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A Conversation with Shawna Young, EMBA ’15

A conversation with Shawna Young, EMBA ’15, on her experiences from North Carolina to Cambridge, from teaching high school to reinvigorating the Scratch Foundation at MIT and advocating for her community.  A graduate of Howard University, Shawna tells us about being in a space where her classmates could be themselves, “unapologetically black and ambitious.” It set her on a path to focus on the access to advanced learning opportunities for children of color early in their educational journey.   

Shawna tells us about the challenges of navigating both parenting and a career guided by the principles of helping the underserved, whether in the high schools where she taught, or through the Duke Talent Identification Program, or at several positions that she has held at MIT. 

Shawna closes by talking about the diverse community she encountered at MIT Sloan, and how she and her classmates bonded over the challenges of juggling school, career, and personal lives.  

Shawna Young: Over the years, I often tell the young people I work with, you have people in your corner that don't even know your name, but they're there working for you and, and you are here because they care about the idea of who you are. And you can see when I talk with them about that, how their eyes light up and the shoulders go back a little bit more. They stand up a little bit taller. 

Christopher Reichert:  Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan. 

Hi, I'm your host, Christopher Reichert, and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Shawna Young, a 2015 graduate of MIT Sloan with an EMBA. Welcome, Shawna. 

Shawna Young: Hi, how are you, Christopher? 

Christopher Reichert: Excellent. Or should I say welcome back to MIT? I guess we all leave MIT at some point, but I guess we hope MIT never leaves us, right? 

Shawna Young: Yes, absolutely. 

Christopher Reichert: So, before we begin our conversation, let me give our listeners some background about Shawna. She is the founder and principal advisor at Forward Impact Investments with clients ranging from small businesses, like Countryside Gymnastics in North Carolina, to Fortune 10 enterprises like Google. Prior, and partly concurrently, she was the Executive Director of the Scratch Foundation, the world's largest and free coding platform for over a hundred million kids. While at Scratch, she transitioned the foundation from its founding configuration as a research lab at the vaunted MIT Media Lab to a thriving Ed-Tech nonprofit, increased funding and revenues over two years, two fiscal years, from $7m to +$30m. And she restructured the management of the foundation's staff of 80+ to a more representative population.  

Earlier in her career, Shawna was the executive director at the Duke Talent Identification Program, and Executive Director at the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs, and the Administrator for Diversity Initiative and Educational Outreach Program at the Broad Institute.  

She received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Howard University, a Master of Arts in Teaching and Science Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a certificate in nonprofit management and leadership from Boston University, and of course an MBA from MIT Sloan. So did I miss anything? 

Shawna Young: You did not. Thank you so much for the thoughtful introduction, Christopher. I really appreciate it. 

Christopher Reichert: Excellent. So, there's a lot to cover. I was listening to a few publications where you've been interviewed and I wanted to have you tell us about your passions in education, you know, starting first in the corporate world of GE and then transitioning to being a high school teacher in North Carolina, and then you can see with the MIT and the Scratch Foundation and the Broad Institute that there is definitely that sort of educational component still in there. So, tell us about that, how that drives you. 

Shawna Young: Yeah, thank you so much, Christopher. I think it even starts earlier than that, growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and being in an environment where I always saw a lot of people of color, specifically black people thriving in their educational environment. And I remember that essentially. And one of my teachers identified me, sort of tapped me on the back and say, “look, you ask a lot of questions, very inquisitive, and maybe there's some other opportunities for you.” So actually becoming the Executive Director at Duke TIP was not the starting point because I'd actually been identified in seventh grade by the Duke Talent Identification Program and did a lot of experiences at college universities, which helped me realize that being inquisitive, asking questions, doing something different was okay. And it and my life could expand beyond what I knew in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And so it also put a bug in myself around like, I really enjoy working with others. 

I really enjoy making a difference. And I had a deeper passion for education than I knew when I went to GE and was part of the technical leadership program. So that was my first job out of college. I thought forever I wanted to be a doctor and realized that was not the case. And when I went to GE, I think I was still very hopeful around impact that I would have in a space that was very much traditional corporate America back in the nineties. I say that because I'm really excited about how I've seen companies change and how I've seen them really prioritize community and social impact and the work that they do. As a first job out of college in 1997, that was not necessarily there. And so, after one year, I realized that I didn't want to wait 10 to 15 years to do my passion and to make a difference. 

And so I made a really strong pivot to leaving GE and becoming a teacher and not necessarily knowing how to teach, but knowing that I loved education. I loved working with young people, and if I was in a supportive environment, I could have a really impactful career and change the lives of children and young people. And so that's sort what got me into teaching. And the first year teaching, not trained in it was not easy. But I really had a supportive assistant principal. I remember Dr. Delo was so thoughtful around seeing that I had this passion without the skillset and training to do it. She literally spent my first year moving from just coming in to observe around like, what you're not doing well, to how can I be a partner and help Shawna as well as my mentor teacher, who is also amazing. 

And so going to Chapel Hill after one year stopping sort of teaching, recognizing that going and getting training and teaching and going into student teaching environment. I remember my mentor teacher at Hillside High School, which is where I did my student teaching, Ms. Johnson again, just was exemplary at how you care for students and challenge them. At the same time, I also made a conscious decision to move from a suburban high school where I first taught, which is primarily white and in the suburbs, to teaching at Hillside High School, which is predominantly black and was in Durham, North Carolina. And for me it was about making a difference in my community and ensuring that more kids of color knew that science could be for them, could be just as excited about chemistry as I was, as an example, as a teacher.  

So that's a long way of saying like how I got into education and how I realized regardless of what I did next, it had to be connected to what I was passionate about and it had to be connected to making a difference in my community. 

Christopher Reichert: So, let's talk about the good, bad, and the ugly about, I guess, education in America. You mentioned that you really kind of started teaching, or at least maybe while you were teaching, the whole kind of notion of the standardized teaching to the test really kind of came into focus. Tell me about how that influenced your teaching, as well as how you think that the kids were taught? 

Shawna Young: Yeah, candidly, it made me very nervous because when I came up, when I was growing up, we didn't have standardized tests. It means we may have taken an occasional test that was measured or and analyzed at the national level, but it wasn't connected to like our grades, whether we graduated or not. And so entering into teaching in this new space of like standardized high stakes testing, is what I call them, it made me nervous and it made me so nervous that teaching through the test would not be something that I would do. So, I almost had to release the pressure and concern around standardized testing and go back to like, what does good learning look like and what does problem-solving and critical thinking look like for my students? And that's how our first year of teaching physics, our students were taught in the county. And we were, unfortunately, sort of labeled one of the lower-performing schools. So it made it more sweet, I would say, in terms of seeing that our students could exemplify what excellence looked like. And it was through a way that was very different than probably what people thought. 

I remember when I was in school, the classes I liked the most were ones where I could have fun with my classmates when I felt like the teacher cared about my learning and that it wasn't so like rule-centered. It was important to learn, it was important to do my best, but it wasn't only focused on whether or not it was rule-based. And I also learned at Howard the importance of not just grades, but learning and understanding concepts. 

Christopher Reichert: So you then transitioned from the Hillside School to, you moved up to Massachusetts. Tell us about how that came about? You joined the EDC, Education Development Center, which brought you into the whole Massachusetts, Cambridge, MIT Broad environment. 

Shawna Young: It did, it did. When I was transitioning, I was actually pregnant with my daughter and I recognized that how I was leaning into education and teaching was going to be very hard or different with now becoming a new mother. And I found this whole environment in Massachusetts, especially in the Boston area, of educational nonprofits that I wasn't exposed to in North Carolina. I saw EDC was there—Education Development Center. What I appreciated about the EDC was one, knowing that that existed, it was a way to really understand not just how to teach students directly, but how do I impact educators. And also helped me really understand what good professional development looked like. However, for me, I really wanted to be back in person. I wanted to be back doing direct service and connecting with young people. And so that's why I transitioned to the Broad Institute and ran their diversity programs. 

The passionate part of that for me was when I was a teacher at Hillside High School, I remember having amazing students and I would say, you know, where are you applying to college? And they were going to great colleges, but I really couldn't help them see beyond North Carolina. Running these educational programs at the Broad Institute, and then going to MIT, it was a whole other world of giving access and exposure to young people of color that they can be in places like MIT. I really enjoyed that experience. I was able to expand the programs that we offered at the Broad Institute. I was also able to really understand the importance of being able to explore careers in biomedical research and representation really mattering in that and understanding that without these types of pathways and programs, it's not happening. Exposure is not happening. And so that was the importance for me of doing that work at the Broad and at MIT. 

Christopher Reichert: So I was thinking about role models and the impact that that can have on underserved communities. So, Howard University and Morehouse (College). And I'm wondering if those safe spaces, if you will, are creating a really fertile environment for role models. What do you think about that? 

Shawna Young: I think you're right. I think it's like, it's not even a safe space. It's a courageous space. It's a space where you recognize, you see right in front of you black excellence. It's undeniable. And for me, going to Howard, it helped me recognize the diversity in my culture. And so when I came to Howard, you know, I was like, oh my gosh. Like there was like royalty here. And there are folks who I grew up in a community that was predominantly black, but many of them had not. So they came to Howard to be in a space where they could be themselves, unapologetically black. For me, I know what it looks like. So when I go into a space and I might be the only, or there's only a few people of color of any background, I am anchored in this sense of like, I know there's a whole bunch of people and there are different reasons why there might not be many in this space we are sitting in right now. 

But that's how I come into spaces and places. As much as I love my experiences in Sloan, and I love my Executive MBA Class of 2015, I was the only person who identified as a black woman. And so I never even... it didn't process that actually until I left Sloan because I came with a sense of confidence and I knew that I wasn't the only that could be there. And my classmates were so embracing because we were all unique in our own ways. But going back to whether you're an anomaly or how do you navigate a space like that, how was I able to be very confident in that space? I think goes back to your point around going to a historically black university. For me it's also how I was raised, how I saw role models in my own family. But that is an experience that I had and it continues to drive me in terms of creating pathways for people. Because that was 2015, it wasn't 20 years ago, and so this work around creating pathways and access to careers has to be owned by everybody and we cannot assume that we're done. 

Christopher Reichert: So, let's talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I mean, if you look out and say, okay, we are where we are, which is say better than it was 10 years ago, but we're still not where we need to be. What does that look like moving forward? 

Shawna Young: Lots of thoughts there. I think one, we have to recognize the work we're doing in middle and high school is not early enough. I'm launching a new nonprofit with co-founders who went to MIT and Duke and all co-founders of color who are focused on the access to advanced learning opportunities for kids of color early. So starting as early as first grade, we have to start early. Sixth grade is not early enough. And so that's what this nonprofit, Mosaic, is focused on. And then I think at the extreme that the other side of the continuum that we have to be intentional around leadership opportunities for people of color. And that having a person of color be now in a leadership role that was not the case before, is not enough. Expecting that leader of color to be able to continue the work that was done before is not really giving them the space for changing and innovating and bringing their perspective and culture to that work. And so when I think about leadership, developing a really diverse team and then giving them that space to own and create and innovate. And I learned that from a mentor I had at Duke where he said, “you know, Shawna, you're not going to move the needle on diversifying this, the population at Duke TIP if you don't hire and support a diverse team of leaders in the organization.” That's what gave me the perspective on that importance and how I've navigated the last couple of roles. 

Christopher Reichert: So, you graduated from Sloan in 2015 and then you went down to the Duke TIP program. Tell us how that transition came and when you were at Sloan going through the program, what were you kind of looking for Sloan to provide you from a skills base, maybe a network base, from an education base? 

Shawna Young: Absolutely. At that time, I was also running the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs at MIT. I did that for eight years and it's now called the MITES Office or MITES Program [MIT Introduction to Technology, Engineering, and Science] At six years into the role, I recognized that I really wanted to have run a larger nonprofit. I wanted to have a larger impact. And the background I had, the passion I had for education to me wasn't enough. I wanted to have more understanding of operations and strategy. And as I looked at other MBA programs, I looked at many of them. For me, Sloan was not just because I worked at MIT, but really Sloan was the top program for that, for what I was looking for. And what I appreciated about being in the Executive MBA program at Sloan was that we would have case studies, and maybe we're talking about Disney or maybe we're talking about something else. 

Like one of my classmates would be like, I was actually there. Here's what happened and provided opportunity and context for us to really understand the dynamics happening. I remember there was a case about GE and I was at, with Jack Welsh being at the helm, and I was literally at GE during that time with him at the helm. And so it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and as a class we decided that it wasn't just about the content, we made a commitment to really come in early. We were, we took classes Thursday to Saturday, really Friday and Saturday, but many of us came in on Thursday. I was already there and we stayed till Sunday. So we really prioritized, not just networking, but really getting to know each other and becoming part of our family. We know each other well. Literally was just texting with my classmate this morning, just saw one in New York this weekend. Getting that background in how you think about strategy and operations, being exposed to so many people that were in so many industries, and knowing that I could learn from them made a huge difference when I went to Duke University. And when I went to Duke University, it was also a change in my perspective around working in an office that was focused on serving kids of color underrepresented in STEM, it was an office and a program that was focused on advanced learning and academically gifted students. 

Christopher Reichert: So, you were working full-time at m MIT and going through the EMBA program. Tell us how your classmates approached that whole work and study and work and study, fitting it all in? What did you learn from other people's experience in that and tell us about your experience? 

Shawna Young: Yeah, and I was also a single mom at the same time. And so, I was running, you know, an office that was 24/7. Summer times was really a lot because when a lot of our students came from across the country. And so even though it might have seemed more convenient, I think it was harder when you were at, especially at MIT because you know, your office is still there, your work is still there. How do you shut it off? How do you focus? And so I think for me, it was a priority of this is my moment for learning. This is the opportunity for me to focus on myself and learn from the multitude of professors at Sloan. When you're working at MIT, especially for me, I was in the College of Engineering, I wasn't connected to Sloan as much. 

And so it was almost like going to another university to be in that space and really have that exposure and understanding of how you think about problem-solving, how you think about approaching critical business issues. And I remember some of my classes where I learned the importance of showing up as a human, as a leader, it's okay to be emotional. It's okay to show that things are not exactly how they were supposed to be and letting your team understand that because if they don't know that you are human, then it becomes very tactical. So I learned a lot, not just from the content I learned from like the experiences of my classmates who are really considered my extended family. I learned from my professors who helped me understand content but also understand leadership and what that looks like. I really did feel like Sloan and MIT are places and spaces where diversity is important. 

We're still figuring out how we do that in a very progressive way, but I have always felt at home at MIT and I also felt that like that at Howard. And so it's very different institutions, but those that know me well, know that I'm very passionate about MIT even before I was an alum, I felt accepted. And there are not a lot of universities that are like that, but that made me feel even more passionate about going there, going to Sloan, becoming an alum, and always being an advocate for the work that MIT and MIT Sloan does. 

Christopher Reichert: So, after a few years, the weather in Massachusetts called you back—no doubt it was the weather—to the Scratch Foundation back to MIT or at least an MIT organization. Tell us about how that came about? 

Shawna Young: Yeah, it was being able to go to Scratch and at the moment when they had just found the foundation, even though Scratch had been around for 15 years and even longer in terms of developing the technology out of the Lifelong Kindergarten group with Mitch Resnick. The piece that really compelled me to Scratch was that the team was passionate about diversity, equity, inclusion. It just spoke immensely through the interview process, what people brought up as they were talking about what was important to them in terms of building a team, seeking out a leader. And really the question was like, not why, but how. That was a very different environment than I came from. That's what made me feel very excited about being part of the Creative Learning movement and being part of Scratch at that moment in time. 

I was hired during the pandemic. I was hired virtually, nothing in person, very unique time. I ended up moving back to Cambridge, which is where I live now. And I was able to do some really good work with building out a team of folk from different backgrounds and really expanding out areas of work for Scratch, which had already been well known around the world in 200 countries with over a hundred million young people. And I think after two years it was more of like, what's next for me? What am I thinking about? It's also, you know, during that time I had a lot going on personally with my family, with my parents. I'm sort of in that, I'm in that tweener space, of like aging parents and growing child. And so really having time to be there for my family, for my parents who are getting older and then thinking about what's next. And so that's why I'm really excited about Mosaic and launching the nonprofit with my co-founders, taking a lot of the knowledge that we have from all of our varied experience around talent development and really making an impact on the world. 

Christopher Reichert: At Duke, you transitioned or you were... there was a large online component to the TIP program if I'm not mistaken? 

Shawna Young: Yeah, so a lot of our work was in person at college campuses. We were at over 20 some college campuses where we ran summer programs and academic year programs. We also had an online program that we ran for online courses. We were running both at the same time. 

Christopher Reichert: And so tell us about how your time at Sloan changed you. Is there anything that you would do over any classes that you wish you had taken? And what sort of confidence has it given you for this new foundation and this new organization that you've, well for Forward Impact Investments, but also Mosaic? 

Shawna Young: Yeah, thank you. What I would say about my Sloan experience...I have a big smile on my face. Others can't see that, but you see it, Christopher! I think it's also like, what was my aha, what was unexpected about my experience? Because when you're going through and thinking about graduate school, you know, it was very like, let me make my spreadsheet, let me see what content they have. Let me just check off the box and see what program is going to give me the content I'm looking for, the learning I'm looking for. And you're not necessarily, and you're thinking network, okay, MIT is going to have a great network. But what was not on my list was the people, how amazing they are as humans, how amazing they are at building relationships and caring for each other. We come from, my Class 2015 15/15 is what we call us cause we're Course 15. So we're very unique. 15/15. 

We come from all around the world, all different backgrounds, all different experiences, all different political affiliations. We leave those things that could be tenuous for many people sort of over to the side so that we can build our relationships with each other as people. We recognize what is special about each of us and we deeply care for each other. And so for me, that is what, when I think about MIT Sloan, I start with my class and then I'm like, oh, who are the other amazing people around here? Because if my class is this phenomenal, I know there's a lot more phenomenal people here and it becomes less about the name and the brand and more about the people. 

Christopher Reichert: What's your definition of success? 

Shawna Young: Yeah, you know, good question Christopher. For me, now where I am in life, success continues to be about making a difference, but it really is with who and where. Family matters a lot. My daughter matters utmost to me. And I also think about the environment that I'm in. For a long time, it was what's the mission and the impact, and the passion that I have for the work. But now I recognize that to do that well, it's the environment that I'm in and the people that I'm around who are collectively really passionate about that work too, and how they approach relationships. So success for me is waking up every day, being able to take a walk, being able to have a great conversation on the phone with someone I care about or love and/or and love being able to think about how I can solve an issue or a problem or build something or do something innovative work toward that. Make a difference for folk who may not know I'm even working for them. 

So when I say that over the years, I often tell the students that I work with, the young people I work with, is that you have people in your corner that don't even know your name, but they're there working for you and you are here because they care about the idea of who you are. You have to know that because when you are in spaces and places where you're not sure why and how you got there, or if you were supposed to be there, you were supposed to be there. And there are people who care about you, who just know of you. And you can see when I talk with them about that, how they're like, their eyes light up and they get, their shoulders go back a little bit more. They stand up a little bit taller because going back to this piece around being in an anomaly or being a pioneer in spaces, a lot of times our kids of color don't know that they can do anything. 

I know from what they've seen over the years that now they have a better sense they could do anything. But how do I do anything? So I'm still really passionate about being in a space where I can help young people at scale know that they can be successful and anything they want to do. And being the person who might be behind the curtain a little bit, creating that pathway for them, ensuring the resources are there for them. I don't need to be in front, but as long as I'm doing that work and I could see that change happening we talked about that's really needed. It's a good day. That's success for me. 

Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. Well, on that note, I want to thank Shawna Young, EMBA Class of 2015 for joining us on this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies

Shawna Young: Thank you so much, Christopher. 

Christopher Reichert: Thank you. 

Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting