A Conversation with Ron Klausner
How Graduation Alliance's Ron Klausner integrates an innovation agenda into education
Interviewed by Eric Letsinger, Founder and CEO of Quantified Ventures
Ron Klausner, CEO of Graduation Alliance, has held a series of executive positions over four decades in the education market and business solutions sector. Ron came to the education space after a successful career with Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), a global business information and technology solutions provider, where he served as SVP, US Sales ($900M in annual revenues), CFO and President of Asia Pacific/Latin America, and leader of Global Data, Operations, and Customer Service for approximately 200 countries. With an MBA from New York University, he is the recipient of numerous industry awards, including the President's Award from the National Alliance of Black School Educators and the Southwest Entrepreneur of the Year from Ernst & Young.
E: Your path to being the CEO of a nationally-recognized EdTech social enterprise is inspiring. What brought you here?
First, some context about myself: I grew up near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx with my two brothers. My dad reached the fifth grade before having to step away from school to help his parents during the Depression. My mom prioritized education for us, but not in the traditional sense. She didn’t think much about getting good grades, but she was adamant that we read better than 99% of our peers. That was her thing – reading was the key to unlocking our success and she drilled it into us every day. So, we read like crazy... all the time. And it worked! All three boys have advanced degrees and have had successful careers. I have been fortunate that my business career has gone well. I developed a reputation for fixing underperforming divisions and projects across Dun & Bradstreet, a publicly- traded company with several thousand employees and whose largest investor, at one point, was Warren Buffet. After holding many leadership roles at D&B, such as being CFO of a large subsidiary, leading worldwide operations with 4,000 employees, and leading Asia Pacific and North America Sales, I turned 50 and was very comfortable. My wife and I started asking ourselves what was important to us. We were ready to more intentionally focus on doing social good. I put feelers out and a headhunter showed up... which eventually led to running a K-12 company teaching at risk, mostly disadvantaged children to read. With my mom as my inspiration, I knew right away that this was my thing: teaching people to read. So, I dove into the research: how the brain works, what kids need, and what they don’t need. I started to learn how tragically the decks are stacked against a lot of kids in this country. We built up the company, sold it, and I stayed on for a couple more years. I knew I found the field where I was meant to be. I could make a difference by bringing business rigor to the ballgame. Later, when I came across Graduation Alliance, it had all the right things: great founders, great investors, great staff, great transparency, great product, great mission, and big time potential to impact thousands of lives. It looked both sustainable and meaningful. I have a bias towards for-profits, given their ability to raise capital to do more good. I jumped right in and haven’t looked back. That said, I didn’t come here to do something for a few thousand students. We want to impact 50,000 lives... and more!
With my mom as my inspiration, I knew right away that this was my thing: teaching people to read.
E: A thread through your work is transforming businesses by creating an edge to drive performance. How did you settle on education as your main impact lever?
The headhunter that called me first was representing opportunities in the education field. Up until that point, my ‘social good’ efforts were focused on my board work for the Special Olympics, which I enjoyed. I quickly got hooked on the promise of the EdTech field once I realized that I could potentially make a difference in millions of kids’ lives. But clearly, my roots and my mom’s influence weighed in heavily on making this all feel so right.
E: At Graduation Alliance, you are advancing a series of first-of-a-kind transactions, including a Social Impact Bond, to scale your evidence-based work. What drives you towards an innovation agenda?
First of all, you have to start with a student-centric mentality in this business. We work with high school dropouts with lower odds of success. Our innovation agenda is a data-centric one. It’s not sexy. We maniacally collect, manage, analyze, and mine our student’s data to improve student outcomes. Progress is usually one inch at a time with an occasional big breakthrough. This takes discipline, habit, and perseverance. We now know what optimizes student’s chances of graduating: the classes to take, in which order and over what period of time. We design our programs based on data, not based on grant funder requirements. This is another reason I favor the for-profit model: because we aren’t tied to grant requirements, we are able remain pretty nimble. For example, our data showed that when we keep students engaged through the first 60 days, likelihood of student success spikes dramatically. And then again at 5 months. Success breeds success, right? So, by listening to the data, we stopped throwing algebra at our students right away, while they were still vulnerable. Also, when students see relevance in what they are learning, they thrive. They all want to learn spreadsheets, for example, but you have to give them relevant opportunities to learn it. Cookie cutter materials score poorly with our student population... so we adjust. Our innovation agenda is all about data – not talking about data, but using the data that we have to mature our program forward. Students, investors, staff, and teachers all like it when we’re working from real data. It opens up opportunities for us to scale through new mechanisms like Social Impact Bonds, which we’re working on with you.
Progress is usually one inch at a time with an occasional big breakthrough.
E: While working with you, I’ve watched you advance a principles-based organization with fierce determination and purpose. Where does this come from?
There was a core foundation of strongly held values before I joined. The leadership really cared about the solution and their students. Therefore, there was something to build upon. I’m not looking to run for governor and I don’t need self-actualization from being liked. I’m here to help this team win. That includes our students, staff, and investors. Once you let go of needing to think you are smarter than everyone else, the job of ‘winning’ gets a lot clearer and easier. I try to bring a principles-based approach to decision making. What do we need to accomplish? How do we get there? Are we on the right path? Am I focused on ‘getting it right’ and thus, ‘winning for our students’? We have a clear process for decision-making that doesn’t always revolve around me. The purpose of our company is bigger than any one person... including me. I’m big on giving feedback. I try to be objective, but I’m also very direct. That is the core of our culture, and it’s not for everyone.
I try to bring a principles-based approach to decision making.
E: How do you stay motivated?
Some say life is short. I disagree. Life is long, but it’s fast as hell. This means you need to pick your ballgames well and run at them with everything you’ve got. I’m all about impact at this point in my career. For example, I seem to get more juice from being a dad than a Grandpa. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a Grandpa. But you can have a bigger impact on your own kid. I love helping them become great people. So, for me, the more directly involved I am in the impact, the happier and motivated I seem to be. To put that into Graduation Alliance’s context, I really love hearing from students who are reaching their goals or those that see the light at the end of the tunnel and are striving to get there. They inspire me to want to bring their success to more kids. I love when our leadership team wins and when we meet our aggressive goals. It motivates me when our investors see our measured progress, both on the impact and financial sides of our business. I’m deeply invested in helping this team win on all levels.
E: What do you say to those younger, future leaders out there who might be considering safer career paths rather than jumping into mission-based businesses?
I don’t really care what you do. You just have to have passion. Don’t cast judgment on others’ choices – make your own. Life is fast, so don’t cheat yourself. If you have passion, then do it and define success for yourself.
E: You’ve leveraged your management acumen to build a stable business with a strong brand and an enviable future. That’s a big deal – congrats! What’s next for Ron Klausner?
At the end of my run, I’ll ask myself the questions that matter to me: how many of my people have gone on to lead or are in leadership roles? How many are building something? How many are holding the reins of something great? For now, I’m solely focused on delivering wins for our students, staff, and investors at Graduation Alliance. We’re on track and we can all taste it.