up with Capital Partners for Education on Twitter as well and see how they could get involved. We’re @CP4Education.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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