Pioneer Profile: Roxanne Phen

Roxanne Phen, Analyst Fellow 2012-2013Recently, EP Alumna Roxanne Phen’s boss at Oakland Unified School District raved about the impact she’s made in Oakland. Today, we hear from Roxanne (Analyst Fellow, 2012-2013) about how OUSD will be the third K-12 district in the nation to implement Workday (thanks to her leadership), how her team produces timely data and analysis to inform the district’s strategy (when two years ago, they didn’t even know what data they had), and why the best part of her job is tackling seemingly insurmountable challenges.

1. Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Newhall, California, a town about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. I lived on a dirt road in the same house that my mom grew up in. In fact, I went to the same elementary, middle, and high schools that she did. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to go to strong public schools. Looking back, I see that not everyone in my community had the same positive experience and set of opportunities in school as I did. That’s definitely part of the motivation I have to work in public education.

2. What do you like most about where you live now?

San Francisco is a great city for someone who loves to be outside. Even after living here for five years, I’m still finding new places to hike, bike, and enjoy incredible views. I’m thankful, though, that I get to spend so much of my time in Oakland. A lot of people who live and work in San Francisco never make it across the Bay Bridge to understand Oakland, its rich history, and diverse community.

3. What is your favorite school memory?

When I was in the third grade I created a petition to have a real soccer field on the school playground, with painted lines on the grass and cones for goals. I lobbied my classmates and took the petition to our principal, and soon after we had a field. I think that’s part of why I had such a positive experience in school. The adults around me did nothing but encourage me, and as a result I felt that I could accomplish whatever I put my mind to.

4. Which leader (alive or not, in any field) do you most admire?

I recently finished reading Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, and was impressed by the thoughtfulness and attention paid to management and organizational culture at Pixar. I especially admire Catmull’s willingness to take a critical look at his own leadership and make changes based on self-reflection and the feedback of his peers and employees. It’s easy to talk about strong organizational culture, but hard work to make it happen.

5. When was the first time you thought about working in education?

Growing up, I never planned on working in education, but my family instilled in me the importance of education and a desire to help those in need. In college my plan was to gain some private sector experience and then work in the nonprofit sector or in social entrepreneurship. It wasn’t until I looked into Education Pioneers that I started to understand the variety of opportunities that existed within education.

I thought I’d spend my 10-month Fellowship in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) learning about public education and its challenges and then determine what type of role and organization would allow me to make my greatest contribution. I found through working at OUSD that I didn’t want to be one or two or three steps away from the root of the problem. It’s hard to believe that was almost three years ago!

6. What has been your most memorable moment working in education?

Working in a central office role I rarely interact directly with students. As such, it can be difficult to see the impact of my work on students on a daily basis. As a result of my team’s hard work, we’ve recently reached a point where we’re able to produce timely data and analysis that is starting to inform strategy. At our starting point two years ago, we didn’t even understand what data we had. We still have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction, and I find that very rewarding.

7. What do love about your job?

The thing that I love about my job is also what makes it very difficult. The challenges are immense, and while sometimes they seem insurmountable, the impact of solving them is huge. I love that those are the kinds of problems I get to address on a daily basis.

At OUSD I’ve had the chance to tackle big problems, and it’s the promise of the result and what it means for our students that keeps me excited about my work. For example, I’m thrilled that OUSD is going to be only the third K-12 district in the US to implement Workday, a technology that’s going to improve the employee experience and help us identify, develop, and retain great employees. It’s a beast of a project, but the potential impact on our district is enormous.

8. If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would fix or change?

I’d remove some of the engrained feelings in education that prevent us from learning from other industries and even other education organizations. I’ve been taking a human centered design class, which encourages looking for analogous experiences to solve problems. Education can tend to be insular and often will only look to similar organizations for ideas. Not all of our problems can be solved by drawing solely from our experience as educators and it’s worth exploring a wide range of solutions when we are facing so many complex problems.

9. What are you still learning to do?

I’m still learning how to be a strong manager. It’s a new role for me, and although I’ve thought a lot about the kind of leader I want to be, there’s much to learn and put into practice now that I have that responsibility.

10. What or who inspires you?

My mentee, Nathaly, inspires me. We met through an amazing nonprofit called Uncommon Good when I was a sophomore in college and she was only nine years old. Nathaly’s bright and funny, and she’s always been wise beyond her years. This coming year she’ll be applying for college herself (which floors me). Spending time with Nathaly and seeing the challenges she’s faced has made me think about the type of adults all students need to be surrounded by to reach their full potential -- adults that are well trained, passionate about their jobs, and able to see what makes each student special and capable of great things. Working in human capital I feel that I get to be a part of making that a reality for the students of Oakland.

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