Sehba Ali is the Western U.S. regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
In 2003, Sehba Ali was tasked with launching a new KIPP Charter School in her hometown of San Jose, California, USA. She remembers going door-to-door and speaking with families, “Do you want to learn about a new school? We are going to school more, and you’ll get McDonalds when you come to school on Saturdays. Come learn what we are doing!” That was her pitch. She became such a neighborhood staple that the local ice cream truck followed her around, knowing wherever she was, families would be too.
“We didn’t have a building or teachers. We weren’t even allowed to open yet because we didn’t have a charter. And here I was this 20-something telling them, ‘Hey, come to this new school, I promise we’ll get your kids to and through college and give them the tools to lead a life of choice,’” she remembers. “They didn’t know me, but they must have been desperate for a better opportunity for their kids, so they trusted me.”
Ali has a photo of some of those founding students framed in her Houston office. She still knows all their names and can share where they went to college and how cute their new babies are.
Every step of the way, I’ve had a mentor who pushed me to think beyond the ‘now’ and out of my comfort zone and looking back, I really appreciate that. ”
— Sehba Ali, Western U.S. regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award share
“I look at that picture every day as I work,” she says. “My bond with that group means so much to me to this day. It’s a reminder that every child matters.”
Providing a life of choice
Ali serves as CEO of KIPP Texas Public Schools. Across the 59 schools in her region, she leads more than 31,000 pre-K through 12th grade students as well as 4,500 staff members.
KIPP — an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program — is a network of free college-preparatory schools in economically disadvantaged communities throughout the United States. It’s the largest network of charter schools in the country and was originally founded in 1994 in Houston, the city Ali now calls home.
“Our mission is to provide our students with the skills, confidence and knowledge they need so that whatever their path is, they can lead a fulfilling life of choice,” she says.
In 2021, KIPP Texas high schools were ranked among the best by U.S. News & World Report, and two of her schools were named Top Workplaces by Texas newspapers. Under her leadership, students in the KIPP Forward program graduate college at a rate four times higher than the national average for students in educationally underserved communities, and the class of 2021 collectively was accepted to 21,285 colleges and universities, earning more than USD44 million in scholarships.
“We really believe that anyone, given the right opportunity and the right support, can reach their full potential,” she says.
A family tradition
The value of education was ingrained in Ali from her earliest days. Her mother was a teacher, so Ali grew up hanging around her classroom in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and the reason their family even lived where they did was connected to educational pursuits.
Her dad grew up in poverty in India. The child of a single mom, they barely had enough money to put food on the table in their small apartment. Then he won an anonymously funded scholarship to study in the United States. He came by boat — not having enough money for a plane ticket — and studied at the University of California, Berkeley before going on to earn his Ph.D. at UCLA.
“It absolutely changed the entire trajectory of my family’s life,” says Ali. “My parents have constantly enforced that once you have an education, no one can take it away from you; it will help you create a better life.”
Ali herself attended UC Berkeley, planning to go into pre-med, though she quickly realized that wasn’t her true path. During a fateful visit to the career office she spotted some Teach for America brochures on display and their vision statement hooked her: One day all children in this nation will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Pursuing her passion
“It was always something I loved. I loved being around kids and being part of their lives,” says Ali. “I felt like I could really make an impact, and I wanted to do as much as I could to pave the path to opportunities.”
Teach For America (TFA) brought her to Houston to teach middle school English. While she loved working with her students, she saw firsthand the negative impact of low expectations and a lack of student support in the school community. She had brilliant students; students who deserved better, but they were victims of systemic shortcomings. When she toured a wealthier school in the area, the differences were stark.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, my students are just as smart!’ But in this school, the teachers and community had the resources to lift up children so they could reach their full potential. In my school, that just wasn’t the case,” she says. “I realized that on campuses where every single teacher fully believed in the children and all the kids believed in themselves, great things could happen.”
She connected with a KIPP teacher who invited her to sit in on her classes on Ali’s days off. Ali took her up on the offer and absorbed everything. When her TFA time was over, she taught at a nearby charter school, Yes Prep, before heading back to grad school at Stanford. When it was time to find an internship, she called KIPP and they offered her a position. She has grown her career within the organization ever since.
“Did I plan to be CEO of KIPP Texas Public Schools or even a superintendent of a school system? Not at all. I didn’t even plan to be a principal. I just wanted to do anything I could to impact students’ lives,” she says. “Every step of the way, I’ve had a mentor who pushed me to think beyond the ‘now’ and out of my comfort zone and looking back, I really appreciate that.”
Proving a point and taking on challenges
A big misconception of KIPP schools is that they cherry pick their students. But KIPP Texas doesn’t even look at past behavior or academic records; admittance is decided by a lottery.
“I think people see our kids achieving at a high rate and assume we pick the smartest or most well-behaved kids, and that’s not true. If you walk into a KIPP classroom on the first day of school, you’d definitely see that,” laughs Ali. “But because we do so much intentional work to build culture at our schools, if you visited on the last day of school, you might think that’s true.”
Still, Ali and her KIPP Texas team often feel like they are fighting against society’s lack of expectations. She points to the familiar narrative used by news specials and movies where a high-performing class full of economically disadvantaged students of color is propped up as a wonderful exception, not a system that can be replicated on a school, district and state-wide level — like what KIPP Texas is doing now.
“It’s not something we need to prove to ourselves. We just want prove to the world that we can’t give up on these kids or underestimate them,” she says. “They’re the leaders of tomorrow; they just need that chance.”
Another challenge Ali faced throughout her career: Being taken seriously as a leader — despite her credentials and success.
“I often walk into spaces where I’m meeting with a group of funders, politicians or organization leaders, and I am the only woman of color in the room. And especially because I’m small, I’ve had to figure out how to become someone people listen to,” she says. “I realized I had to create individual relationships with people, one-on-one or in small groups. That was going be my superpower to gain the respect and authority I needed to do the work for our children. It’s one of the toughest leadership lessons I’ve learned, but one of the most important.”
“It’s taught in the corporate world that you should hide your femininity and be harsh. But I think that you can show up with a tremendous amount of heart and get better results.” ”
— Sehba Ali share
Still, she remains true to who she is, wherever she is.
“It’s important to me to lead in a way that is full of heart. A lot of times it’s taught in the corporate world that you should hide your femininity and be harsh. But I think you can show up with a tremendous amount of heart and get better results.”
Opening doors of opportunity
The past few years have been rough for everyone in education, from burnt out teachers, to frustrated parents and faculty, and the students who’ve suffered the most. But through it all, Ali continues to prioritize moments of gratitude and giving throughout her KIPP Texas community.
The schools doubled the counselors on campuses, relied on their on-site health clinics, set up food pantries, and raised money for gifts and necessities for families during the holidays. She’s also instituted regular rest days, gratitude bonuses and fostered a culture of mentorship and career development for her staff.
“One thing I’m really proud of in my career is that I’ve been able to develop leaders who’ve gone on to do amazing things,” she says. “We have a high bar of excellence for our employees, but we help them become their best selves. Whether they stay at KIPP or leave, they feel that someone really cares about their development and about them as whole person. That is super important to me as a leader.”
In all the work she does, she always keeps in mind how much her own educational opportunities shaped her; she now looks to do the same for others.
“I feel really fortunate to be in a place where I get to open these doors of opportunity for the next generation to change the world and create a better tomorrow for all of us,” she says. “When you find your purpose, even on the most challenging days, it makes you get up and do it all over again. That’s why I get up every day; it’s super clear to me.”