ABOUT TODAY’S EPISODE | ADEOLA WHITNEY
Adeola (“Ola”) Whitney has 20+ years of experience in both education and community service. After earning her Bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in English and African-American Studies, she held leadership and management roles with Playworks, Kaplan, and McGraw-Hill. In her first role with Reading Partners, she served as Chief Regional Operations Officer, overseeing most parts of the organization while managing over a dozen Executive Directors across the country. Later, at iMentor, Ola led the expansion and implementation of the college-success program and managed executive leadership in the Bay Area, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City. Now, Ola is back at Reading Partners as the organization’s CEO. Reading Partners’ mission is to unlock student potential by raising reading achievement in 12 key regions around the U.S. Ola Whitney is a passionate leader who sincerely believes that one person can make a difference in the world, and she is doing her part to lead by example.
Q&A WITH ADEOLA WHITNEY
Q: Let’s have our listeners get to know you a little bit. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your personal background?
- I grew up in Columbus, Ohio to 2 Nigerian parents who came here for a better opportunity for their kids and careers.
- At the age of 12, I learned a lot about social justice. There was an incident I observed with my parents at a mall that forever changed my life.
- I credit it a lot to what I do professionally, why I give back and why service is so important to me.
Q: Can you summarize what happened to you at age 12?
- It was in the late 80s. I had gone shopping with my parents. As we exited the mall, we witnessed a black woman being thrown to the ground. She was visibly very pregnant and was being harassed because they thought she’d stolen something.
- My father went to her defense. He stood his ground and showed his humanity to this woman. He didn’t leave until she received justice and they let her go.
- It was a big deal and the way I felt at that moment, not fully understanding, but watching my father go to that woman’s rescue meant so much to me.
Q: This led you to want to go to Oberlin. You double majored in English and African-American Studies, right? Tell us about your Oberlin experiences and specifically, I’d love to hear what lessons from your studies are relevant in what you do today.
- When I went to Oberlin, it was only a few years after that incident.
- It’s a liberal arts school. There’s history of the Underground Railway, abolitionists and social activism in it.
- There was a social justice component within the school. The idea of being open-minded to different ideas and thoughts.
- Not everyone who went to Oberlin was liberal. People think differently and from different walks of life. For me, Oberlin challenged me to think differently. It helped me create some paradigm shift.
- Through my English major, I learned the true meaning of success and failure. In order to succeed, you must fail.
- The whole mission was it takes one person to be able to change the world. I still believe that. I wanted to do something where I thought I could play a role and change the world.
- My boyfriend at the time (now husband) was taking this class that focused on education. He told me about it saying, you actually get to tutor in the community. I took that class with him and we were placed at the same school tutoring 3rd and 4th grade math. I loved it so much!
- Getting to interact with the kids, getting to actually make a difference. Helping them to understand math was the best feeling in the world. That led to more opportunities for me to volunteer.
- I also learned in college how to make an ask.
- I wrote and performed a play in my senior year. I had to raise money in order to put the play and I did.
- I raised money for many different things.
Q: You’ve referenced your first job after college. it was with Score Education. Tell us what you did there. I’m fascinated by the goals and strategies Score had for what they do.
- They’re a subsidiary of Kaplan and offer after school programs. We started in more affluent areas across parts of the Bay Area. It was a business management program couched in education. It was interesting.
- The whole goal was signing kids up. It was about fun. At the end of the session, kids got to take basketball shots. There was also an incentive program where they got to earn gifts.
- My job was to ensure children were having a good time and learning.
- I learned so much about business and managing others. I worked there for 8 years and got promoted 9 times.
Q: So your career progressed from there and eventually got you to Reading Partners for your 1st stint around 2013, right?
- A recruiter reached out to me and told me about the opportunity. To manage, coach, develop and support Development Directors.
- In 2013, my son was really struggling with reading. He hated it. I poured my time into trying to figure out with his school what resources we could provide to ensure his reading improved.
- The more I learned about Reading Partners, the more I recognized, this is where I belong.
Q: This took you to Hyve and iMentor for the next few years. Tell us a little bit about those.
- As I was deciding my exit strategy from Reading Partners, I started working with a friend who was also an Executive Director. We’d jokingly discuss how we ought to start something. One day, she called me and said why don’t we do it? I asked do what? She replied, start a consulting firm!!
- I’d amassed this resume where I’d managed over a hundred people indirectly.
- We took 6-8 months creating a business plan, while I was still working for Reading Partners and interviewing for what would be my next job which was iMentor.
- I was in a similar role as what I did in Reading Partners. I was their first ever Chief Regional Officer.
- iMentor is an organization focused on college access to high school students. It helps support them in and through college through mobilizing the community volunteers. I loved it so much.
Q: You stayed for 4 ½ years and instead of pursuing your consultancy with Hyve, you got recruited back to Reading Partners?
- I did pursue the consultancy for some time, but eventually sold my portion of the business back to my partners.
- In January 2020, I was in Indonesia with my husband. The experience I had in Bali made me remember how lucky I’m, how much privilege I have.
- I learned that Reading Partners was looking for a new CEO, and pursued that.
Q: What are you most excited about for the future vision of Reading Partners?
- I’m most excited about our pivot. I believe in the next 3 years, Reading Partners is going to look differently than the past 22 years. Those last 22 years have been amazing, but the world looks different.
- If we aren’t nimble and agile and innovative, we’re going to be left in the dirt. I don’t think it’s about us. It’s about students, it’s about communities.
Q: What is your vision for the children that come through Reading Partners’ program?
- The children at the schools we serve are so resilient. They’re so amazing. Our job is only putting a small piece into what will ultimately ensure they reach their full potential.
- I think their teachers are doing everything they can do. Their families are doing everything they can do. Our job is to understand the role we play for the students.
- I want them to believe in themselves, their resilience and have confidence and enjoy Reading Partners.
- I like to imagine a future where every single child has access to quality education. Not based on the color of their skin, their family’s education outcomes or anything else.
Q: Outside of literacy, if you had a magic wand you could use to fix the world, what would be the challenge you’d want to see addressed?
- I’d probably focus on hunger.
- The idea that people don’t have access to food in this country and around the world is just so difficult.
- I hope you enjoyed getting to know Adeola, her story and her insights.
- I loved hearing the arc of her life growing up as the child of Nigerian immigrants in Ohio, and then making it to Oberlin College, a challenging school to get in and excel at what she did well and have a wide range of experiences while there.
- It taught her about herself and the world and then developing that passion for service.
- It got me thinking that anyone listening can find ways of serving in their communities and even outside of their communities to the world.
- Learn more about Reading Partners here.
- Donate to Reading Partners through Dan Casetta’s fundraiser page.
Show Notes for this episode provided by Brian Njenga.
To learn more and get access to all episodes, visit our podcast page!
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