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Randy Barth: “Treat others the way you want to be treated”

The problem we are trying to solve is to close the achievement gap. The achievement gap is the situation where Asian and Caucasian students dramatically outperform African-American and Latino students, which then turns into career and life pathways that exacerbate income and social inequality.But we have learned that demographics do not have to determine destiny. […]

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The problem we are trying to solve is to close the achievement gap. The achievement gap is the situation where Asian and Caucasian students dramatically outperform African-American and Latino students, which then turns into career and life pathways that exacerbate income and social inequality.

But we have learned that demographics do not have to determine destiny. There are about 15% of schools today that have closed this gap.


Aspart of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Randy Barth, Founder and CEO of Think Together and Executive Chairman of Orenda Education.

Randy Barth founded Think Together in 1997 following a gang shooting in the Shalimar neighborhood in Costa Mesa, California. After successfully opening his first after school program as a community project to keep kids safe in Shalimar, he invested his family’s personal funds and bootstrapped the organization to expand into more neighborhoods and schools. He was initially a volunteer Board Chair while tending to his day job and became CEO of the nonprofit in 2004.

Since then, he has led the scale-up of the organization to $85 million in revenue and 3,000 employees serving more than 200,000 students in more than 600 programs across California. Think Together provides expanded learning opportunities in and around the school day, like early learning and after school programs for K-12. More recently, he led the diversification of the organization into professional services for teachers and administrators around a specific school turn-around model that is data-driven and people-centric which produces transformational results (think “Moneyball” for education). In a little more than two decades, Barth has built one of the largest education social enterprises in California.

Before embarking on his mission to change the odds for kids, Randy had a successful business career, first as an investment advisor with various major Wall Street firms (E.F. Hutton, Drexel Burnham, Smith Barney) and later as a corporate CEO (National Management). Randy holds a BA in Economics from UCLA and studied under Peter Drucker at Claremont Graduate University. Along with former LA Times reporter, Jennifer Delson, he is the co-author of the best-selling book, “Think Together: How you can play a role in improving education in America.” Randy serves on several boards and as a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.


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

The Think Together story started in 1994 when I met Paty Madueno, a mother who was fed up with the drug trafficking and gang violence in her neighborhood, a small area in Costa Mesa, California called Shalimar. Paty wanted to take back their community by giving their children a safe place to go after school. I was serving as an Elder at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which was only two miles away from Shalimar, so I called upon the church and community to help fund the Shalimar Community Project. We rented an apartment and turned it into the Shalimar Learning Center, with over 100 kids showing up the first day. I knew I could replicate this for other communities as well. Think Together took the Shalimar Learning Center model and developed it into a non-profit in 1997 that now serves more than 200,000 kids across California.

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

By the early 2000’s, Think Together had built a replicable, scalable afterschool program model. In 2002, CA voters, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, approved a ballot initiative that would create a large expansion in afterschool program funding. That money became available in the 2006–2007 school year. Think Together made a big bet on scaling up its program model throughout the region. In anticipation of receiving these funds, Think Together went out and signed up close to 200 schools, borrowed $6 million dollars (we only had a $3 million budget at the time), hired 1,000 people in 100 days and grew 10-fold virtually overnight. When the dust settled, Think was a $30 million organization with 1,200 employees serving 30,000 students at 200 schools across Southern California.

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?

One mistake I almost made was this. When we were working with the mothers in the neighborhood to figure out what the center would look like and where it would be located, there were a lot of different ideas. I found a building around the corner from Shalimar Drive that had a small industrial building that was for rent that I thought we could convert into a very cool space. So, I was sold on that. One of the mothers argued for a 900 square foot, three-bedroom apartment, on the ground floor right below her apartment. I couldn’t see having this tutoring center in an apartment. But, against my better judgement I relented. The first day we had 100 kids at our door. We rented more apartments and the rest is history. What I later learned was, there was a gang that hung out at the other end of the street. If we had located around the corner, in the “cooler” space, nobody would have come because the mothers wouldn’t let their children walk through that danger zone. So, we would have had a cool space and no kids. But, in the end, I relented to local knowledge and avoided what would have been a fatal error.

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

At Think Together, we do two things: We provide direct service programs to children and youth; early learning for 0–5 year-olds, afterschool and summer programs in various forms for students K-12. We also provide professional services to teachers and administrators in school districts around a specific data-driven, but people-centric, school improvement model that produces transformational results. These programs, especially if implemented together, have resulted in dramatic and sustainable improvement in student learning and outcomes in our partner schools and districts.

We are also very willing to take risks in service of our mission. Last fall, a large nonprofit in Los Angeles got into financial trouble. We started a dialogue with them and then I got a call on Sunday that informed me that they couldn’t make payroll the following Friday. All of their access to funds got shut off almost overnight. Hundreds of people were to be laid off, and thousands of kids would have to go without services. So we gave them $400,000 to help them meet payroll, hired 460 people over the weekend, and opened programs for 10,000 kids on Monday like nothing happened.

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

Ever Arias began as a student in our Shalimar Learning and Teen Center. Through the program, he went from being labeled an “English-Language Learner” to excelling in Honors English within a single year. He graduated high school, went to UC Riverside for undergrad, Loyola of Chicago for medical school, and just finished his residency program at the UC Irvine Medical Center. He has come full circle from his days as a student to serving his community as a Hispanic health physician and role model to others.

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

The problem we are trying to solve is to close the achievement gap. The achievement gap is the situation where Asian and Caucasian students dramatically outperform African-American and Latino students, which then turns into career and life pathways that exacerbate income and social inequality.

But we have learned that demographics do not have to determine destiny. There are about 15% of schools today that have closed this gap. So, it can be done. What political leaders can do is:

  1. Commission research to study the successful models
  2. Create an accountability system that illuminates which schools and school systems are succeeding and which are not.
  3. Create a system of carrots and sticks which incentivizes success and penalizes failure.

Today, our systems are muddled, there is no clear recognition of what works and there are no incentives to take the risks necessary to improve low-performing schools. The incentives are around not rocking the boat and keeping your job, rather than improving student outcomes.

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

Leadership is the ability of an individual, team or organization to influence or guide a set people around a specific endeavor, cause or way of thinking. Leaders can have hard power, in an organization or political structure; or soft power through a variety of less direct avenues (thoughts, actions, beliefs).

The role of the President of the United States is a study in both hard and soft power. Starting with soft power, they must campaign and influence enough people to vote for them to get elected. Once in office, they have certain things they can influence through direct decision making (hard power). But they also must influence others, especially Congress or allies, of the wisdom and mutual benefit of their ideas in order to get some or all of their agenda moved forward (soft power).

Hard and soft power exist in organizations, communities and even families. People can play a variety of leadership roles in their life. For example, in my life, I have certain hard power as the leader of my organization. I potentially have soft power, or the ability to influence, the Board of Directors who I work for, or the field I work in (education, nonprofits, early learning, afterschool, school improvement). I have soft power (potentially influence) in my community, church, extended family. I have more soft power as I do a good job with my hard power. And, I have both hard and soft power as a father and provider in my nuclear family.

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. God has given us all “a yard of talent.” We’re only going to be great at two or three things. Find out what those two or three things might be and go all in on them.
  2. Similarly, from a career perspective, find out what you are good at, what you are passionate about and what the world will pay for. Understand the tradeoffs between each of these elements. And, try to find something that has all three elements. It may take a lifetime to find it.
  3. Enjoy the journey. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Even when you achieve your dreams, whatever reward you think will accompany achieving your dreams, it will pale in comparison to the richness of the experiences gained along the way.
  4. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  5. Faith, hope, love, these three are most important. But, the greatest of these is love.

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. 🙂

The school improvement idea that my colleagues have developed is akin to Moneyball for education. Just as Moneyball led to the broad use of data analytics to drive performance in sports, we think the same thing can happen to create equity and excellence in schools. We want to create a movement wherein all kids have access to a high-quality education, no matter the circumstance they were born into. We’ve got a long way to go.

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

“There is nothing more powerful than a humble person with a warrior spirit driven by a greater purpose.”

I’m a person of faith. Some of the things I said previously about finding what you are good at, passionate about, what the world needs, is another way of finding your purpose. For me, when I found my purpose (I was in my 30’s) and was able to align things in my life, things kind of fell into place for me. When you are clear on your purpose, it gives you courage, and drive, and a long-term view of things which enables you to weather the inevitable ups and downs that life will challenge you with.

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. 🙂

On the one hand, I’d love to have lunch with Bill & Melinda Gates because they have a foundation with the money and visibility that could give the our “Moneyball for schools idea” the kind of rocket fuel it needs to scale up. But also, I think Rick Warren who wrote Purpose Driven Church and Purpose Driven Life, to refresh and renew my/Think Together’s purpose so that we can accomplish this as well.

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