Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Executive Director of 100Kin10, an initiative that aims to train 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in U.S. classrooms by 2021.
What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
I wish I had understood why it’s important to sweat the small stuff. Sweating the small stuff really matters. It means you care, it differentiates you, and it helps you learn about what you’re doing and how to get it done. I double-checked links, proof-read press releases and went over agendas minute-by-minute. But what I’ve learned, with perspective, is that the small stuff itself really is small. It only matters because, in total, it signals something bigger: that you care, that you’ve made the project your own, that you’re committed to excellence. It means you can be trusted to get your stuff done and get it done right. This doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. You can, and you will. And, that’s just fine. Because it’s about the trendline, and you’ve proven yourself someone who can be trusted. Realizing this makes it easier to see the big picture and experience joy in the work, too.
What is your current greatest professional challenge?
Supporting a team to set and meet audacious goals and find their own equilibrium at the same time. We are passionately committed to making progress on our goal; to end the STEM teacher shortage and design more effective ways for people to collaborate, learn from one another and make change. And we understand that, so often, over-zealous mission focus can lead to burn-out. We are experimenting with holding tight on big goals and leaning in on empowerment, autonomy and flexibility, coupled with generous paid time off, to support each of us to thrive. People keep different hours, everyone works from home on Fridays, and we really take our vacations. The entire team contributed to the design of this approach. It’s an experiment, and we’re all feeling hopeful.
What inspires you most about your work?
If we’re going to solve the most pressing issues facing society, including climate change, food shortages, health, education and economic inequality, we need to tap into the full potential of our communities. Yet, only a small fraction of our nation’s population has the STEM skills, knowledge and agency to fuel solutions. To create the next generation of innovators, we need to expand access to STEM education for all students (urban, rural, low-income, black, brown, white, all genders and identities) so they can tap their unique creativity to bring solutions to our most pressing challenges. These students could cure cancer and dementia, suggest novel solutions to our climate catastrophe, or devise ways to clean and explore the deepest oceans. They are already sitting in classrooms across America, and whether they become the people who lead breakthroughs depends on whether they have excellent STEM teachers. Through 100Kin10, 280 organizations are contributing to preparing 100,000 excellent STEM teachers by 2021, and we’re on track to exceed that goal. Those organizations and their dedication inspire me.
How does your gender identity inform your work?
In a sense, this is an impossible question. I can no more separate my gender identity from my leadership than I can any other part of me. But there are elements to how I move as a leader that make sense when understood in the context of gender. First, I see myself as part of a broader group of network leaders. I understand that any change that matters will need to be owned collaboratively. My role is to catalyze, mobilize and inspire change and to create the conditions of trust and shared purpose in which diverse individuals and organizations can choose to commit and contribute collectively, effectively and sustainably. I don’t need to be in the front of the room to do this well. I don’t believe these traits are biologically or exclusively female, and they’re likely in part the product of social conditioning, but, at this moment in time, women tend to embody them more often. Second, I am the mother of three young children, all girls. I feel I’ve never been more creative than in these years of early parenting; imagined worlds and made-up bedtime stories would, unexpectedly, transform themselves into new ways of designing networks and new forms for setting shared goals.
Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
I think my gender identity has enhanced my career. I feel comfortable with vulnerability and openness. I know the personal is political, and I have created a workplace that invites in the personal. I can connect with all kinds of people from all backgrounds. That experience is a reminder of my privilege. I am conscious that I have rarely, if ever, felt, when speaking in a room, like I am representing all women. I have had the support of incredible advisors and funders, both women and men. I never believed my gender circumscribed my life options. This is something my parents instilled and modeled. My life partner supports me in my work (as I do he in his) and shares the joys and work of our household and children. And though there have been uncomfortable situations because of my gender, I have never been in an environment in which I was made to feel unwelcome or threatened. I do not take these for granted.
And yet, I am aware of certain persistent barriers. I will share one. Longer-term, general-operating grants continue to go disproportionately to men. Those kinds of grants allow the freedom for nonprofit executives to focus on vision and mission. When they go disproportionately to men, they exaggerate other inequities around leadership voice in the public sphere.
How can philanthropy support gender equality?
Here is one idea: whether or not you focus on gender as a core part of your philanthropic mission, you can use your market power to incentivize progress. For instance, you might require any organization you support (a hospital, university, arts organization, you name it) to have gender- and race-based board diversity. Or you might ask your grantees to run a gender-pay analysis and, if they find an imbalance, to share the findings and make a plan to rectify it in a reasonable amount of time. Or you might ask that anyone employed directly or through subcontracting by your grantees (think cleaning and foodservice, female-dominated and under-paid sectors) be paid a living wage. By thinking of philanthropic giving as a market influencer, foundations and philanthropists can have impact on gender and racial equality as part and parcel of their work, whether or not it’s their core mission. Finally, you can do an analysis of your own giving and ensure there is equity of amount, duration and flexibility of funds for female- and male-led grantees.
In the next 10 years, where do you see gender-equality movements taking us?
I hope we see gender-equality movements becoming simultaneously more universal and more personal. That might seem like a contradiction, but I believe both are necessary and mutually reinforcing. Gender equality isn’t just important to women; it’s important to everyone. Paid child-care is essential for healthy child development and a healthy workforce; it’s no different for reproductive rights. When girls think they can’t succeed as engineers or scientists, the downstream consequences are that we lose out on breakthroughs that might have saved millions of lives or made millions of dollars. That’s not just a problem for girls, that’s a problem for humankind. And, third-wave feminism and intersectionality teach us feminism is refracted through each of our personal experiences and life stories. There might be common patterns, but each of our threads is unique. Gender equality doesn’t need to just make room for each of us and our stories; it must embrace them. If we weave those unique threads together, the fabric that will emerge will be stronger, more compelling and more resilient than anything we’ve seen before.
More on Talia Milgrom-Elcott:
Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the cofounder and executive director of 100Kin10, an initiative that aims to bring together “the nation’s top academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies and government agencies to address the nation’s STEM teacher shortage” and train 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in U.S. classrooms by 2021. Between 2011 and 2018, the collaborative effort trained 68,000 teachers. Milgrom-Elcott is also an accomplished attorney, speaker, writer and moderator, whose skills and insights have been featured at the White House, the Philanthropy Roundtable, The Washington Post, CNN and other venues and outlets. She previously served as a program officer and senior manager of the STEM Teacher Initiatives at the Carnegie Corporation of New York and as a member of Chancellor Joel Klein’s leadership team at the New York City Department of Education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.