Inspirational Woman Interview: Ana Rowena McCullough

Ana Rowena McCullough is the Co-Founder and CEO of QuestBridge, a revenue-generating non-profit that links high-achieving, low-income students with educational and scholarship opportunities at selective US colleges and universities. Ana co-founded QuestBridge with her husband Michael McCullough while an undergraduate at Stanford. Moreover, Ana is Co-Founder and former VP, Content at study resources and test preparation site Shmoop.com, and is a former management consultant at McKinsey & Company. In addition, she worked for five years as a consulting scientist to the Environmental Defense Fund, a national non-profit environmental organization, and served as a research associate for Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy. Ana holds a J.D. degree from Stanford Law School where she focused on environmental and youth law, and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University.

How did you come to co-found QuestBridge?

Ana McCullough: We co-founded QuestBridge as a small, residential summer program for 22 talented, low-income high school juniors in the mid-1990s. I was a Stanford undergraduate, and Michael, my co-founder, was a UCSF medical student. Quest’s five-week summer program was something of an academic bootcamp, with college-level coursework. A daily personal reflection period (called “reflection time”) became one of the students’ favorite activities, and it fostered a powerful culture of growth in the summer house. “Giving back,” whether through a social venture, private sector work, or other ways, also became a major theme. We mentored our students into college and often supported them through college and in their early career.

At the core, Quest was always about empowering high-achieving, low-income, and under-represented students to reach their full potential and then to help them improve the world – not just academically, but personally as well. We hoped to cultivate future leaders, to support their growth and development during this important juncture of their lives.

An education at a top college was an important part of that. We knew our students had the strengths to be successful at the nation’s best colleges, but often came from communities with little exposure to top colleges and the application process. We also knew the tremendous value that Quest Scholars would bring to their campuses, both academically and personally. 99% of our students were accepted to the most competitive colleges in the U.S., including many of our current college partners, and other excellent private and public colleges.

By 2003, we had thousands of applicants for our small summer programs. We didn’t want to leave so many students behind, so we thought to connect them directly with an expanded number of excellent colleges. But building out this idea required slowly phasing out our long-standing summer and mentorship program, and making a deliberate “pivot” to a new model – the model we are known for today.

We looked for leadership to help us in this new chapter. The growth of QuestBridge would not have happened without the incomparable entrepreneur and leader, Tim Brady, who became CEO – as well as a handful of visionary Admissions Deans at our earliest college partners. I am back in the CEO role now, but I still feel grateful, every day, for Tim, our early team, and our first college partners, who together built the foundation we stand on today.

What has been QuestBridge‘s impact so far?

Ana McCullough: We now have 39 college partners. And we’ve gone from placing 22 students in the mid-1990s, to over 2,400 students in 2016 into the freshman classes of our colleges. Across all four years of college, we now have over 6,000 QuestBridge Scholars attending. All are receiving full or nearly-full scholarships, worth hundreds of millions of dollars of financial aid, generously provided by the colleges. Their college graduation rates are right on par with the colleges’ overall grad rates.

The original mission and vision of QuestBridge continue to inform the work we do every day. We envision a world where America’s leadership encompasses thoughtful and broad-minded decision-makers drawn from every economic segment of society. Many of our QuestBridge Scholar alumni are now thriving professionally and personally, and we never tire of hearing about their journeys from high school, through college, and beyond.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced when leading QuestBridge?

Ana McCullough: In the early days, we did not necessarily design our program to be scalable and sustainable. We constantly tried new things, without thinking much about scale. We knew the students were strong, and that bringing 22 of them together each summer changed lives. But after the successful early years, we needed to figure out how to evolve QuestBridge to help more students, and to survive the ups and downs of a changing economy from a financial perspective. Financially, we had some very lean years, and even years where we worried we may need to close our doors.

Today, we are still trying new things, but at a larger scale. We wrestle with questions of how best to grow and deepen our impact, and as a result, it’s a very exciting and creative time.

In your opinion, what are the biggest trends, challenges and opportunities facing education access in light of today’s social/economic context?

Ana McCullough: Top colleges and society as a whole seem to have a sincere and heightened awareness of the need for broader representation of our entire population at our best colleges. In our early years, we knew that individual colleges cared about this, but the topic has gained especially high visibility in the last five or so years. For example, in our industry, it is now well known that the majority of high-achieving low-income students at the nation’s best colleges historically have come from only 15 major metro areas (Hoxby & Avery, 2012). We are proud to say that every year, approximately 70% of our QuestBridge applicants come from outside of those 15 metro areas, but we want to do even more. So one of QuestBridge’s and society’s challenges, and opportunities, is to extend the reach of the nation’s best educational opportunities to all communities in America.

Of course, higher ed overall is also undergoing much evolution. New, cutting-edge education technologies will continue to change people’s perceptions of what it means to learn, grow, and build a foundation for the future.

What advice do you have for the next generation of social entrepreneurs?

Ana McCullough: I would say be nimble and open-minded, and know that today’s “impossible” option may be tomorrow’s most viable solution. Also, invest in critical thinking and collaboration skills. As we know, getting facts and figures isn’t so difficult anymore – but what to do with them is another story. That depends on the quality of our thinking, discrimination, creativity, vision, and ability to synthesize and integrate what we’re learning into something new and meaningful. And most often, great innovations happen on teams – sometimes living all over the world – so developing skills of collaboration, flexibility, adaptability, communication, and teamwork will be important.

Also, when you see an opportunity, don’t allow yourself to think you’re “too inexperienced” or “too unqualified” to tackle it. In fact, there may be industries and social ventures that you end up working in (or creating) that do not even exist yet. When we created QuestBridge, I did not yet have a college degree, and neither Michael nor I had ever worked in higher education. Many told us the QuestBridge model wouldn’t work, because it had never been done before. I think our naiveté and lack of knowing the traditional “norms and informal rules” of our industry actually helped us to be more imaginative and bold in the beginning.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Ana McCullough: Many women inspire me, including my mother and the many strong women in my family.

I never met Maya Angelou, but am deeply moved by her work. I have been inspired by her open mind, courage, honesty, sense of justice, and embrace of humanity, in spite of tremendous obstacles in her amazing life. And of course, she was a brilliant poet, writer, speaker, communicator, and creator – all qualities I admire.

One of my friends is like a big sister: Judy Estrin, an entrepreneur, internet pioneer, engineer, author, leader, and mentor. An electrical engineer by training, she went on to found numerous tech companies, serve on public Boards of the highest caliber, and work closely with great leaders and visionaries. When we meet, it feels like two friends simply exploring the world, sharing stories, playing with ideas of how to navigate life well. Whether we’re taking long walks or drinking tea, our talks are an ongoing dialogue about life, often filled with more questions than answers, and I’m constantly learning in the process.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources?

Ana McCullough: I love reading on a wide range of topics. It seems that just about everything I read or watch can relate back to entrepreneurship and education, so it’s hard to pick favorites. Here are a few recent sources of inspiration, along the entrepreneurship lines.

I’m inspired by Pixar, the animation studio. Pixar seems to have a combination of deep creativity, cutting-edge technology, passion, and a strong, bold entrepreneurial spirit. The genius of the technology and animation is always grounded in a simple story that speaks to our humanity. The founders, creators, and leaders of Pixar faced many hardships, but they built a company that has seen enduring success and value, despite all the ups and downs. The books Creativity, Inc., Collective Genius, To Pixar and Beyond, and the documentary The Pixar Story all had an impact on me.

Howard Schultz’s book Onward has become a favorite in recent years. It is about leadership, taking responsibility, and staying true to one’s values while innovating and evolving a successful company. It recounts the story of Starbucks finding its stride again after a challenging period in its history. I had the privilege of speaking with Howard Schultz and asked, “In your mind, what is the best way to build a brand?” He responded, “From the inside out.” This resonated with me strongly, as it is how we’ve tried to build QuestBridge over the years. Howard Schultz and Onward inspired me to cultivate a bolder vision for QuestBridge, and I am grateful.

In a different genre, I have been influenced and inspired by DJ Patil’s writings, and my conversations with him, on data science. He has really expanded our thinking about data here at QuestBridge.

Other books I’ve enjoyed recently: Closing the Innovation Gap (Estrin), The Startup of You (Hoffman & Casnocha), and Tools of Titans (Ferriss).

In terms of education websites, a good one is EdSurge, a site dedicated to the Edtech industry. Also, I read the Chronicle of Higher Education on a weekly basis.

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