19 May 2015

Getting Ready for Success

A public education advocate champions college prep, school funding, and one-on-one mentoring
Re: Kyle Huebner (MBA 1997); Jose Ferreira (MBA 1997); Bill Ackman (MBA 1992)
by Jill Radsken


Photo by Ed Carreón

Leanne Huebner (MBA 1997) was just out of college, working at her first job and volunteering her free time with foster children when a little girl asked: “Will you adopt me?”

Just 22 and single, Huebner wasn’t in a position to raise children. But she committed herself to making an impact nonetheless. She cofounded Minds Matter, a now-nationwide mentoring and college preparatory nonprofit that launched her on a lifelong mission to improve public education. Named Woman of the Year by the California State Assembly in 2014 for her advocacy of public education funding, Huebner today is also in the midst of starting Valiente College Prep, a Los Angeles charter school set to open in August 2015.

“In America, we have millions of jobs that will need to be filled in engineering, science, and technology. We absolutely need to access and develop more talent as the pipeline for our blue chip and emerging companies,” she says.“ When we started Minds Matter, we didn’t just start a nonprofit, we started a movement of people wanting to make a positive difference. Today, only 34 percent of low-income children even attend college, but 100 percent of our students at Minds Matter are accepted into four-year colleges.”

Raised in a low-income community in southern New Jersey, Huebner experienced firsthand the difference in her public school college preparation with that of her fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. “Had it not been for a progressive guidance counselor at my school, who inspired me to reach higher, I don’t think I would have even considered the Ivy League. That’s a trap even the brightest kids in public high school graduates experience even today.”

After Penn, Huebner headed to Wall Street for a job at Credit Suisse First Boston. While there, she and a colleague began volunteering with foster kids, taking them the symphony, the ballet, and museums. But the adoption request was a game-changer.

“That day, I realized while we made their day, we hadn’t done anything that improved a life trajectory like higher education did for me,” she recalls.

To make a greater impact, Huebner and friends created Minds Matter in 1991. In the first year, the friends tutored a half-dozen students and subsequently sent two to preparatory schools on fully paid scholarships. Convinced of what was possible, Huebner led a team to grow the program further. By 1994, Minds Matter readied 19 students for pre-college programs and 14 seniors for college.

Minds Matter starts working with low-income high school students in their sophomore year. The students are identified as high potential with strong academics, but their schools often have few supports to help them reach higher. Minds Matter provides two volunteer mentors, two summer academic experiences at colleges and abroad, SAT prep, and an extra day of “school” every Saturday.

“Our students have talents and gifts,” Huebner notes, “but often need extra direction from our recent college graduates to show them that path to college.”

Huebner attended HBS when Minds Matter was in its fourth year—well-positioned in size, structure, and momentum. The nonprofit has since expanded to 12 cities, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago. With almost 1,700 volunteers and just a handful of staff, it serves 650 students annually and boasts a college-completion rate of more than 90 percent. “We’ve now proven our model replicates well and is quantitatively effective, so we are looking to aggressively expand.”

Her time at HBS strengthened both her skillset and her network. Huebner says, “I now knew organizational frameworks to assess better what was working and what needed work. The doors I could open for Minds Matter after HBS were more significant too. For instance, my section mate (and past Minds Matter volunteer) Jose Ferreira offered us free SAT prep curriculum his company, Knewton, had developed.”

Minds Matter’s largest financial supporter, meanwhile, is Pershing Square Foundation, started by Bill Ackman (MBA 1992). Pershing helped fund a 2014 ROI study by Columbia University professor Clive Belfield, who found that for every dollar invested into Minds Matter, the net result was $17 in positive social impact, measured by such factors as higher tax contributions and lower health care costs. “Moreover, what people might not quantify,” she says, “is that our alumni’s success stories create positive ripples in their communities and economic safety nets for their families.”

Students aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program. Some mentors, Huebner says, have been so inspired by their Minds Matter experience that they’ve altered the course of their careers. One left a high-powered financial consulting job to teach math in the inner-city. Another started teaching in a charter school; yet another arranges funding new schools.

“Some volunteers get a taste for what is not necessarily monetarily rewarding, but quite rewarding nonetheless, and it changes their perception of life,” she says.

After HBS, Huebner moved to California, first to build a risk management technology practice in San Francisco for a European consulting group, then to work in Los Angeles at pre-IPO GeoCities. In 1999, Yahoo bought the company, and Huebner stayed there closing technology and revenue deals until she was pregnant with her first child.

Today, she serves on Minds Matter National’s Advisory Board and is board chair of Valiente, while raising her children, sons who are 10 and 12, and a daughter who is 8. The powerful moments are many, and Huebner and her husband, Kyle (MBA 1997), chief financial officer of Stamps.com, encourage their children to actively participate in the nonprofits they love.

“It’s a great way to teach them entrepreneurial lessons,” she says. “Our kids conduct online research for supplies and grants; make videos and art to sell at auctions; and even do outreach.”

Balancing her work as a social entrepreneur with raising a family was an HBS lesson she often recalls. In his last lecture, her Entrepreneurial Management professor encouraged the class not to overemphasize career to the extent your kids don’t know you, recalls Huebner. “Fortunately, both Kyle and I were in the class together and that talk resonated with us both.”

In recent years, Huebner has advocated the California legislature for more funding for public schools, which resulted in a $2 billion increase, and she helps raise money for the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation. At Valiente, Huebner is helping build a school as great as the students she has helped mentor.

"At Minds Matter, we’ve created caring, high-expectations communities that don’t allow our students not to achieve," she says. “That’s what I want to see happen with Valiente as well.” She plans to someday run a private foundation focused on education and poverty alleviation, or even bring her social entrepreneurial skills to a corporate board that wants a unique perspective.

“I would love to see the day where we don’t have to talk about achievement gap, technical divide, or schools-to-prisons pipelines, because they don’t exist anymore,” says Huebner. “No goal is insurmountable; but we do need to roll up those sleeves a bit and get things done.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1997, Section D

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