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February 26, 2019

"Take time to inspire your team" With Karine Apollon

Originally published by Akemi Sue Fisher on Medium’s Authority Magazine.

Inspire your team. In a former role, I inherited a team that was in transition and the final members of the team ultimately resigned within the first 90 days of my role. Although I tried to inspire them, it was obvious they had different ideas and I needed to get to know them better to understand what motivated them. That was a tough lesson to learn while attempting to run a business with no staff. Since then, I work harder than ever to inspire my team to be thoughtful and work smart toward our mission and to exceed our goals.

I had the pleasure to interview Karine Apollon Chief Executive Officer of Reading Partners. Karine joined Reading Partners in 2017 with a long-standing commitment to literacy and a 20-year track record of business success at Scholastic Inc. She serves on several nonprofit boards including Reach Out and Read of Greater New York, Raising A Reader and the Advisory Board of Eagle Academy Foundation. Ms. Apollon graduated University of Miami with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a double major in international finance/marketing and finance, and cites her greatest and most fulfilling role is as a mother to her two sons, Mario and Benjamin.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My childhood experience as an immigrant, led by my mother’s emphasis on the importance of education, had a big impact on my understanding of the fact that literacy is needed to succeed. My family immigrated from Haiti when I was five years old, just about to enter the American school system. From the very beginning, my mother built a strong understanding that if I could achieve academic success, I could go on to do whatever I set my mind to. And that is exactly what I did, going on to college where I held multiple internships and I landed a management role immediately following graduation. Today, I get to reinforce the value of education to young students across the nation, just as my mother did for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I became the CEO of Reading Partners, several unexpected natural disasters occurred within my first 30 days. First, we had a flood in the office due to a water cooler overflow. Then, there was a local fire that affected our office and blew the windows out of our building at the same time the Northern CA wildfires were raging which impacted some of our staff and programs. These disasters reinforced my need to lead and provide support and comfort to our staff and community. As their CEO, I was ultimately responsible and had to work toward addressing and resolving each situation while reassuring the staff and our many stakeholders. Before this unfortunate series of events occurred, I was focused on the work aligned with our core mission, but I soon realized that everything, including unexpected operational challenges, would roll up to me as the CEO.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made was expecting that after becoming the CEO of Reading Partners I could assert my leadership “power” in my personal life at home. My sons were most concerned about my leaving Scholastic after 20 years; the only company I had worked for during their lives, so that was a big change for them and they were not necessarily impressed by the CEO title. When I was home, I was simply ‘Mom’ and that’s what my two sons wanted and needed most.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

No other organization in the educational space engages volunteers to support children the way that we do. Reading Partners is a comprehensive service bringing together tutors through a proven, individualized curriculum, enabling us to provide one-on-one reading support to 50 or more elementary school students in each of our partner schools. Our volunteers aren’t just helping a student read; they are building a foundation for the long-term success of the child. This includes literacy skill-building as well as social emotional learning, which is incredibly valuable to building strong self-esteem and helping students navigate relationships.

One story I will never forget is of a man in one of our Sacramento, CA partner schools who was paired with a young boy with a strong interest in cars and the way they work. This man saw an opportunity to really engage this boy by using car-themed books in their reading sessions, but he was not able to find any material suitable for the boy’s reading level. Without any automobile or mechanical knowledge of his own, the man researched, wrote and published his own children’s book for his student about the different parts of cars and how they work on a level the could understand. The book is still being sold today.

Tutor and student featured on Good Day Sacramento.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! This school year marks Reading Partners’ 20th anniversary. We have spent the past two decades ingraining ourselves in the communities we serve and data proves that we are directly impacting student success. We have grown from supporting a handful of students at one school to more than 11,000 students at 200 schools across the U.S. every year. We want this growth to continue at a steady and sustainable pace, which is why we have built a strategic plan to help serve as a roadmap to expand our work and support even more students and communities. This includes a visual brand identity refresh, 20th anniversary campaign and an even stronger focus on our diversity and inclusion work to help remove barriers so ALL students have access to a quality education and the resources they need to reach their full potential.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Value every player on your team and work hard to understand their expertise. Make sure there is transparency and understanding of the big picture for every individual, which will help them leverage their expertise and understand how their role and work fits into the larger organization’s mission. Every individual is a piece of the puzzle and without them the larger picture is not complete.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Empower your management staff to lead, and give them the opportunity to share their expertise and skills to support the work and mission of the organization. Allow them to be proactive and make their own decisions and even their own mistakes, which will become learnings. It’s all about macro-managing, not micromanaging.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mother. There was no limit to the expectation she had for me — or to her belief in my ability. She gave me wings. Anything crazy I came up with was never shut down. Instead, she would help me think through the necessary steps to accomplish my objectives and goals. She helped me get to where I am today through the sacrifice she made to come to the US. She left a comfortable existence in Haiti; she wasn’t fleeing poverty, but knew that education in America could provide a better life to her kids. And in Haiti, being highly educated could be perceived as a threat to government entities. So without speaking any English, she made it happen, and her unwavering emphasis on education is a guide in my life every single day.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Being focused on educational equity means building greater access to resources to students who need the most support. It is the concept of providing all students with the support and opportunities they need to be successful. Educational equity recognizes that not all students start from the same place in life or in school, and that many need to overcome significant challenges in their lives in order to achieve success. Reading Partners tackles this head on, with the keen understanding that reading needs to be a common denominator no matter where a child lives or what challenges they may face.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Commitment and passion. These are lessons learned from my mom about always being responsible and present and leading by example. Therefore I always tried to be present, available and accessible to my staff and colleagues.

Empower others to do their best work and leverage their expertise to succeed. In a former job, after being promoted to run a new department, I had to hire an entire new staff, which I was able to build within 45 days. I then took the time to build a strong team culture by empowering each person to share and leverage their experience and expertise to rebuild the business. Ultimately we became a very strong team that achieved great success together.

Inspire your team. In a former role, I inherited a team that was in transition and the final members of the team ultimately resigned within the first 90 days of my role. Although I tried to inspire them, it was obvious they had different ideas and I needed to get to know them better to understand what motivated them. That was a tough lesson to learn while attempting to run a business with no staff. Since then, I work harder than ever to inspire my team to be thoughtful and work smart toward our mission and to exceed our goals.

Operate outside the proverbial box. During a challenging time and an economic downturn at my former job with Scholastic, I was able to build a new successful business by reimagining how we packaged our books for a new market. That allowed us to build a consumable business that distributed millions of books to children and communities that needed them the most.

Be confident. Anytime you are beginning a new business, it is important to be able to share the mission and details with great knowledge, understanding and confidence. Believing in the project is a key ingredient. With this approach and genuine confidence, I was able to to convince my senior management team in a former role to invest in a new business during the economic decline. The business ultimately succeeded, and it would not have gotten off the ground without being able to confidently convey why and how this a necessary investment despite the limited dollars.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 

Increase the focus on prioritizing education by making the necessary investments to support educators, families, children and communities. It must be a comprehensive approach, and we need to be able to provide highly trained and caring educators the support they need for students to achieve success.

This dovetails into increased access to higher education; there are far too many people today who still cannot afford college. Everyone should have an ability to pursue their education beyond high school.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“A function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

My own attainment of education has built my character of service and giving back. I think intensively and critically about education every day. Having and raising two African American boys, when statistic shows that their demographic is at the bottom of every data set in terms of educational attainment studies, further instilled this drive to put my own intelligence and education to work in a manner that could help change these statistics for future generations.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can connect with me on Linkedin.

Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!

Thank you for your interest! And one more thing I’d like to mention — our volunteers don’t need to have a teaching background or prior tutoring experience. Our curriculum was strategically designed to be easily carried out by volunteers of all ages, from high schoolers to retirees. The key requirements? Positivity. Consistency. Dedication. Go to our website for more information on how to get involved

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