Meet Our Board: Bobby Mehta
Bobby Mehta joined The Fund’s board of directors in 2005. He has an extensive background in consumer finance and consulting, having worked with Boston Consulting Group for 18 years before serving as CEO and vice chairman of HSBC North America, and then CEO and President of TransUnion. He now sits on a number of public and private boards including AllState Insurance, Northern Trust, JLL, Entrust, and The Field Museum. We interviewed him to discuss his contributions to The Fund and what he’s learned from the educational landscape of Chicago.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
The Fund: What draws you to education initiatives?
Bobby Mehta: My story is not that different from many people. I came to this country as an immigrant and was able to get all kinds of opportunities because of my education and educational access. It opened all kinds of doors for me. And so my wife and I thought that supporting education would be something where we could make an impact that was very consonant with our life experience. We want to do whatever we can to enable greater equity, greater access, and improvement in the educational system.
How do you support The Fund with your background in consulting?
There’s a set of things about education that has to do with its pedagogy — the science of teaching [or] curricular science around education. But there are a lot of issues and problems and opportunities that educational systems face that are fundamentally economic, organizational, and managerial in nature. I can take the educational expertise that The Fund has and put it through my filter of how you implement a program, how you think about a program from a budgetary perspective, how you think about a program that needs to be scaled, and how you work with a series of partners. That’s how I think I’ve helped The Fund, and in the process, I’ve learned a lot about the science of politics and education.
[The Fund focuses on] attracting, retaining, and developing the best talent in school leadership with theory. That best talent will enable that school leadership to make very positive changes within the schools and with educational outcomes. This focus is also very aligned with my business experience. Because [in business] you want good managers and good executives in addition to [good] strategy. But say you have a mediocre strategy and great people to execute that strategy; you’re going to win versus an organization that has the most sophisticated strategy, but doesn’t have the right people. So given my experience in business and conviction in the value of human capital, The Fund’s strategy is very aligned with that.
Have there been any projects that you’ve overseen at The Fund that you’re particularly proud of your contributions to?
I was involved when we first launched the Summer Design Program. It was kind of a design lab where principals worked over the course of the summer. We then saw presentations, [and] we awarded them a little bit of money and support to implement their projects. The genesis of the idea was to enable school leadership teams to experiment with new educational technology. But then we morphed it as we learned from the first two or three years and it became kind of what it is today.
The change in the program was subtle, but I think fundamental. In the first incarnation of the program, we were trying to help principals to innovate, whereas today we are helping principals create the foundation on which they can innovate.
So for example — this sounds really pedestrian — but helping principals figure out how to do scheduling is crucial because if they can’t figure out how to schedule, it’s very difficult for them to do personalized learning. So this is foundational to many of the innovations that are getting traction in the schools and the Summer Design Program today helps establish those foundational skills. And that’s where I think The Fund has just made a great contribution.
What inspires your leadership approach?
What I discovered in 18 years of consulting is that, more often than not, the solution to whatever issue we were hired to help with already existed in the organization. And this fundamentally informed my leadership style when I transitioned from being a consultant and a leader of a professional team to an operating role.
[Since] the solutions to most of the challenges facing any were known — in part — within the organization, then a key role of leadership is to be a good listener and “asker” of questions. My father used to say, “There’s a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth.” And this has always been a mantra for me.
What have you taken away from your time at The Fund?
That it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to actually change and improve the quality of public education. It seems like such an intractable problem that it’s easy to kind of throw up your hands and say that it can’t be done. [But] it is possible to do, it is absolutely possible to do. And The Fund played a role in this — look at the performance of CPS over the last five or six years. It has shown remarkable improvements. It is possible to do.
The fact that we have the level of principal autonomy that CPS principals have, and that we have the system of student-based budgeting. It creates a powerful incentive for principals to be innovative so that their schools can attract more students and therefore more resources. I think that’s an underappreciated and critical ingredient in how The Fund and many other organizations have been able to work with CPS and improve the outcomes for so many thousands of kids.