18 Aug 2014
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Closing the Education Gap

Anne Dias Griffin is fighting income inequality
with early education reform

by Jill Radsken

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“Everyone deserves a fair start regardless of their zip code,” says Anne Dias Griffin (MBA 1997). Reforming that start is what motivates her.

“The effects of income disparity start early in our society, and education is the best way we can combat it,” says Dias Griffin, who is founder and managing partner at Aragon Global Management (AGM), a Chicago-based hedge fund that focuses on global equities. “There is a much higher return on investment in early childhood. It’s more expensive to intervene later and then—even with the best intentions—it’s harder to close the gaps.”

The mother of three has been using her business acumen in a dynamic partnership with economics professors John List and Steven Levitt at the University of Chicago and Roland Fryer at Harvard University, through the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center (CHECC), an experimental school program for preschool-aged kids that Dias Griffin founded in 2010. Since its launch, CHECC has helped nearly 900 children.

“We decided to call it CHECC to reflect the school’s important role in the community,” she explains. “Using the discipline of economics to solve the problems of education resonated with me. After a decade of running Aragon, I’m using the same approaches I use in choosing investments to identify the most effective curriculum for the children in our program, while being mindful of the budgetary constraints of public schools. It’s a question of how to get the best bang for your buck.”

At the core of the four-year-old program is a carefully curated curriculum that balances cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and the results have been nothing short of extraordinary. In the school’s first year of operation, only 35 percent of the students began the school year with average performance test scores. By June that number had jumped to 53 percent.

“In nine months, we can effectively close the gap between poor and average performance on pre-K tests,” says Dias Griffin, “and we can do it for $6,000 per child, which is equivalent to the per-child allowance from a mix of federal and state funding.”

Dias Griffin and her husband, Ken Griffin, have made education a cornerstone of their philanthropy for years. Through their eponymous family foundation, they have donated more than $13 million to CHECC.

“I benefited from a great free education that I could not have afforded to pay for, and I think it’s a fundamental right every child should have,” says the French-born Dias Griffin, who worked at Goldman Sachs before attending HBS.

Her time at HBS was a high-powered experience she describes as “drinking from a fire hose.”

“I learned to take incredibly dense and disparate information, and then synthesize the data points quickly into something that facilitates a course of action,” she recalls.

The energizing business school environment was matched in spades at Soros Fund Management, where Dias Griffin went to work after graduation at the suggestion of former HBS Dean Jay O. Light.

“They had never hired MBAs, and we were very foreign creatures to them. I was one of eight money managers, covering retail and financial services stocks. A year into it, they gave me the entire sector to cover,” she says.

Dias Griffin later worked at Viking Global Investors before founding Aragon in 2001. With the launch of the Griffin Foundation in 2009, she returned capital from outside investors to focus on her young family and her civic endeavors, which also include supporting the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Rush University Medical Center Hospital, Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Dias Griffin’s primary passion is the preschool set, and the classroom moments at CHECC were compelling from the start.

“These kids had never been in a school environment,” she says. “The teacher asked them to say their names, and there were kids who actually couldn’t. One child, who was almost four, kept saying his name was Corky, which it wasn’t. These are children who have been paid so little attention that they don’t even know their names.”

Equally empowering are CHECC’s workshops for parents and guardians, who get paid to learn teaching skills to supplement lessons at home.

“Parental involvement is a critical component for the success of this program, and the parent academy was such an eye opener. It gives us the opportunity to empower these parents and provide them with tools that will benefit all their children, not just the ones attending the preschool. It has this ripple effect. It can literally change outcomes, one child at a time.”

But Dias Griffin isn’t stopping here. She wants states across the nation to adopt this curriculum.

“We have four years of research and a demonstrated track record of success. I want others to benefit from our work. Practically speaking, it doesn’t cost any more than what the state already spends on each child. It should be a no-brainer for adoption in every community.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1997, Section G

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