16 Nov 2017
The Business of Social Justice
A nomadic life—with stops in 85 countries along the way—leads from Burundi to Boston and a career path from the corporate world to nonprofit work in education justiceby Jennifer MyersTopics:
Photo by Susan Young
A born adventurer with a passion for social justice, Heidi Brooks (MBA 2003) uses her business savvy to effect social change.
Since 2014 Brooks has served as chief operating officer of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening public education through grants and advocacy. The organization seeks to end the school-to-prison pipeline through disciplinary reform and ensure that schools with high needs receive the necessary resources and funding to achieve their goals.
“There is nothing more important than building the foundations for social change,” says Brooks. “Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience didn’t just happen because she wanted to sit down one day; and gay marriage didn’t become legal in one day. These kinds of changes have decades of investment behind them.”
The Schott Foundation’s current campaigns include the Schools Our Girls Deserve Gender Equity campaign in New York City, an effort to shift the harsh disciplinary policies that have disproportionately led to girls and gender-nonconforming students of color being pushed out of schools. In Massachusetts, the organization works with the Fair Share Campaign in its efforts to add a tax of 4 percent to annual income above $1 million in order to raise approximately $1.9 billion in new revenue for public education funding.
The foundation’s efforts do not stop with providing grant funding to support organizations and campaigns, however. It also provides support services, such as communication, networking, and policy advocacy.
As COO, Brooks is the steadying force who keeps the ship on course, by overseeing strategic planning, operations, and finances, as well as evaluating programs to determine what is working well and ways in which operations can be more efficient and have the greatest impact.
She may be a COO, but Heidi Brooks is much more than a number-cruncher sitting at a desk all day. A woman of action, occasionally she trades in her pantsuit and briefcase for a cargo vest and backpack.
In 2012, she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, raising $11,000 for My Sister’s Keeper, a faith-inspired humanitarian organization that partners with South Sudanese women in support of social, political, and economic justice. In 2016, Brooks and a friend spent four days hiking the 26-mile Inca Trail in Peru to celebrate her 45th birthday and raised more than $25,000 for EMPath (formerly known as the Crittenton Women’s Union), a Boston-based nonprofit that helps people move out of poverty and also licenses its coaching tools to other organizations across the country.
“It was a challenging hike, and we got really sick one day, but it was incredibly beautiful and very rewarding. It was a great way to end my tenure as board chair,” she observes.
In all, Brooks has lived in, worked in, or visited 85 countries; and she is not done yet.
“My goal is to hit 100; I would really like to go to Antarctica,” she says. In the shorter term, she and husband Javit Drake are planning a trip to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia because their daughters, ages nine and six, have never been to Asia.
Born in Pennsylvania, Brooks was raised in Arizona by her mom, a teacher and school administrator, and dad, an IT professional. The family moved to South Carolina when Brooks was 14, when her dad, looking for a career change, became a college professor.
Brooks aspired to be a doctor with an international practice, with the goal of combining her love of biology with her desire to see the world. While studying at the University of South Carolina, she seized the opportunity to spend two months in eastern Europe shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and then six months in Argentina.
In 1994, Brooks took a break from her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University for a fellowship with Africare, on the Ivory Coast. There, she helped manage a program teaching Liberian refugee women about reproductive health.
“I was shocked the first time I heard some kids call me La Blanche—“The White Lady”—because I am a lighter-skinned African American,” she laughs.
Working in West Africa put the future into sharper focus for Brooks.
“It really clarified my focus to continue working internationally and to seek ways to have a bigger impact,” she says. “One of the key components of my career has always been how to make an impact.”
Logging more frequent flier miles than Carmen Sandiego, Brooks continued to travel after earning her master’s degree in international economics and African studies, in 1997, when she took a position as an internal auditor with Catholic Relief Services. In that capacity, she and her team conducted thorough reviews of the agency’s health, agriculture, and micro-enterprise programs in 12 Latin American and African countries, over a two-year span.
“I was incredibly nomadic, open to going wherever,” she recalls.
A Luce Fellowship followed, offering Brooks the opportunity to settle in one spot for a while. She spent two years in Vietnam working with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group, providing assistance to small businesses as well as evaluating, researching, and developing expansion strategies for NGOs in Vietnam and Laos.
“It was nice to be settled and really learn about the language and culture of one place,” she recalls. “I even studied Vietnamese singing.”
Over time, however, the slow pace of development and short-term approach to solving problems in the developing world began to frustrate Brooks.
“I wanted to understand the corporate side of how things work,” she explains. “Business is the lifeblood of our economy; I was never as antibusiness as most people in my field. I needed to understand this incredibly powerful force.
“As a program officer I was well-intentioned, but I didn’t think the short-term approach to solving social and economic problems was working well,” she says.
In the fall of 2001, Brooks enrolled at Harvard Business School, nervous that no one would want a woman with a nonprofit background in their study group.
She was mistaken.
“I loved HBS,” she says. “It was so big and interesting, and I was really drawn to the case-study focus. I felt challenged academically and had the opportunity to engage with so many interesting people and learn about so many organizations.”
Brooks immersed herself in HBS, resurrecting the inactive role of historian of the African-American Student Union. She also joined the Harbus Foundation and the Management Consulting and Social Enterprise clubs. She also was elected to the COOP board and was a member of the School-wide Social Committee.
“You are only a student at HBS for a couple of years, but you are an alum for the rest of your life,” Brooks says. “Our class was very special; we were there together when 9/11 happened and we have connected and reconnected over and over.”
The previously nomadic Brooks made Boston her home after earning her MBA, working with the Bridgespan Group to provide financial analysis and management consulting services to nonprofits that serve the homeless and the recently incarcerated as well as to organizations with adult education and workforce development programs.
In 2006, Brooks joined the corporate world, taking on the role of director of community relations for John Hancock Financial Services. “It was a huge shift for me, learning that, in a big, bureaucratic corporate culture, anytime you wanted to get your computer fixed it would take at least five days,” she laughs.
At John Hancock, Brooks operated at the intersection of business and community, overseeing $11 million in cash and in-kind services annually and managing the company’s employee-volunteer program and community giving. She also developed the MLK Summer Scholars Program, a partnership with the Boston Globe and Boston University that provided 650 Boston teens with summer jobs and programs.
Brooks then moved on to Citizens Bank as the senior vice president and director of charitable giving. She worked to narrow the bank foundation’s giving areas from nine to four to increase its impact and rebrand its efforts over a 12-state area. In addition, she launched the highly successful Citizens Helping Citizens employee-giving campaign, generating $1 million in nonprofit donations and doubling employee volunteer hours.
“I really enjoyed spending eight years in corporate philanthropy, but I was ready to be in a larger leadership role and I was never going to run a bank,” Brooks says of her decision to join the Schott Foundation.
“Long-term, intangible work was new to me,” Brooks says, adding the work of the foundation—partnering with teachers’ unions and grassroots advocacy groups to make lasting and impactful policy changes—may be more important today than ever as the Trump Administration threatens cuts to public education and possibly eliminate the Department of Education.
“There are going to be some challenging times ahead,” she observes, “but I’m always up for a challenge.”
Class of MBA 2003, Section E