GROWING UP, Blake DiMarco Herrera ’00 never thought she’d work in education, let alone that she’d one day be helping to launch a national network of free preschools.
“I never anticipated working in education,” she says. “I was never that person who wanted to be a teacher.”
The Watertown native studied finance at Tulane University, then spent six years at Goldman Sachs doing client service work for a team that traded credit derivatives. It was a far cry from her current work serving low- income students, Herrera recalls—the job involved liaising with billionaire hedge fund managers who had business with the bank.
Herrera’s career path changed after she went on a corporate service trip to New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina and was shocked to see how much the city where she’d gone to college was still struggling.
She also learned that New Orleans’ public school system was radically chang- ing. Charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, were replacing local schools with big plans to improve education quality. A friend told her that the new schools needed people with finance and operations skills, and Herrera’s interest was piqued.
“I made this big, life-changing kind of career transition,” Herrera says, “and I got a job at a charter school.”
As director of finance and operations for Akili Academy in New Orleans, Herrera was in charge of the business side for the K-8 school, from managing food service and janitorial contracts to processing pay- roll and filing annual financial reports. “It was a lot, but I loved it,” Herrera says.
Akili Academy students were mostly low-income students of color. “It felt like we were creating opportunities that these students otherwise would not have,” Herrera says, either because their local school had closed after the storm or because it was fail- ing to meet state education standards.
Herrera has helped run schools for underserved children ever since. After a stint leading finance and operations for a network of charter schools in Seattle, she’s now in a similar role at Bezos Academy, a nonprofit funded by (and named for) Amazon founder Jeff Bezos that plans to open tuition-free, Montessori-inspired preschools nationwide.
The preschools will serve low-income and middle-class families, including families who earn too much to qualify for Head Start, the federally funded public preschool program for children living in or near poverty, but not enough to afford private programs, Herrera explains.
The first Bezos Academy school, which has just one classroom and will eventually serve 20 children, opened in October. The nonprofit plans to open four more schools in Washington state this fall, and then to expand elsewhere. (To learn more visit www.bezosacademy.org.)
Herrera is developing a plan for how to provide services such as food, maintenance, security, and internet access as the network grows. “It’s maybe applying more of a strategic approach to what I’ve done in the past,” she says.
It’s also an opportunity to think creatively, Herrera says, because as a privately funded network, Bezos Academy schools won’t be bound by rules for spending taxpayer dollars. For instance, she wants to make sure students have more access to fresh fruits and vegetables. “I think that’s really exciting,” she says, “just the ability to innovate in this work.”
Herrera says she’s learned over the years that a strong finance and operations team can be the difference between a school’s success and failure. And she’s learned that it’s crucial for nonprofits that serve low- income families to listen to their clients and gain their trust, rather than just show- ing up and saying, “I’m here to help you.”
“That’s a challenge, to do it well, to do it right, and in a way that feels respectful and authentic,” she says. Looking back, her time at Taft has motivated her career in education, Herrera says, because it showed her the importance of a high-quality education. Although education can’t solve all society’s problems, she’s convinced that it can help people experiencing poverty achieve socioeconomic mobility. “Education is really a tool to help people,” she says.
—Sophie Quinton ’06