Khari Brown of Capital Partners for Education: “Diversity in leadership is critically important”

…Diversity in leadership is critically important. We think a lot about the racial wealth gap and a factor there is imposter syndrome where lower income students and students of color don’t believe they can really get the kinds of jobs they want. We can change that by modeling something different. I had the distinct pleasure […]

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…Diversity in leadership is critically important. We think a lot about the racial wealth gap and a factor there is imposter syndrome where lower income students and students of color don’t believe they can really get the kinds of jobs they want. We can change that by modeling something different.


I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Khari Brown. Khari is the Chief Executive Officer of Capital Partners for Education (CPE), a 27-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 510 students and has doubled its student body in the past 5 years. By expanding its program offerings and leveraging the power of hundreds of trained volunteers on daily basis, CPE has been remarkably successful in helping its students overcome the barriers that limit most low-income students. Under Khari’s leadership, CPE has seen 61% of its graduates’ complete college on time, a rate that is nearly three times that of similar students nationally.

Khari received both a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and a master’s degree in Education from Tufts University. A two-time captain of the Tufts basketball team, he played professional basketball in Helsinki, Finland upon graduating from college.

Khari and his wife are the proud parents of two children who attend DC Public Schools.


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 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 your career?

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 for a basketball junkie like me. 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 share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity is fundamental now — authentic, real diversity. There’s really two reasons why:

One, it’s good for business and a better way to work. You get better outcomes with diverse viewpoints; you consider things from different perspectives. Diverse teams mean reaching more stakeholders.

Second, it’s the right thing to do. From an equity standpoint you have to have diverse teams and diversity throughout your organization.

More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?

It flows down. People see diverse teams and have a broader understanding of who can be in charge or in power, and that creates opportunities. Diversity in leadership models a way of working.

The inverse is true too. The organization I lead mentors students in the “academic middle,” which is a group that can be forgotten or less visible. Our students at CPE don’t see themselves in the places they want to go, or in the jobs they aspire to. They don’t have examples, and jobs they want may not seem accessible.

For that reason, diversity in leadership is critically important. We think a lot about the racial wealth gap and a factor there is imposter syndrome where lower income students and students of color don’t believe they can really get the kinds of jobs they want. We can change that by modeling something different.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?

I try and see this through the lens of young people. When you look at it that way it gives you a different perspective. Whatever industry you’re in, there are three steps you can take:

One, account for the fact that people have different experiences. That will change how they show up; people from different backgrounds may approach things differently, and we need to be open to that.

Two, approach younger staff, interns, emerging talent from a place of empathy. Remember there isn’t one single way to do things — there may be a dominant way, but other ways aren’t wrong.

Third, we have to make it plain to young people and to ourselves that there are different paths. Not everyone will seem complete on paper in the same way, and diverse hiring means embracing a different set of experiences. You have to look at the whole picture.

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 academic support, added career prep and expanded the age range of students. We also looked at the gaps in similar services in our community 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 at the same time 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 whom you would love 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 — https://www.linkedin.com/in/khari-brown-1644443/; 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!

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