Crystal Brown has a knack for galvanizing others. Before coming to Schaffer&Combs earlier this year, the mother of three recognized the injustice represented by her daughters’ underperforming public school system. It turned out that this was an injustice she had the power to address. Brown helped found Educate Our State in 2010 with a group of six other parents of elementary-age children. They were equally frustrated by the schools’ budget crisis and its effect on their children’s lives and futures. Working together, they turned a local, grassroots advocacy organization for California education policy reform into a movement 45,000-strong. Brown served as founder, president, and board chair over a span of nearly four years. Before handing over the reigns to fellow parent advocates, she was able to oversee the creation of the policy platform, driving strategy and legislative action, and developing a media and public relations platform – herself appearing in more than 300 media outlets.
Brown said it wasn’t necessarily a passion exclusive to education reform that drove her to get involved at the leadership level, but rather it was more about correcting a wrong that could be fixed. “It really touched a nerve in me and seemed like a solvable problem,” she said.
When Brown and her fellow moms started building Educate Our State, they weren’t experts in policy. They only knew there was something preventing policies that were favorable to California K-12 schools from being implemented; and they knew that they could have a positive impact. Brown recalled meeting a lawmaker at that time and asking him if he ever got frustrated trying to enact policy after 25 years. “He said that yes, he did, but that his job was to create the policy and that’s where his job ended,” Brown said. At that moment, Brown remembers feeling personally compelled to pick up the baton and figure out how she could make that positive change happen in the schools.
Brown’s ability to network and activate people to a common cause became apparent when Educate Our State started gaining traction. And it was that same gift for helping others identify their strengths and building a team that eventually allowed her to step down from her position at the organization nearly four years later. She has since followed that key leadership lesson – a movement is about empowering others to be leaders in their own way. Educate Our State now has supporters in every legislative district in California and has worked successfully to urge state legislators to more effectively spend, distribute and re-appropriate billions of dollars to educate the six million students in California public schools.
It was not an easy decision for Brown to walk away from Educate Our State, she said. She initially felt guilty about needing to follow her own path. But her experience during those four years had proven to her that leadership doesn’t have to be scary. That lesson, combined with her ability to look at systems and figure out how they can run better, translated well into the business development sector. “It’s two sides to a different coin,” Brown said. “It’s more about looking at a system, seeing the inefficiencies and recognizing areas for improvement. I’ve been able to apply that in the business world and the advocacy space as well.”
Building on her experience in the for-profit sector prior to getting involved with Educate Our State, Brown went on to work with The Learning Accelerator (TLA) through a contract with Schaffer&Combs. TLA is a business that seeks to transform grade school education nationwide by accelerating the effective use of technology and personalized learning in the classroom.
For Brown, consulting with TLA represented a change in the way she was working to reform education. She was determined to remain involved in big projects addressing the problem at scale, but she was also facing the reality of being a divorced single mom with three kids – a life that demands flexibility. Brown found that flexibility working as a consultant. And engaging with The Learning Accelerator contract gave her the opportunity to move away from policy and politics and into the practical implications of how technology could be transformative. She felt excited to get involved with a company that was making sure integrating technology into learning – an inevitability in any case – was done in a smart, strategic way.
“Dropping iPads in a classroom isn’t necessarily going to help things,” Brown said, “but making sure we effectively use technology to train teachers and make things smoother and easier will.” Policy and technology are all part of the puzzle, she said.
Schaffer&Combs, where Brown became a director in early 2014, is enjoying the fruits of her problem-solving skills. She finds herself well-positioned to help mission-driven organizations overcome obstacles and grow.
“There are so many businesses out there that really need help. And often it’s not that they can’t do it themselves, but they just don’t have the the time, or the resources, or the perspective. Helping them shine the light on what they could do better to be more effective is exciting to me,” Brown said.
Brown has been asked repeatedly to run for political office, and while it’s not out of the question, she’s experienced enough to actually understand the fundamental commitment required. Her focus today through her work at Schaffer&Combs is bettering people’s lives by driving systemic change in healthcare, education, technology and other industries.
Recently, Brown was recollecting her desire as a 23-year old college graduate to go into medicine – an inclination she ultimately decided against. As the proverb goes, when one door closes, another opens. “It’s a good reminder to accept what comes your way and make sense of it rather than trying to go down a path that doesn’t feel right.”