The Provocateurs: Episode 3 | Deborah Bial and The Power of a Posse

Thinkers50 in partnership with Deloitte presents:

The Provocateurs:

podcast series

EPISODE 3

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Deborah Bial: The power of a posse

The Posse Foundation identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential and places them in supportive, multi-cultural teams. Since 1989, Posse’s partner colleges have awarded $1.6 billion in scholarships and more than 10,000 scholars have so far been selected. Posse scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent.

Deborah Bial is the president and founder of Posse. In conversation with Deloitte’s Stacy Janiak and Stuart Crainer of Thinkers50, Debbie shares insights from her remarkable story of running with a powerful idea when aged just 23 and turning it into a Foundation which makes an enduring impact on peoples’ lives—and the world.

#TheProvocateurs

Guest starring:

Deborah Bial, Ed.D.
President and Founder, The Posse Foundation

Q

About Debbie Bial

Deborah Bial is an expert in the field of higher education administration, college success and leadership development. Her extensive experience in facilitating dialogue related to issues of access, equity and diversity—and in guiding selective colleges and universities towards improved admissions policy—has gained her national recognition in the higher education community in the United States.

Bial is the president and founder of The Posse Foundation, a leadership development and college success organization that sends teams (Posses) of students from diverse backgrounds to selective colleges and universities.

The Posse Foundation, a national 501(c)(3), is headquartered in New York City. In 2022, its annual budget of $29 million will support student recruitment in over 20 cities and leverage approximately $170 million in leadership scholarships from its 64 partner colleges and universities. Posse currently has over $130 million in assets (which includes an endowment valued at over $90 million). and a 50-person national board. Its 10 local advisory boards include over 100 members.

Since 1989, The Posse Foundation has identified more than 10,000 Posse Scholars. These young people have won $1.8 billion in leadership scholarships from Posse’s partner colleges and universities and are graduating at a rate of 90 percent. They are active leaders, both on their campuses and in the workforce.

In 2007, Bial received a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In 2010, President Obama named Posse as one of 10 nonprofits with which he would share his Nobel Peace Prize money.

Bial has grown The Posse Foundation from a concept into one of the most comprehensive and important college success and scholarship programs in the United States. Today it supports programs in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, New Orleans, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. In 2020, Posse expanded, using a new virtual recruitment and training model to double its outreach. The Foundation has also established many special initiatives such as the Posse STEM Program, the Posse Arts Program and the Posse Veterans Program. By 2025, The Posse Foundation will boast 10,000 alumni throughout the United States.

Bial earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in education with a focus on higher education administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University. In 1999, she received a $1.9 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for her dissertation work, which focused on the design and assessment of a new college admissions tool that could be used in addition to traditional college admissions measures.

Bial is a recipient of the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education and the Anne Roe Award from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She completed her undergraduate degree at Brandeis University and has 30 honorary doctorates. She is also a member of the Brandeis Board of Trustees and the Xometry Board.

Hosts:


Stuart Crainer
Co-founder, Thinkers50

Stacy Janiak

Chief Growth Officer, Deloitte

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Inspired by the book Provoke: How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human Flaws; Wiley, 2021.

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EPISODE 3

Podcast Transcript

Stuart Crainer:

Hello, I’m Stuart Crainer. I’m the co-founder of Thinkers50, and I would like to welcome you to the monthly podcast series Provocateurs in which we explore the experiences, insights, and perspectives of inspiring leaders. Our aim is to provoke you to think and act differently through conversations with some fantastic people. This is a collaboration between Thinkers50 and Deloitte. My co-host today is Stacy Janiak. Stacy is the Chief Growth Officer for Deloitte, responsible for how the firm interacts with its clients. Stacy, welcome.

Stacy Janiak:

Thank you, Stuart. It’s great to be here. I’m really looking forward to this conversation with Debbie.

Stuart Crainer:

Our first episode with Valerie Rainford and then Dambisa Moyo have set the bar really high, but today’s guest is right up there with Valerie and Dambisa. She is Deborah Bial. Debbie is the President and Founder of the Posse Foundation. The Posse model is rooted in the belief that a small diverse group of talented students, a posse, carefully selected and trained serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development. Posse started in 1989, because of one student who said, “I never would’ve dropped out of college, if I had my posse with me.”

The Posse Foundation identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential and places them in supportive multicultural teams. Since 1989, Posse’s partner colleges have awarded $1.6 billion in scholarships, and more than 10,000 scholars have so far been selected. Posse scholars graduate at a rate of 90%. The numbers are incredible, but today we also want to learn more about the story behind Posse and its development, as well as the insights gathered along the way by its founder and leader. Debbie, welcome.

Deborah Bial:

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Stuart Crainer:

Can we begin by going back to the inception of the Posse Foundation?

Deborah Bial:

We can.

Stuart Crainer:

What made you take the leap?

Deborah Bial:

People ask me that question all the time. How did you start the Posse? But I was a kid myself, basically. I was 23 years old. I was working for the CityKids Foundation in New York City. It was an after school youth repertory program. I knew a lot of really smart, incredibly talented young people from all over New York, from every borough, Staten Island, in the Bronx, from Brooklyn, from Queens. These students were going off to college, just as you would imagine they would.

They had so much promise. Then six months later, many of them would be back home. They had dropped out. It really didn’t make sense, because of their brilliance. But at the time, the word posse was kind of a cooler word in the youth culture. It meant my group of friends, the people who backed me up, my crew, my cohort. One student literally said, “Well, I never would’ve dropped out of college if I’d had my posse with me.” We thought, “Well, that’s a great idea.”

Why not send a team of students together to college so they could back each other up. That way, if you grew up in the Bronx and you end up in Nashville, Tennessee, or Middlebury, Vermont, you’d be a little less likely to say, “I’m leaving.” It wasn’t that it was so much my idea. It was that I was at the right place at the right time, and the great idea came from a young person. I was lucky enough to be able to get to work on it.

Stacy Janiak:

Debbie, what were the steps that you saw that you needed to kind of take advantage of converting, I think as we would call it, the if to a when? This is a when, so what were some of the steps that you had to undertake?

Deborah Bial:

Right. Provoke is such a good book, because it really captures some of the ideas that we take for granted. For example, for me, personally, if I put a date on the calendar, I believe it will happen. It gives me a deadline. It gives me something to work towards. In the beginning, when you’re starting something new, what do you do to make it happen? There’s a few things, aside from putting the date on the calendar. One of them is making sure you have the right people on the team.

Who’s on your team? Those of us who think we can do something by ourselves, we’re just fooling ourselves. You always need a team. You always need a crew. You always need a posse to help you make something happen. What did we do? We got Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to say, “You know what? I like this idea. I’ll take a chance on this idea.” Vanderbilt was very white, very Southern, very wealthy.

The girls wore dresses to the football games. They needed help recruiting a much more diverse student body. They said, “We’ll try it.” We had Vanderbilt. We had a professor at Vanderbilt, Terry Deal, who was willing to be a champion for the idea on campus, and to help us build networks of support on campus. There were lots of things like that, that helped get the idea off the ground.

Stuart Crainer:

Debbie, you were born in Manhattan and grew up in New Jersey. I read somewhere that you wanted to become a writer and an illustrator of children’s books. Were there any seeds in your childhood for the route, the Posse Foundation, the route you’ve taken?

Deborah Bial:

I mean, I wonder how many of us actually become what we dream we’re going to be when we’re kids. There’s so much opportunity that we don’t yet exist for us, as we take our life’s path. My dad was a musician in the New York Philharmonic. He played bassoon and contrabassoon. My mom did PR for the New York State Psychiatric Institute. I grew up in a suburban town in New Jersey.

I had no idea that my life would be like this. I’m 56 years old now, but I will say that the way I was raised influenced the way I developed this organization, which is my voice was always important at the dinner table. My parents always asked for the opinion from me and from my sister, they always respected us as young people. I think those values became core values at Posse. There was influence there from the beginning. Is that what you’re asking, Stuart?

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s interesting, because you were very young when it started. I mean, you were-

Deborah Bial:

I was just out of college. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah, you were 23, which is very young to start. Well, I suppose people do start organizations at that age, but they tend to outgrow them or move elsewhere, but you’ve developed alongside it.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. That’s true.

Stacy Janiak:

Were there pivotal moments along the way, Debbie? I mean, obviously, the importance of your upbringing was on point. I tend to agree with that. I think you’re really shaped by these early years, but as you look at that, reaching that ripe age of 23 to kick this off, were there other pivotal moments that you would look to, that say, really put you on that trajectory?

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. Lots of them, tons of them. Good and bad. But I think, if I was going to stress the most important values that drove… What drove the development of The Posse Foundation is that we never strayed from the mission, that we were very, very focused, that we knew how to say no. We can talk about what that means if you want. We knew how to say no in order to protect the values and the integrity of the program and mission. Then, personally, as the person who’s in charge of this organization, there were some moments when I had to make a decision.

After eight years of developing Posse, I left Posse. I said, “You know what? I think I want to leave and further my education.” I went back to school to get my doctorate and someone else took over. I stayed on the board and I kind of did consulting from the outside, but that’s a big move for a founder to leave. Why did I come back? Because the person who was running Posse got pregnant and she said, “You should come back.” And to shorten the story, I came back, but I came back with a very different perspective.

I had my doctorate. I had built a different kind of network in academia. I had a different knowledge base, and that was extraordinarily helpful in giving me a different kind of perspective in how to run a nonprofit, and how to help it develop and grow in a successful way. Had I not gone back to school, had I not said yes to coming back, all of these things affect where our life takes us and what happens with the work we do.

Stacy Janiak:

I do want to come back to the no’s, because I think it’s harder to say no and to do it in the right way. I’d love to hear your experiences there, as I’m sure our listeners would.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. Core to the mission of Posse. For those people listening, maybe they’re interested in Posse. It’s this really unusual idea of recruiting young people from diverse backgrounds who might not show up on the radar screen of these elite institutions. Imagine you don’t have the best SAT score, imagine you didn’t go to the best ranked high school, but now you have a chance to go to Brandeis, and Bryn Mawr, or Hamilton. You get to go to Cornell University. Maybe you go to Northwestern. These are amazing colleges and universities. From the president’s perspective, what am I trying to do?

I’m trying to get as many opportunities for these young people as I can. I cannot wait to add another college partner. I can’t wait to add another university. Why? Because those colleges and universities give the scholarships. They’re committing millions of dollars in scholarships, which is a part of what’s interesting about the model. I don’t have to raise scholarship dollars. I have to get these colleges signed on. If a college says they’re interested, I jump. I’m getting to the no part, but what are the core values of the organization?

We are a strength based model. We recruit young people who have leadership and academic potential, who can knock it out of the park, who are brilliant. We don’t screen for race. We don’t screen for need. We’re a merit-based model. The only merit-based diversity initiative that I know of in the United States. If a school says to me, “Oh wow, we want to Posse, but we don’t need white kids in the Posse, because we got plenty of white kids on our campus. We just really, could you recruit a Posse of black people for us?” We would say, “No.”

If a school said, “Wow, we love Posse. What a great idea, but you know what? We really just want to give need-based aid, because we’d rather let our aid go to students who really need it rather than students who don’t need it. I know you have a merit model, but could you just create a need based model? We’ll give you 10 scholarships a year.” We say no. There were times when I had to do both of those things, turn down millions of dollars in opportunity for these young people, because we were sticking to our mission. That’s hard. That is hard to do that, especially when you’re growing, especially when you’re a new organization.

I bet that people listening are wondering, “Well, why would you do that? Those seem like very reasonable requests on the college’s part.” It may probably take too long for this podcast. But what’s important, the message I’m trying to give you is that when you have a mission, it’s easy to participate in mission creep. “Take the $1 million, because $1 million, you need that money.” Even if the donor wants to do something different than what you’re doing, no, you can’t take the money or you have to redirect them. I don’t know if you want to ask more questions about that, but that’s what I mean.

Stuart Crainer:

So keeping that sense of focus is really difficult. Isn’t it? Because there’s so many temptations and issues, as you’ve just laid out, but there’s so many, as things are taking off with The Posse Foundation, you must have thought, “Oh, we could do this. We could do that.” You could move into different areas. You could lose focus so easily. There’s not many organizations that manage to retain it, no matter what area they’re in.

Deborah Bial:

It’s true for all of us as individuals in our careers, we need to know what our non-negotiables are. When you’re building something, whether you’re building your own career or you’re building an organization or a company, what are the non-negotiables? Where will you not compromise? Where can you compromise? What is flexible?

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. As you started Posse, at what point did you think, “This is really going to take off.”?
Deborah Bial: Wow.

Stuart Crainer:

Was it after six months, 18 months? At what point did you think, “Oh yeah, this is really going places.”?

Stacy Janiak:

Number of scholars? When you reached 100, 1,000.

Deborah Bial:

It’s such a good question. No one’s ever asked me that question in that way before. In the beginning, we always had the vision that this could be more than just at one college or one university. There’s 10 students in a Posse. Is it when we recruited the second Posse? Wow. We could have a Posse every year and we could go on forever with this one college. Was it when we added a second university? I think for me, when I saw that this could be something big, was in, we started the program in 1989, 10 years later, in 1999, we finally said, “Let’s try replicating this program in a different city.”

We had been in New York for 10 years. We had added some partner colleges and universities. We were sending teams of students every year to these schools. But the Department of Education, the Federal Department of Education gave us a grant to try to replicate the program in Boston. I was getting my doctorate at the time, so I could be there. I could watch it, while Posse was still running its program in New York. FIPSE gave us this grant and we opened in Boston. It was a huge success. One year later, we opened in Chicago.

Two years later, in DC. We kept going until we were in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Houston, the Bay Area. We just kept growing, until we were in 10 cities by the year 2015. Incredible growth. I think part of that is because we had perfected the model. Like here’s 10 years of really working on it, codifying it and making sure it’s brilliant. Maybe then, when we got that grant from DC.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah, go ahead, Stacy.

Stacy Janiak:

No, I was going to say, the ability to stay true to the purpose for those 10 years, I have to believe, was really critical to be able to then launch, because you weren’t diverted from the mission-

Deborah Bial:

Yeah.

Stacy Janiak:

… at all. Now, you did manage through, and are managing through still, some really challenging times, both reading about how you managed through the impact of 911 and shepherding the organization at that time, and now, through the pandemic and just the onset of virtual. Thinking about that from a strategic perspective, I’d love to hear more about that experience and how that’s impacting your future vision for Posse.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. To connect it to your last question, there’s nobody on staff. We’re not even 501(c)(3). In 1989, there was five kids, there’s 10 kids, there’s 20 kids. Today, I walk into our offices at 14 Wall Street, and I walk past this row of posters of young people in their caps and gowns, who’ve graduated from college and they’re on to become CEOs and college presidents. There’s now more than 10,000 of them out there. I connect that, because I was there in the beginning when we hardly had our foot in the door.

Today, when we have 64 partner colleges and universities, we recruit 800 new students every year. To your question, what happened after 911 and what happened during the pandemic? There’s always things that get in the way. I remember, we were having a national staff training in September, in New York City, back in 2001. Our staff was coming in from Chicago. They were coming in from Boston. I tried to go into the subway to go downtown and it was filled with people. I couldn’t even get down the stairs. I thought, “What’s going on?”

I heard someone say a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I said, “Oh my God, that’s horrible. Let me get a taxi,” I think. I’m up on the upper west side, going to get a taxi to go all the way downtown to 14 Wall Street, which for people listening might not realize is two blocks away from the World Trade Center. I get in the taxi and the taxi driver has his radio on. I said, “Can you take me down to Wall Street?” He said, “I’m not going down to Wall Street.” I said, “Okay, take me to 42nd street. I’ll get a subway there.”

He tries to drive downtown, and we hear on the radio that the second plane hits the World Trade Center. All of us, wherever we are, however we found out, we knew at that moment, “This is very out of the ordinary. This is a terrorist attack.” I told him to turn around and I went home. My husband and I had the TV on. It was this incredible series of moments of communication. We had staff flying in, who saw the World Trade Center hit from their airplanes. They looked out the window.

We had staff trying to cross the Tri-Borough Bridge, to get from the airport to New York on foot with their suitcases. We had staff that were trapped already at 14 Wall Street in the basement of the building. We had all of this stuff going on. So you’re leading the organization, I’m thinking, “Okay, what do I do?” The feeling, think of this, it’s September, this is when young people are being nominated for the Posse scholarship. What do we do? Obviously, everybody finds their hotel.

We finally got everybody home. We are all safe. The next day, we called a meeting on the roof of my apartment building. It was a beautiful day and we made a plan. We said, “We could pause Posse or we could keep going.” This is where networks come in. I called the president of the College Board. The College Board gave us free space in one of their conference rooms. They gave us a fax machine. They gave us computers and we didn’t miss a beat. We had 1,000s of kids nominated for the Posse scholarship. We interviewed them, and that December, they got their scholarships, they got admitted to college.

But it’s that moment when you’re making the decision, it’s such a horrible event, maybe we should pause. But I think if one thing characterizes Posse it’s that we don’t pause. We acknowledge, we understand that people need to take a minute. We need to recognize when there’s hardship, but we can’t press pause. During the pandemic, if you want me to tell that briefly? I don’t know if I’m talking too much?

Stuart Crainer:

No, that’s perfect. Yeah, no. Yeah. I mean, obviously, 911 was a traumatic experience, but it’d be interesting how you responded to the pandemic equally, more recently.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. All of us have been experiencing the pandemic, it’s a collective trauma. In March, like a lot of people, we went home. We went to our apartments, and houses, and we tried to figure out how we could work from there. We thought we could survive. The Posse did not just survive, our staff knocked it out of the park. We interviewed 17,000 nominated students on Zoom. We selected our 10,000th scholar on Zoom. We realized, I guess, that we could still run our program even from our bedrooms. I remember, I woke up one morning and I thought, “Oh my God, this is working. It works. The technology allows us to still deliver program. It’s not in person, which we care that it’s in person, but it’s not in person. It still works.”

I had an idea. I thought, “What if we went to cities we could never be in, because now we have the technology? We don’t have to be there physically.” I called Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education under Obama. I called Alberto Carvalho, who was at the time, the Superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools. I said, “Will you help me? Will you co-host a Zoom meeting with the superintendents of these cities that we’ve never been in?” They said, “Yes.” All of the superintendents came to this Zoom meeting. Overnight, literally, in one day, we doubled the number of cities from which we can recruit kids.

Now, we’re in Dallas, and Cleveland, and Newark. Now we’re in Philadelphia, we’re in Las Vegas. We’re in cities we had never been able to say yes to before. I guess, maybe, my message in this is that we need to acknowledge hardship, and we have to understand that it affects us differently, but we can also embrace opportunity and plow through, even when it’s hard, to make sure we don’t give up on the young people that we so care about.

Stuart Crainer:

What do you think of as your core skills, Debbie? You haven’t got a pause button. You’re very disciplined, and kept the focus. You’re very purpose driven. You’re very passionate about what you do, but how do you view what you are good at and what you are bringing to the organization?
Deborah Bial: I’d rather have you tell me what I’m good… I think that my focus is usually infrastructure and making sure people don’t give up. I think leaders, you ask leaders, “What’s one of the hardest things to deal with?” I think a lot of leaders will say, “Trying to convince people who think it can’t happen, or you can’t do this, or it isn’t a good idea.” It becomes one of our most important responsibilities, because change is scary and uncomfortable, even if it’s a great idea. As a leader, you’ve got to kind of lead people through that, I think, and help them see what’s possible. Maybe those two things.

Stacy Janiak:

Well, maybe to build on that, one of the Provocateur superpowers is an ability to overcome blinders that can be caused by bias, whether that’s individual or collective bias. How do you think you’re able to do that? How have you encountered that and kind of overcome that?

Deborah Bial:

It’s like music. You’ve got to kind of find the rhythm. If you dwell too long in an analysis of what can go wrong, you’ll never get to what’s possible. You’ll never get to executing the steps you need to take to make it possible. It’s this idea of balancing, wanting to give people a chance in the space to talk about their fears and anxieties, and knowing when to say, “Okay, we’re done doing that now. Time to take the risk.” I think that’s part of it. I don’t know. Is that getting at what you’re asking, Stacy?

Stacy Janiak:

Yeah, I think so. I think you’re talking about how you kind of overcome the challenge and maybe the bias for consistency, or for status quo, and the concern about change, which, as you said, is always scary, no matter what form it takes.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

When did you start seeing yourself as a leader, Debbie?

Deborah Bial:

That’s just such a weird question, Stuart. Sorry. Because I don’t-

Stuart Crainer:

Well, when you started, you were 23, and you started this amazing thing and then added momentum. I know you had a team around you, but you were the one who started it in the end.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. So the real truth, I promise you this is the truth. I get to be in the role that I’m in. That’s a lot of luck. It’s a huge privilege, but it’s really not me. It’s us. I swear I believe that. I’ll give you an example. Any CEO or president of a nonprofit, any executive director that says she is amazing at raising money. It’s not right. It’s not she. I’m not a great fund. I’m fine.

I do well with the material you give me. The reason I can raise millions of dollars is because of my board. It’s because of our team, our staff. I just get to be in this role. I think a lot of leaders will say that to you. I think? I hope. It’s a mistake not to know it’s we. I feel like I’m the leader by name, but it’s really a team of us.

Stuart Crainer:

The team is the engine of the organization?

Deborah Bial:

Yes.

Stuart Crainer:

But how do you keep that feeling going? I mean, there’s a lot of people who aren’t team players, we encounter in life, and a lot of people have got the ego, they want to be the leader. How do you keep the culture fresh and invigorated?

Deborah Bial:

First of all, don’t hire those people. Seriously, hire people that they say, “I got this.” Hire people who are positive, who are really smart. I care about that more than experience. Really smart people that want to make things happen, who are positive, who help create culture. One person cannot create culture. You need people to kind of infect each other with it. You’ve got to hire the people who are like that.

But you also want, again, back to the beginning, you want them to stay true to the mission, especially a nonprofit. We don’t pay as big a salary for people as we do in corporate. You’ve got to have an organization that has a lot of integrity, where you get to see outcomes and impact, where you get to feel the importance of the work you do, and where you get to have fun. You need to like who you work with and have a good time. So…

Stacy Janiak:

I would imagine, Debbie, that it also comes back to finding people that are aligned with the purpose. I mean, you’ve been a very mission, purpose driven organization. I would assume that is really relevant, as you both recruit and build your team?

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. I’ll give you an example. I’m genuinely saying this about Deloitte. Deloitte is an example. We have over 200 corporate partners, but Deloitte is at the top, top of the list. The reason is that Deloitte has a lot of alignment in what Deloitte is trying to do philanthropically and what Posse is about. We ended up, over a long period of time, developing a relationship that now feels almost like we are one together. Deloitte not only funds Posse, because Deloitte believes in the work, but provides pro bono support to us, space for events, internships, jobs, and volunteers.

In fact, we have a Deloitte person on every one of our boards, two people on our national board. When I think about, that’s something different today than when we started this organization. To dream that a company like Deloitte would do so much for an organization like Posse, it wasn’t even something I could have imagined. But as you grow and become more established, those things become possible. That helps too. No one does this alone.

Stuart Crainer:

How do you stay fresh and enthusiastic, Debbie? A lot along the way, you’ve been with Posse, apart from when you went to Harvard, 33 years.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Have you ever tempted to go join another organization?

Deborah Bial:

No, I really love Posse. I really love what’s happening. I feel like if I personally wasn’t learning anymore, maybe then I would leave. I do want to leave. I don’t want to stay forever. I think the person who should take my job should be a Posse alum. Wouldn’t that be good? That would be good. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. That would be nice and circular.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

It’s the learning that keeps you fresh and engaged?

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. I have the best time. I feel that I have the best job in the world. I wake up every morning, I can’t wait to go to work. I feel that the people here are my true friends. The people that I work with every day, I can’t imagine better people than they. There’s nothing about Posse that makes me feel like I don’t want to be here. Not yet, anyway.

Stacy Janiak:

Is there anything, as you look back, that you are most proud of what Posse’s achieved or what you’ve accomplished?

Deborah Bial:

I mean, yeah. These young people, what we did was we recognized talent. There’s so much racism in our systems in this country. We’ve created a new framework for thinking about diversity. One that is not based on a deficit. I’m really proud of us for sticking to that. We have created opportunities for extraordinarily talented young people, and I’m watching them become leaders in their own right. I like to tell Shirley’s story. She knows, I always tell this story. If you go to our website, her story is in our video.

She’s this Dominican kid who grew up in Brooklyn. Her dad drove a Yellow cab and she had terrible SAT scores. She’s a really brilliant person, so smart. She gets into the very first Posse. She goes to Vanderbilt. She graduates with honors. She gets her doctorate in clinical psychology from Duke University. She becomes the Dean of the College at Middlebury.

A few years ago, Shirley became the President of Ithaca college, the first Dominican American to be president of a four year college in the entire United States. She is not an anomaly. There are 1,000s of Posse scholars following in her footsteps, becoming CEOs, becoming leaders of organizations, leading movements, running for office. I feel great that we created an infrastructure that helped make that happen.

Stacy Janiak:

Okay, well that just gave me goosebumps. I would add to your skillset being an amazing storyteller, which I think is probably why you’re also able to raise millions of dollars.

Deborah Bial:

Aw thanks, Stacy.

Stuart Crainer:

You also developed the Bial-Dale College Adaptability Index, Debbie. Can you tell us about that? Can you explain what it is, and why you developed it, and how that came about, and why it’s important to your work?

Deborah Bial:

Well, when I went back to get my doctorate and I was trying to think of what I wanted to do for my dissertation, I wanted to write about this dynamic assessment process that we had designed at Posse to screen and interview 1,000s of students without focusing on the SAT. I thought, “Well, maybe what we were doing intuitively at Posse could be codified. Maybe I could codify it.” I created something called a College Adaptability Index with Stacy Dale.

We got a $1.9 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support it. I had great people working with me, Derek Bok was my thesis advisor. He was the President of Harvard. And Gary Orfield, who was one of my beloved professors, and he’s co-founded the Civil Rights Project. Anyway, I had great people. That’s what that is. Me trying to see if I could codify what we had done intuitively at Posse.

Stuart Crainer:

How has it contributed to your growth, do you think?

Deborah Bial:

I think, it was good to go through the exercise, but we don’t use it. What we do at Posse really, really works, the way we do it. We don’t need that I designed, which I was thinking could be applied more broadly and maybe one day it will, but that’s not my focus. I’d like to interview you two. That’s really what I want to do.

Stuart Crainer:

Everybody says that, after a while, Debbie. Is the world is a better place, 33 years on from starting the Posse Foundation? Do you feel more positively about the world you are seeing in education and the opportunities for people?

Deborah Bial:

Oh my god, 100% yes. We have a long way to go, but we now have these 60-plus colleges and universities that are really with us together, learning about how to talk about inclusion and equity. There’s been a lot of development in the DEI world, in the conversation. The Black Lives Matter movement, and other movements, trying to push us to think differently about race, and gender, and class have been effective. We’ve all been paying much more attention to it.

With the murders of George Floyd and others, we felt pressure, and Posse was there playing an important role in leading the conversation, and in helping others to think about how to bring that conversation into their companies. We launched Posse Consulting, which does that. It takes all of our experience and brings it into corporate. We do that with you, Deloitte, too. I think a lot has happened that’s good, understanding that we need a multiracial approach to addressing racial bias is really important. It can’t just be one group of people.

Stacy Janiak:

Debbie, anything that you, as you think back, that you would have done differently?

Deborah Bial:

Oh, a million things.

Stacy Janiak:

But any important ones, as you think about our listeners that might be embarking on their own provocative future?

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. One personal thing that I still am not good at and I try to work on it, is I think I dig my heels in a lot. When I think I’m right, I think I get really narrow and I don’t listen as well as I could, so that’s one thing. Because I think the more we figure out how to work together, even when we disagree, the better outcome we’ll have. I think I used to, tell myself if I’m doing this now, but I think I used to over explain everything, because I cared so much about what I was doing.

I wanted the person listening to know every single little detail. That was a huge mistake. I think, organizationally, we’ve done the right things. But personally, I made a million mistakes. Feeling insecure, not confident. I used to be the youngest person in the room. That’s not the case anymore, but it’s hard to be the youngest person in the room.

Stuart Crainer:

Is it easier being the oldest person in the room?

Deborah Bial:

Yes. It’s easier, because you don’t care as much about being wrong or making a mistake. You know that you’re more secure.

Stacy Janiak:

You know life goes on.

Deborah Bial:

Life goes on. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Where next for Posse then? Where do you see it going in five years, or 10 years? You may not be involved over in five years or 10 years, but where in your mind, have you had a clear idea where you want it to go and you would like it to go?

Deborah Bial:

Yep. We’re going to recruit 830 new students this year for our partner schools. We want to get to the point where we’re recruiting 1,000 new students a year. Young people who are seniors in high school, who will participate in the pre-college program, we will support 4,000 students a year on campus. Think about it, 1,000 in every class. We’ll graduate about 1,000 students a year into the workforce. What I want to have happen is to get to that 1,000 by adding new college partnerships and building something that we’re calling the Century of Leaders’ Fund. This is my favorite idea that we’re working on right now.

If I could raise a half a billion dollars, that’s doable, that money would be invested and would generate enough money that I could give each of our 100 partner institutions a quarter of a million dollars a year. That would guarantee the program in perpetuity and in numbers. Let me tell you what that means. It means 10,000 Posse scholars for the United States, every decade. 1,000,000 leaders in a century, a century of leaders. Think about who they are, young people who deserve this chance, who will go to great colleges and then become CEOs, senators, and college presidents.

Stuart Crainer:

Fantastic concept. You see, America doesn’t have a monopoly on these problems and challenges?

Deborah Bial:

No.

Stuart Crainer:

Have you thought of going beyond the States?

Deborah Bial:

Yep. Yep. You could do Posse Canada. You could do Posse… We actually just have been talking to a couple of different people from different countries about the idea, but it’s different. The higher ed system is different there. The demographics are different. I think the concept could work well, maybe we just help them develop their own Posse type concept, but yeah. Yep. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Posse Europe is what I was looking for, Debbie.

Deborah Bial:

Okay. You’re going to help me, Stuart.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Yeah. What about you, personally? Where do you go next, do you think?

Deborah Bial:

I don’t know. I’m here, for now.

Stuart Crainer:

Do you plan ahead?

Deborah Bial:

I plan ahead for the organization, but not for myself. Yeah. Do you? Do you plan ahead?

Stuart Crainer:

No.

Deborah Bial:

You live in a moment, Stuart, or do you dwell in the past?

Stuart Crainer:

Planning is for career wise and job wise is dangerous, because then you’re cutting down options, interesting avenues along the way.

Deborah Bial:

That’s a good point.

Stuart Crainer:

That’s what’s interesting about your story is you’ve combined the kind of discipline element of sticking with it. You’ve said no to lots of, no doubt, interesting potential avenues. That’s really difficult, whilst keeping fresh.

Deborah Bial:

Stacy, do you plan ahead?

Stacy Janiak:

I do plan ahead, but scenario plan ahead, and know none of those scenarios are actually going to happen. But by planning ahead, it opens my eyes, opens my mind to what things could be.

Deborah Bial:

Oh, I love that.

Stuart Crainer:

Who has been your mentor along the way, Debbie? Have you worked with people throughout the last 30 years who have inspired you and helped you?

Deborah Bial:

Tons of them.

Stuart Crainer:

You mentioned Derek Bok and people like that.

Deborah Bial:

Gary Orfield and Derek Bok, hugely important to me. My father and my mother, hugely important to me. But so many people along the way, I mean, I learned from people all the time. I think like Arne Duncan. I learned from him. I admire him enormously. People who are able to stay calm when they’re talking about things that they’re enraged by, I’m learning from them right now. It is so important to me to learn from those people. It’s a big flaw that I have.

Stuart Crainer:

There’s a lot to be angry about. Do you act as a mentor? Do you carry on that role in the organization?

Deborah Bial:

You know what, we have a role called Mentor in our program. These are tenured faculty members who take on an entire posse, for two years, the first two years of college. I think if I had to say the single most important programmatic element, I would point to them. Once in a while, I’m lucky. I get a Posse scholar who wants to hang out with me. But remember, I’m like the old person in the corner here, whose kind of always working on her computer and phone, and I don’t need that. I don’t need to be in their lives. I really don’t, but I’m watching all the time.

Stuart Crainer:

You’ve mentioned luck a couple of times, Debbie.

Deborah Bial:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stuart Crainer:

You feel with Posse that luck was an important element in its success?

Deborah Bial:

Yeah. There’s a question we ask, “Is your success mostly because of hard work, luck or destiny?” Think about Stacy and Stuart, think about yourself, how would you answer that question?

Stacy Janiak:

All of the above.

Deborah Bial:

Right. All of the above. But if you had to pick one that without it, and I know it’s easier to say all of them, but I think that I am incredibly lucky. I’m not the only smart person in the world. I’m not the only person who’s driven and passionate about working. I think I’m just lucky. I don’t think that I deserve my position or my salary more than someone who makes less doing something different.

Stuart Crainer:

But is that what keeps you going?

Deborah Bial:

Luck?

Stuart Crainer:

No. The fact that you think you don’t deserve it?

Deborah Bial:

No. No. I’m just saying, I don’t feel like this is coming to me. Like, I’m here. You know? What keeps me going is I just love this. I love what I’m doing. I believe in the mission. I’m much more motivated by social justice today than I was when I was 23. I was just in the right place at the right time.

Stuart Crainer:

Are you optimistic?

Deborah Bial:

About?

Stuart Crainer:

About the world and the causes you’re impacting?

Deborah Bial:

Yes. Yes. Can I end with one comment?

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah.

Stacy Janiak:

Yeah.

Deborah Bial:

It’s a concept I learned from you all, at Deloitte, about pounding the table. I think a lot of people in this country and elsewhere wonder what they could possibly do to make a difference. The problems are so overwhelming, but if you pound the table for one person Who isn’t showing up on the radar screen, who isn’t getting a chance of promotion and assignment, who’s not getting an opportunity to be part of the team, who doesn’t get asked out to lunch, just one person. If we all do that, we will make dramatic change, dramatic change. I just want to leave people with that one idea. Posse’s pounding the table for all of these young people, but if each of us do that for just one person, things will change.

Stacy Janiak:

I love that.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Kindness is infectious and [crosstalk 00:52:41].

Stacy Janiak:

Kindness and allyship, right?

Deborah Bial:

Yeah.

Stacy Janiak:

You’re really talking about sponsorship. Yeah.

Deborah Bial:

Yeah.

Stacy Janiak: Important.

Stuart Crainer:

Brilliant. Thank you very much, Debbie.

Deborah Bial:

Thank You. Thank you so much, both of you, Stacy and Stuart.

The Provocateurs: Episode 3 | Deborah Bial and The Power of a Posse

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