Unconstrained by Reality: Ian Rowe of Public Prep
Echoing Green and Dowser have partnered to uncover the winding paths of today’s most innovative changemaking professionals in an ongoing series posting every other Tuesday. From aerospace engineering to the White House and beyond, read the real-life story of Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, as he finds his “Work on Purpose.”
Ian Rowe is the CEO of Public Prep, a nonprofit organization that oversees elementary public schools that are single sex. He most recently worked for the Gates Foundation as the Deputy Director of Postsecondary Success, working on initiatives to increase college completion rates among low-income young adults. Prior to working at Gates, Ian worked for MTV as the Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships & Public Affairs, and earlier as the Director of Strategy and Performance Measurement at The White House USA Freedom Corps office. He was also the President and Co-Founder of Third Millennium Media, a media consulting firm for nonprofit organizations, and got his start working at Teach for America.
If you could create a tweet that describes your career path, what would it be?
Driven by passion, unconstrained by social expectation, and seeking to achieve justice for all.
Tell us about an ‘Aha moment’ that changed the course of your career.
In junior high school, my family moved from Brooklyn to this part of Queens called Rosedale.
It had been predominantly white, but was becoming integrated. Our junior high school, which had historically been mostly white, was rapidly becoming mixed. And so a number of the white parents from my school said, ‘I’m going to take my kid out and send them to another school.’
My parents presumed the education would be better in that other school, so they were going to send me, too. And I remember one Sunday crying and crying to my parents and begging them to keep me in my current school. They ultimately relented.
And it was so meaningful, because I’d made such a big deal, and my parents had said “OK.” I now had a duty, a responsibility, to do good things in that school.
I also remember thinking to myself, ‘Why should the other school be better? You know, my school, my friends are cool, my teachers are good – why should the education suddenly go down just because most of the kids who are going to be left in this school are black?’ There’s no doubt that that influenced me for the rest of my life — professionally and personally.
What was your first job, and what did you learn that you still use today?
Well, my first job actually was delivering supermarket circulars in the neighborhood. I was 12. But my other real job was in college, during the summers. I worked as a software engineer for GE aerospace division on the angle of attack systems of the f18 fighter plane.
Haha, yeah, I was a computer science engineering major at Cornell. It was incredibly complex stuff, and I was like, ‘You know what? Weapons of destruction are not my thing.’
The job helped me fall in love with logic and thinking through problems, but I wanted the application to be a bit more constructive instead of destructive.
What is one book or film that significantly influenced your path and why?
Purple Rain. Because Prince just exploded off of the screen. I remember thinking, ‘Someone started with a blank piece of paper and created that.’
What does that mean – is that about creativity?
Totally. It’s about having a vision unbound by current reality. It’s about people who have a vision and are able to disaggregate that vision into consumable parts. Then you can build a team that can take ownership of each of the parts that create the whole.
What was your favorite career mistake?
Going to work for Teach for America. I went right after Harvard Business School, and it was this nonprofit fledgling organization that no one had really heard about. People were like, “You have all of this debt, and you’re going to work for this nonprofit startup – what’s that about?” But it changed the course of my life.
Well, first of all, I worked for an inspiring leader, Wendy Kopp. TFA also taught me what was possible for communities that desperately needed talented people to make decisions to focus their efforts to solve some of these problems. Seeing the successes of TFA in the early days made me believe that it’s possible to make extraordinary positive impact on communities that have been suffering for a long time, and I could help make that happen.
Who is one person whose changemaking career you greatly admire and why?
You know, I actually don’t even know his last name. His first name is Joseph. Years ago, right after I graduated from Harvard, I traveled to Kenya, and there is a small island off of the coast of Kenya called Wasini Island. The only way you can get there is if this guy Joseph takes you on his little boat back and forth between Wasini Island and the main coast.
But Joseph had built a school and a medical center on the island of Wasini, based on taking people back and forth. It was amazing – we learned all of this stuff about Joseph who’s this very common man who grew up on Wasini, but because there was so much sickness and no educational system on the island, he decided to do something about it.
And the lesson there is just when you see an opportunity – go for it.
Yeah, don’t be constrained by current reality.
What would your family and friends say is your most socially significant career accomplishment, thus far?
They would probably say my time at the White House, trying to use the moment of 9/11 to mobilize millions of Americans to serve each other and the country.
Describe your typical Tuesday.
My typical Tuesday would be waking up to a 20-minute run and spending some time with my family before heading to one of our Girls Prep schools. There I might have a meeting with a local community member or person interested in partnering with our network of schools. Then I would travel to another campus, either on the Lower East Side or the South Bronx, to observe some of our teachers and check-in with the principal. Followed by a trip to the Public Prep office where I would check in with the network team, and handle some of the network-wide matters around space or financing. Culminating with a night back home with my family where I do the B’s with our daughter: book, bottle, bath, and bed.
What’s a song that would be on the soundtrack of your life?
The Eminem song … if you only get one shot, oh goodness what’s the title – you know from 8 Mile. Lose Yourself! Because it’s about building up the courage to take your one shot. You have to go for it.
That’s a great song.
Photo at top by Knight Foundation on Flickr