Meet Lia Izenberg, Founding Executive Director of Bay Area OneGoal
Q: After receiving your bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan … how did Stanford University land on your radar for your master’s degree?
LI: Ultimately, I decided that I wanted two things: assess my career to that point and where I wanted to go and also learn more about what didn’t know about educational inequity.
I chose Stanford because I wanted to do an interdisciplinary program. The POLS (Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies) program allowed me to take courses in the Education, Design and Business schools. It was such a privilege to have that nine months to learn and grow as a person and professional.
Q: Tell us how about your role as a middle school teacher … did you always know you wanted to be a teacher?
LI: I had never considered teaching before I taught drama at a young men’s prison in Detroit. It sparked a desire to impact social justice. After my experience in the juvenile facility, I began to see education as a path to social justice and decided to join Teach For America upon graduation because I wanted to be part of the solution. I was placed as a middle-school teacher even though I had hoped to teach high school. But in the end, I’m so glad I was, because even though middle-schoolers can be hormonal and high-energy, they are also curious, bright, and amazing! Teaching was really the formative experience of my career, and all roads stem from there.
Q: Tell us about your experience at KIPP Foundation.
LI: Essentially, I was a consultant supporting our regions in developing a strategy, and the related tools, training, and technology, to follow through on our promise to KIPP students that we’d support them through to college completion.
I had the distinct privilege of helping shape how KIPP as a national network supports their college students and got to play a role in how we as a network thought about college persistence at scale. I also got to work with incredibly smart and dedicated national and regional colleagues.
Q: Can you share with our audience how the idea of OneGoal - Bay Area developed?
LI: OneGoal started as an after-school program in Chicago back in 2007 with the vision that every young person will have an equitable opportunity to achieve their greatest postsecondary aspirations. Since then, we’ve expanded to six regions, with Bay Area being the newest one.
Nationally, only 22 percent of students from low-income communities will earn a postsecondary degree compared to 67 percent of their peers in high-income communities. When you consider the Bay Area, despite the vast wealth and innovation, not all communities have benefited from these advancements. In the East Bay region, 71 percent of students are considered low-income, and the majority would be the first in their family to graduate from college. Currently, only 1 out of 10 Oakland ninth-graders will complete college within five years of high school graduation.
That’s what led me to join OneGoal as the founding Executive Director in 2017. This past year we focused building partnerships within the philanthropic community and with schools in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and in West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD) so that we can begin serving students this fall.
Q: Where do you see OneGoal five years from now?
LI: We’ve launched an incredibly ambitious plan to get to a 60-percent college graduation rate among our students, which will be groundbreaking for the college access and success sector and very close to closing the degree divide for the students we serve. We’re also growing to reach 25,000 students nationally and successfully launch new delivery models that will enable us to reach exponentially more students in the future.
Here in the Bay, we’re aiming to serve close to 1,000 students, known as Fellows, within five years and then scale rapidly to serve many thousands of students in the following years.
Q: How did you get involved with the Prison University Project?
LI: As I previously mentioned, I taught drama in a juvenile facility while I was in college. That was a life-changing experience, and after I moved to California, I remained very interested in prison reform and education. When I heard about the Prison University Project I knew I had to be a part of it. A few years later, I dedicated one night a week to teaching an English composition class at San Quentin. I co-led a class of 40 students, and it was an incredible experience with men whose perseverance is inspiring. I would still be doing it now if I could get to San Quentin by 5 p.m. one day a week!
Q: Can you share with our audience one of the most memorable events in your career?
LI: When you work in education, the successes you call your own are really the successes of the students whom you serve. Memorable events in my career have always centered around the accomplishments of the students and families I have had and will continue to have the privilege of serving - usually graduations or culminating events.
It’s always particularly inspiring when you work closely with students who face challenges, overcome those challenges, and achieve their dreams. I recently had dinner with a group of young women I worked with since they were high school freshmen - now they’re college graduates, doing exactly what they said they would be doing. In this line of work, the gratification is delayed, but oh so worth it!
Q: What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
LI: The importance of vulnerability is the biggest one. It’s my belief that emotions are an important part of leadership and give us cues and information we need to pay attention to. Being vulnerable and open with our teams and colleagues about where we’re struggling and what we’re learning is a key piece of the development and growth process and inspires others around you to do the same.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
LI: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my favorite author and really an incredible woman. She’s an unapologetic feminist and Nigerian woman who is unafraid to speak out about what she believes. I absolutely love her writing - Americanah is an incredible book - and love the layers of intersectionality she exposes through her prose as well as her essays. I also love her incredible sense of style!
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
LI: Women today, like women before, are expected to embody so many often-juxtaposed characteristics. We’re supposed to be brilliant, but also sexy. Demure, but also firm. Loving, but also kick-ass. Motherhood and career-focused. And, while expectations on women have increased, policies and structures have not shifted.
I think women, particularly young women in the beginning of their careers, are in a state of constant whiplash in trying to figure out who they are amidst all the pressures. We’re all trying to figure out where we use our voices to push back.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
LI: I think determining your values and figuring out how to operate within them with integrity is important. Ultimately, we can’t be everything to everyone, and determining who you are and owning it has been pivotal for me. It’s not always easy, but over the years I’ve defined my “ways of working” and they are aligned to my personal values as well.
For example, I know that I do my best work in the morning (after I’ve meditated or exercised!) and I know that I like to gather input and feedback from several peers and colleagues before making a big decision. These are my personal ways of working, and now I’ve been able to develop those for my team - operating norms to help us be more effective together - working smarter, not harder.
Another thing I think is critical is finding mentors, female and male, and leveraging them as supports along your journey. Ask questions and get advice. Engage your mentors in thought-partnership. No one has taken a career journey on her own. I believe in reaching out, leveraging the wisdom around us, and then paying it forward.
Q: Can you tell us how you manage your work-life balance?
LI: It’s a work in progress! As I’ve gotten older though, a few things have become clearer. First, I’m much more aware of the things that are important to me outside of work. That took time and experimentation, but now I know without a doubt, for example, that I must exercise three or four times a week to stay sane. And second, I’ve gotten better at saying “no” and setting boundaries. I think both of those things come with time and age, and I’m still in the process of developing how to integrate and manage my life goals and my work goals, but it’s getting easier!
Q: What do you like the most about living in the Bay Area?
LI: That has also changed over time! I love the culture and the people and the energy; the Bay is a place where innovation and activism were born, and it’s exciting to be surrounded by both of those things. Because both of those things can also take a toll, I love being outdoors, and being in the Bay provides such incredible access to natural beauty. Most Sundays find me and my husband climbing Mount Tam, but we’ve also spent Sundays digging for clams in Half Moon Bay, swimming in rivers in Gold Country or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the most beautiful place in the world, and I’m passionate about getting out and enjoying it!
Five Things About Lia Izenberg
1. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
I’d love to talk to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is truly incredible, and such a force. I’d love to pick her brain on what she thinks women should do to fight back against current challenges in the workplace, as she has all these years in the face of incredible obstacles, both personal and professional. I admire her persistence, resilience, and determination.
2. What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
A colleague at KIPP Foundation once told me “Go slow to go fast.” It means that we should remember the long-game, and that strategically learning, experimenting, and gathering input is sometimes the best way to accelerate the work later. I’ve often spent hours on something, only to find that a few key shifts or changes, which I could have learned from a pilot or input-gathering session, would have improved outcomes significantly. Going slow to go fast is hard and it’s a balancing act given the urgency of our work, but it’s a lesson that has paid dividends.
3. What book are you currently reading?
I am currently reading There There by Tommy Orange. It’s his first novel and tells the stories of several Native American characters growing up in and living in the Bay Area. So far, it’s amazing.
4. Where is your dream vacation?
There’s nothing I love more than exploring new cities by bicycle. I love to ride my bike, and I love exploring. Give me a new city with interesting people, culture, food, art - and a bike - and I’m happy! I’m lucky and have traveled to more than 30 countries, but I am itching to get to Cape Town and Seoul as new city destinations.
5. Is there an app you can’t live without?
The Google Calendar app is my LIFE in this job. I’m all over the Bay every single day, and Google calendar keeps all my notes, locations, and reminders in one place. It’s a lifesaver!