- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- Making Noise
- The Fence
- Beyond the Cut
- Inspire Innovation
By: Sally Ann Flecker
Sandra Timmons laughs over the speakerphone from her Manhattan office as she talks about how happy she is in her job. She's president of A Better Chance, a nonprofit that develops educational opportunities for talented and promising African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American students. "I have to tamp it down a bit," she says of her exuberance. It seems like whenever she gets to the point where she has mastered the challenges of a position enough to enjoy what she's doing, enough to feel like she could be happy staying there indefinitely, well, that's exactly when someone comes along and tries to tempt her away.
Five years ago, the 1985 Heinz School alumna was content as the chief operating officer, the second person in the chain of command, at Girls Inc. The national nonprofit organization, which includes 150 local affiliates with a mission to empower young girls ages six to 18, had just gone through a change in leadership. Earlier, Timmons had served as the interim president and had developed a strategic business plan to take the nonprofit into the future. When the new president came on board, the two finalized the business plan to expand educational programs in everything from science and math to self-defense and money management. Then they went out and raised $12 million to make it all happen. "From there, we were rockin' and rollin," Timmons says. "We were having a good time. We had money to do things we were trying to do." Timmons liked what she was doing. Life was good.
That, of course, is when she got the phone call from Korn/Ferry, an international recruitment firm. Timmons' name had come up in a search the firm was conducting for president of A Better Chance (ABC). Timmons agreed to meet with headhunter Ann Kern, but when Kern asked Timmons at that meeting if ABC interested her, Timmons answered with an emphatic, "No." She was reluctant to move to the top spot where there was so much emphasis on fundraising as well as the huge responsibility of being entrusted with the organization's reputation, its history, its constituents.
But Kern kept pitching. She pointed out that Timmons was already raising money. "I think you're selling yourself short. Look at you," she said. "You've done all the things you would need to do for this type of job. Why not now?" The logic worked.
On Timmons' first day as president at ABC, she got in early to hang her pictures on the walls and add other touches to make it feel homey. "I think I scared people," she laughs, "because by 11 o'clock it was looking like I had been there for like a week. I think people were saying,"She's a little intense." Her intensity wasn't such a bad thing. She did have to hit the ground running. She started in May 2003, the big fundraising gala was that June, and ABC was relocating to new offices, which hadn't yet been found, in July. The board had assured her when they hired her that they would be in the new space before she started. But the location had fallen through. "You know what it's like to be unsettled and brand new, and then movingbut it worked out great because I became the one who established the new home," Timmons says. The home she found for ABC is in an ideal location, she says35th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in New York's old Garment District. Timmons took over a floor that had been vacated by a dot.com. "It's bright and open and colorful," she says. "Students and families love it. We have lots of open meeting spaces. It's been a good community-building kind of office space for us.
"Oh, and it's only one block from Macy's," she adds.
ABC has its roots in the civil-rights days of the 1960s. The idea driving it for 45 years is simple: Better education leads to better lives. What ABC does, in a nutshell, is identify promising students of color, as early as sixth grade, and help place them at one of the nation's finest college preparatory schools. The elite schools are typically pipelines into the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities.
To date, ABC's statistics illustrate some impressive results.
- Nearly 12,000 middle and junior high school student have been placed in public and private college preparatory schools since ABC began.
- 1,800 students are currently enrolled.
- More than 96% of ABC graduating seniors immediately enroll in college.
- One-third of ABC scholars come from families receiving welfare or who are living at or below the federal poverty line.
- 65% of ABC scholars come from single-parent families.
- An estimated $20+ million of financial aid is leveraged at the high school level annually.
Last year, there were 2,194 ABC applicants; 614 were accepted, and 475 were placed in a college preparatory school program. These are students who have demonstrated strong performance and interest and leadership, even at some very young ages," says Timmons, "young people who are already doing well in the schools but are overlooked maybe just by virtue of the school that they are in.(Continued …)