Committed advocate for education and educators
Luanne Zurlo had a successful career on Wall Street as a respected analyst at top investment banks. But a national tragedy prompted her to revisit a deferred wish to have a hand in social development and to found an organization dedicated to improving education.
The focus was not a stretch. Zurlo attributes her own success to a great education: private schools, Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Columbia Business School. And she saw pressing needs.
“It was so obvious to me that education was a key factor” behind the huge skills gap in Latin America, Zurlo says, based on her time covering companies in the region, one she had come to love. But “the job wasn’t making me happy after nine years. … I wanted to try to give back to the region.”
The tragic events of 9-11 were a turning point. “It was the final push I needed to act on this,” she says. “Life is short.”
Zurlo also cites deepening convictions with enabling her to make the move. “I don’t think I would have had the courage to leave if I didn’t have my strong faith,” she says.
Unable to find an NGO or charitable organization whose primary purpose was education in Latin America, “I very naively decided I would try to create something,” Zurlo says.
She left a position at Goldman Sachs in July of 2002; Worldfund was formed later that year — in her apartment.
Zurlo honed in on teacher training. A former professor at her alma mater, Dartmouth, helped her connect with John Rassias, who had developed an innovative method for language instruction. “He didn’t hesitate when he was presented with the idea,” she says.
That was the genesis of Worldfund’s flagship teacher training program, the Inter-American Partnership for Education Teachers’ Collaborative, in partnership with the Rassias Center for World Languages and Cultures at Dartmouth. Mexican teachers travel to Hanover, New Hampshire, for an intensive course to improve their English-language instruction, followed by three years of mentoring back home.
A newer in-country program reaches more teachers.
Worldfund also started to offer scholarships to needy students and grants to needy schools.
But the early years were very tough, Zurlo says.
“The first three years, I didn’t take a paycheck. I lived off my savings,” Zurlo says. “You could say the seed funding was my sweat equity.”
At one point, the group’s bank account had dwindled to $2,000 — not enough to make payroll, much less keep going. “I decided, ‘This could be it,’ ” Zurlo recalls. “Then we got a $100,000 grant.
“I truly believe it was providential,” she says.
Zurlo might have felt burned-out after an intense nine years on Wall Street, yet she credits the experience with equipping her with the skills needed to manage and run a business, albeit a nonprofit one. And former colleagues and contacts have provided crucial support for Worldfund, which depends on donations and fundraising.
Zurlo has assembled an impressive board, led by Steven Schindler, chairman of NII Holdings, whose subsidiary Nextel de Mexico underwrites programs. Also on the board: Luiz Fraga, senior partner of Gavea Investimentos; Arcos Dorados CEO Woods Staton; and Nicolas Aguzin, CEO Latin America, J.P. Morgan; among other regional heavyweights and representatives of financial institutions.
“That has given us credibility,” Zurlo acknowledges.
Mexican businessman Carlos Slim attended Worldfund’s inaugural gala in 2004 as honoree, which put the group on the map, she adds.
By August 2009, Worldfund was able to launch two new programs. STEM Brasil, an 18-month training program for math and science teachers, debuted in Recife, Brazil, at three high schools. The following year, it expanded to 21 schools, and Worldfund hopes to take it statewide and then national. Also in 2009, Worldfund introduced an innovative program to train principals in two Mexican states.
These programs require cooperation with government officials at the state and local levels, a delicate task. “Politics are challenging when working with the public sector, navigating [them] and ensuring that you can sustain your program past elections,” Zurlo says.
Zurlo sounds equal parts proud and humbled by Worldfund’s impact.
She describes being moved to tears by a new crop of teachers beginning training at the Dartmouth campus. “The 40 teachers, they were all expressing how they realize that they, themselves, have to make Mexico a better place,” Zurlo says. “It’s powerful stuff.”
She says she wants to avoid the “revenue ceiling” that plagues many nonprofits and to ensure that Worldfund programs endure and reach more educators and students.
“I would like to be working in more countries, deepening what we are doing in Mexico and Brazil,” Zurlo says of her future goals for Worldfund. “This is a noble cause.”
Filed Under: BRAVO 2011
About the Author: