Become a subject matter expert and a reliable source of valuable information. Invest the time and do the necessary work to learn everything you can about your area of your focus area and keep learning. Ask the hard questions, challenge the status quo when necessary, and keep searching for answers.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Roberts of Gift of College, Inc.
A life-long learner with a deep appreciation for the many doors higher education can open, Patricia Roberts has helped tens of thousands of families prepare for the cost of higher learning through her 22+ years of leadership working with 529 plans. To reach even more families, she has written a book called Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans which quickly became a top new release in Fall 2020.
She is currently Chief Operating Officer at Gift of College, Inc., where an innovative crowdfunding platform both enables individuals to save and pay for higher learning with the help of family and friends and also enables employers to offer (as a voluntary benefit) support for employees who are saving for college and/or paying down student loan debt.
Prior to this, she held key legal, product and program management roles in the area of education savings at major financial services firms including Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein Investments and she also designed and launched several first-of-their-kind philanthropic programs through which families received seed money for college savings accounts along with valuable financial education and incentives to help them save on their own.
Having financed her own undergraduate and law degrees while working multiple jobs and having repaid sizable student loans as a first-generation college goer, she knows first-hand the difference that even a small amount of advanced planning can make in paying for higher education. In her favorite role of all, as a mom, she made it a priority to save a little at a time for her son’s higher education expenses by directing contributions from her paycheck into 529 college savings accounts. After 18 years of saving, she will be proud to see him graduate debt-free from college in 2021.
She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from Duquesne University, a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, and is licensed to practice law in New York and New Jersey.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Absolutely. I’m happy to share my back story as it helps to explain why I’m so passionate about my area of focus. Having financed my own undergraduate and law degrees while working multiple jobs and having repaid sizable student loans as a first-generation college goer from a low-income family, I know first-hand the difference that even a small amount of advanced planning can make in paying for higher education. I attribute attainment of higher education and the many doors it opened for me as THE reason I was able to lift myself, my mom and family out of poverty. This fuels my determination to help others pursue and complete education after high school with as little resulting debt as possible.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
Over the past 22 years, I have helped tens of thousands of families prepare for the cost of higher learning and avoid millions of dollars in student loan debt through my leadership in nearly every aspect of the 529 college savings arena — including legislative, regulatory, program management, product design, and marketing/sales. To reach even more families, I’ve written a book called Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans which quickly became a top new release in Fall 2020.
I am currently Chief Operating Officer at Gift of College, Inc., where we offer an innovative platform that both 1) enables individuals to save and pay for higher learning with the help of family and friends; and 2) enables employers to offer (as a voluntary benefit) support for employees in saving for college and paying down student loan debt. Our platform also provides support for individuals who are saving for disability-related expenses with 529A (ABLE) plans.
Prior to this, I held key legal, product and program management roles in the area of education savings at major financial services firms and I also designed and launched several first-of-their-kind philanthropic programs through which families received seed money for college savings accounts along with valuable financial education and incentives to help them save on their own.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Yes. This story is interesting because it is about the alignment of my personal and professional life. As a corporate attorney at Citigroup in the Investment Management division in the late 1990’s, it was serendipitous that I was expecting my son at the same time I was asked to develop expertise in Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code — which allows individuals to save on a tax-deferred basis for future students. Being a mom-to-be, with tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loan debt of my own, provided a real-life context for the work I was undertaking to launch some of the earliest 529 advisor-sold college savings programs to help parents prepare for the cost of higher education for their children.
It’s been interesting and rewarding to develop expertise in a topic that aligns so closely with my values and life experiences. It’s also been interesting to have come full circle from helping to design and launch 529 college savings plans in 1998–1999 while expecting my son, to investing in a 529 plan through payroll deduction over the next 18 years, to utilizing my son’s 529 investment over the past four years to cover his higher education expenses. I can’t tell you have great it felt to have prepared for these expenses and how excited I will be to see him graduate debt free in June 2021.
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?
Sure — this particular mistake was caused by my having an expressive face.
By way of background, when “Business Casual Friday” was first becoming a “benefit” that employers were rolling out — allowing employees to dress a bit more casually on Fridays — I was asked by firm’s Human Resources Department if I would be willing to be interviewed for an article that the New York Post was doing about how employees were reacting to the newly-approved change in work attire guidelines. I and a female colleague were selected because we were each approaching the new “benefit” differently. She was dressing more casually on Fridays and I was simply sticking to business attire.
I clearly stated to the reporter that while I was fully supportive of my employer’s new benefit and of the many other employees who were already enjoying it, I simply preferred sticking to my standard business attire all five workdays. I added that purchasing a new subset of work clothing exclusively for Fridays was not a priority for me. My colleague shared how happy she was to dress more comfortably and how much more productive she was as a result.
At the end of our interview, the photographer who accompanied the reporter asked me (dressed in a business suit) and my colleague (dressed more casually), to stand back-to-back in various locations within our office building and outside near the street. While the spirit of the photo shoot was upbeat and enjoyable, there was one brief moment when a passerby made a comment that I reacted to with a somewhat dismissive look on my face. Surprisingly, of the countless photos that were taken during the course of the photo shoot, it was that photo that wound up in the New York Post with a headline of “Employees Perturbed by Vague Dress Codes at Work” — although nothing in the article supported that headline.
I quickly learned the value of keeping a poker face when being interviewed and photographed — and perhaps in other contexts as well.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
Thought leaders take a deep dive into subject matters and because of their expertise, they become trusted resources for the benefit of others. Rather than focusing broadly on reach, they more strategically utilize their knowledge and insights to reach and influence their desired audiences to bring about meaningful change.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
Being a thought leader provides many rewards and the personal and professional return on investment can be substantial.
One of the most valuable aspects of becoming a thought leader is the ability it affords you to contribute your voice to issues that matter and to influence the outcome of causes you care passionately about. Through your advocacy and leadership, you can positively impact the lives of so many and you can create a valuable legacy. Lastly, your work can inspire others to become thought leaders in their respective fields of work or interest.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
Thought leadership can help a business to spot opportunities for growth early on and address threats or obstacles before there’s an adverse impact.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
1.) Become a subject matter expert and a reliable source of valuable information. Invest the time and do the necessary work to learn everything you can about your area of your focus area and keep learning. Ask the hard questions, challenge the status quo when necessary, and keep searching for answers.
Given my deep knowledge of 529 plans and my determination to help as many families as possible avoid student loan debt by planning in advance for higher education expenses, I took the opportunity during the period of social distancing in 2020 (when I had a bit of extra time on my hands) to write a comprehensive, easy-to-understand book about 529 college savings plans to serve as a reliable source of information.
2.) Keep your eyes wide open. While it’s important to be laser focused on your topic, you must develop a deep understanding of outside factors that can or do have a positive or negative impact on it. It’s important to fully understand the regulatory and legislative landscape that impacts your area of focus and the varied perspectives of other stakeholders.
There have been times when something has been completely misunderstood about 529 plans and it was essential to respond quickly to the press or stakeholders, to use data and/or other facts to offer clarification, and to understand the basis for the misunderstanding to avoid it going forward.
3.) Walk the talk. Fully embrace your mission.
It’s valuable to demonstrate a personal (as well as professional) investment in your area of focus.
I’ve always shared my personal connection to higher education and my use of college savings vehicles for my own family — and this openness has made me more authentic and relatable. I’ve also enjoyed devoting time to inspire families who may have a harder time getting and staying on track to higher education by sharing my back story and those of others and by reminding them that their present circumstances need not define or limit them. In fact, I remind students from low income and households where no one has yet attended college that they have extremely valuable tools in their toolkit including resourcefulness and resilience that will take them far.
4.) Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
Partnering with others increases your chances of success. Remember an important aspect of being a thought leader is to also be a thought partner. Listen to and put yourself in the shoes of others. Join industry groups that relate to your area of focus and think creatively about other individuals and groups with whom to collaborate. Be sure to engage people with differing perspectives and those who can examine issues from different vantage points. Be generous with your knowledge and time and be sure to mentor others.
5.) Know your audience and consider out of the box ways to make connections.
In addition to using traditional forms of outreach and messaging, try other methods to reach those who have a stake or interest in your movement.
As example, I personally wrote and recorded a unique public service announcement to be aired on radio stations across the country at 5:29 a.m. and 5:29 p.m. to raise awareness and use of 529 plans. And, through one of the industry groups in which I actively participate, The College Savings Plans Network, we rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange just prior to College Savings Month (September), and we also secured a question about 529 plans on Jeopardy.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
Judith Heumann, internationally recognized leader in the disability community and lifelong civil rights advocate, has been a particularly impactful thought leader. Among her many achievements is ushering in the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
As a thought leader, she sets a great example of the value of working together across different forms of disability and in collaboration with other civil rights groups. She also sets a positive example of forming strong relationships with the media and other influencers. Lastly, she asserts that every stakeholder has a role in producing desired change and encourages them to not give up at times when the process is slow or becomes complicated.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
Those who are truly thought leaders are recognized as such whether or not the term “thought leader” is used to describe them. It’s not the label that creates (or defines) a thought leader, it’s their subject matter expertise, their way of thinking, the actions they take, the movements they inspire, the partnerships they create, the value they add, the time they invest, and the tireless commitment they make. They’re easy to spot. Their hearts and minds are open in the service of others and they are always listening and learning.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would encourage others to establish and follow a morning routine that includes quiet time exclusively for themselves. In terms of my own routine, I don’t sleep with my phone or my computer nearby and I refrain from checking messages or going onto internet until I’ve had time to meditate, exercise, write, and visualize and plan out my day. Each day I follow a specific routine that incorporates much of what I’ve learned from Mel Robbins (The 5 Second Rule), Hal Elrod (The Miracle Morning) and Gabby Bernstein (Super Attractor).
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 inspire and encourage others to join forces in movements like one I participate in called SheEO. SheEO is a global community of radically generous women building a perpetual fund to support women working on U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Hundreds of radically generous women (called Activators) contribute annually to create a pool of capital that is loaned out to women-led ventures in their region, paid back into the fund over five years and then loaned out again, in perpetuity.
Movements that bring about investment in persons or communities typically overlooked are likely to bring about a tremendous amount of good.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is the product of daily habits.”
— James Clear, Atomic Habits
It’s been rewarding to witness first-hand that even small consistent steps over time can — and do — lead to big rewards. Whether attending law school at night over four years while working full time or saving small amounts regularly toward my son’s education while still paying down my own student loan debt, I’ve learned that the effort made every day truly matters.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d enjoy having lunch with Melinda Gates. I admire her work and appreciate her foundation’s focus on education issues.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.