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Empowering Diverse Leaders in Education

August 17, 2018
The Surge Institute trains education leaders of color. Its new angel investing program will translate fresh ideas into community outcomes.

Carmita Semaan, founder and CEO of the Surge Institute, is building a movement. In just four years, her Chicago-based nonprofit has become a national force for training educational leaders of color as they work to dramatically shift perspectives on how best to transform urban education.

The Walton Family Foundation, which has supported the organization since its start-up days, is now backing the Surge Angels program, which is providing seed financing to help a deeply engaged alumni network implement their bold ideas. We talked to Carmita about the institute’s impact and the new opportunities being created by Surge Angels.

How did the idea for the Surge Institute come about?

I live in Chicago, and when I left the corporate world in 2005 to focus my work on education, I found that these systems were failing our young people, and a lot of our assumptions about poor students are rooted in a deficit mentality. We are only focused on what they don’t have--what they aren’t. My feeling is that this limits our ability to come up with amazing, sustainable solutions for these kids.

Carmita Semaan, founder and CEO of The Surge Institute.

What is your primary focus?

Our fellowship program is a one-year cohort for emerging leaders of color in the educational space, helping them not only learn the skills needed to function at the executive level and navigate complex systems, but also linking them up with a vast network of mission-driven leaders of color who understand and support each other’s needs. These fellows are folks who are already working in education and youth-serving organizations, and they are at an inflection point. They have had some success but want to make an even greater impact. Our curriculum prepares them for senior and executive roles. They may be two to three steps away from that in their current position, but they have a vision for greater impact.

Turning Vision into Impact | Surge Angels
Turning Vision into Impact | Surge Angels

What is the Surge Angels program and how does it fit in with the fellowship?

Every fellow does a Capstone Project that they present at the end of their fellowship and, inevitably, some of these projects have led to entrepreneurial endeavors. We realized that for early stage ideas, it can be difficult to get from the ideation stage to creating a business plan and launching a pilot. With the help of the Walton Family Foundation, we created the Surge Angels program to help fellows secure funding, guidance and support in taking their innovative entrepreneurial ventures to the next level. The first Surge Angels cohort consisted of seven programs.

Grisel Maldonado was our first-place winner. A first-generation college graduate, her idea was to help college counselors better support first-generation students looking to apply to college. The ratio of counselors to students is deplorable in many schools, with each counselor assigned more students than they can possibly support.

Often, first-generation students are most negatively impacted. Grisel believes we can make the job easier for counselors by automating and setting up modules for college counseling, identifying a solution that could potentially impact hundreds of thousands of students.

Grisel Maldonado, a first-generation college graduate, was awarded a Surge Angels fellowship.

How is Surge changing the dynamic?

There is a real lack of representation at the highest echelons of leadership in education. And I don’t just mean school systems. I mean in philanthropy, public policy, nonprofits, everywhere. During my time working in the educational system and serving on boards for these organizations, I’d be one of the only people there who had any shared experience with the kids we were serving. When you don’t have shared experience, the solutions can sometimes be rooted in assumptions.

I found there was also a lack of intentionality in developing and elevating talented leaders of color. Having come from the corporate sector, I knew that “high potential talent” was very specifically prepared for the next level—through access to mentors, sponsors, information—training you for the next steps and ensuring that once you got there, you would be successful.

The Surge Institute is creating this same pipeline in education, making sure that the young people at these nonprofits, school systems, public policy operations and foundations are seen and cultivated for success.

You serve a wide-ranging group of people in education, how has that worked so far?

From district and charter schools, public policy and non-profits, our fellows cut across the educational ecosystem. We built this place where folks are pushing each other and learning from each other. We like to joke that this isn’t superhero work. They aren’t going this alone. We are working to build a Surge movement. We might train 20-25 fellows a year, but the student lives they impact could number in the hundreds of thousands over the course of their careers.

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