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Graham Browne ’15, Forte Prep

Graham Browne ’15, Forte Prep

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A conversation with Graham Browne, founder and executive director of Forte Preparatory Academy Charter School in Queens, New York. Prior to attending SOM, Graham was a consultant at the Bridgespan Group.

Graham was interviewed by Omolegho Udugbezi ’23. 

Graham Browne: I think from an academic standpoint, we're going to have to figure out what we are going to do about numeracy and math instruction as a nation, it is something that is incredibly urgent and will lead to macroeconomic consequences very soon.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. I'm Omolegho, a student in the MBA class of '23. Each episode of Career Conversations is a conversation between the student here at SOM, that's me, and a member of the Yale community who thinks something I'm curious about. Kind of like an informational interview, except you get to listen in. Today's conversation is with Graham Browne, who obtained his MBA from Yale SOM in 2015. He is the founder and executive director of Forte Preparatory Academy Charter School in Queens, New York. Prior to attending SOM, he was a consultant at the Bridgespan Group, also in New York. He received his BA in urban studies from Brown University. Graham currently resides in New York, but calls New Jersey home.

Graham, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. You have such a rich set of professional experiences, so can you please walk me through your career to date and share any achievements that you are especially proud of?

Graham Browne: Sure. Well, I guess my career starts in college in some ways. I was an undergrad at Brown University with a focus on urban studies and education, and I thought that teaching was going to be the singular thing that I did with my career. I was a fifth grade assistant teacher. Instead of studying abroad in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I participated in a program called the Urban Education Semester at Bank Street College and that really changed my perspective about what the possibilities of a great classroom were and thought that that was going to be my path as well.

I ended up not pursuing teaching right away, in part because of a challenging conversation I had with a recruiter when I was a senior, but I ended up working in an advertising consulting firm for about a year and a half called Farmer & Company, and they did scope of work management and fee negotiations for international advertising agencies, something I never knew anything about, but knew that it was really valuable to step outside of my comfort zone and learn a little bit more about a different field.

But after a while, I realized that I needed the drive and the connection to my work where I could see the direct impact of the hours I was putting in. So made my way back to education and worked at the Education Equality Project, which was an advocacy organization in 2010, and I was the assistant to the director, special assistant, and we did a lot of both state and local and national advocacy for education reform initiatives. It was really engaging work, very exciting, fast-paced, but the organization decided to merge while I was there, so I helped to coordinate and manage the logistics of the merger as the acting director of the organization.

And then found my way to Bridgespan, the Bridgespan Group, the nonprofit consulting firm based out of New York. And I spent two years there in the education practice, primarily working with foundations and schools and districts to really build and support the operations of high performing nonprofits and institutions that were serving kids. And it was then when I realized and developed a point of view about the critical role in building community engagement in education and that work helped me decide that I wanted to build a team and be a part of creating an education institution myself. I didn't have the skills to do that on my own, so that was when I pivoted to go to Yale and spent two years at SOM and participated in the education club and a couple of different organizations that led me to building excellent schools where I did an internship with a public school in New York City and that's when I learned what it really meant to lead a high performing educational institution and decided I wanted to build one myself.

So after SOM, I participated in the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship for a year where I studied and learned as much as I could about what it meant to build and sustain a high quality school. And from there, I was able to put down the foundational work to build Forte Preparatory Academy Charter School, where I'm the founder and executive director today. That was seven years ago, which is wild to think about now because so many things have happened and there's so many people in this building, 55 staff and 350 plus students. And so it's been a really long and interesting journey, but it's something that I am incredibly proud of.

Omolegho Udugbezi: No, you should be, and you've taken the words right out of my mouth. It sounds like it's been a really, really interesting journey, and I feel like although you had this diverse set of experiences, it was really your innate passion and drive that motivated you to pursue a career in education so thank you for sharing. You've spoken a bit about the school, and I'm so fascinated to learn more about it. So could you please describe for me a typical day in a life for you?

Graham Browne: Yeah. Well, every day is different, as you can imagine, in a public charter school in a city, but it also has changed at every different stage of the school's life. So for example, in year one, I spent most of my time in classrooms, supporting classroom management, building operational systems, talking to parents and students, and doing all the external affairs of building the school. We were just one grade, 90 students, about 14 staff members in the basement of a daycare in the corner of our neighborhood. And so that work was very, very hands-on, making sure that I was responsible for tying all the pieces of the school together.

But now we're in year six, we have four grades, we have 350 students, 55 staff, and we're growing to ninth grade next year. So we'll be building, launching our next phase of growth with the high school. So now most of my time is spent checking in with our senior leadership team, speaking to potential funders, community leaders, local elected officials, and visiting schools, and gaining intel on how to build a really great high school program. But on any given day, I could be having a phone interview with a candidate, or a Zoom meeting with a real estate developer, or talking about a new building or construction project, or spending time reviewing parts of our organization with the committees of our board of trustees.

Omolegho Udugbezi: It sounds like you do a bit of everything, and that's so amazing and inspiring. So thinking about yourself pre-business school, or thinking about yourself pre-founding the charter school, how would you say that you've grown professionally compared to your previous selves, and what skill sets you say you've developed in the process?

Graham Browne: Yeah, it's a good question. I definitely am much better at prioritizing and executing my plans. Any big tasks or projects that I have that have multiple stages or pieces, I'm able to diagnose it, look at it, and realize that there are only so many things you can accomplish in a school day. And so I need to focus and invest my time on the items that are going to have the greatest impact on the school. And sometimes that means pushing all the paperwork and the stuff that needs to get done, but not right now to times outside of the school day, or making sure that I can get eyes on a system that's happening in a classroom for five minutes today instead of not seeing it for a week and having it change or impact students on the longterm.

And I'm also, just related to that, I'm much better at rapid response to crises. It's a skillset that I didn't really have in the same way before. But not only all of the challenges related to COVID, the immediate shutdown of school, switching to Zoom, providing support for families. We've also had other tragedies and crises at school involving families or students or staff. And being able to keep a level head, keep other people calm, and make sure that the overall systems of the school remain intact, something that you have to develop with experience. It's hard to learn it in a classroom or to talk about it theoretically. It's real world experience that I now have and am able to handle a whole variety of really intense scenarios quickly and make mostly right decisions.

Omolegho Udugbezi: I imagine. There is no class at SOM that I can think about that teaches you all these different skills in one so I'm glad that you're getting that hands-on experience. This just came to mind, you mentioned having to prioritize and juggle so many goals, so to speak. What would you say has been more difficult for you to, I would say deprioritize? Thinking about how of course everything you do is important in your day-to-day job, so what has been more difficult for you to say, okay, this is not urgent right now. I need to prioritize A, B, C as opposed to X, Y, Z? Does anything come to mind?

Graham Browne: Yeah. Well, I think that so much of the reason that I got into this work was to impact student lives and to be directly involved in helping to build better citizens, better people, better neighbors, future leaders, future peers of mine. And when the school was smaller, the way that I had to do that or way I could do that was by being directly in front of kids and small talk, conversations, visiting homes, going to soccer games. Those kinds of things were important and important for me to do and to spend time doing.

But now with the organization being so big, I still need that interaction and that quality time with students to keep me motivated, keep me feeling connected to our community, but that's not necessarily the best use of my time every time. Having a 10-minute conversation with one student during lunch or recess sometimes is enough to refuel me so that I can go back into the spreadsheets and the pitch decks and all of the other stuff that I have to do on behalf of them. But sometimes I will spend a little bit more of my time doing the fun stuff with the kids.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Okay, thank you for sharing that. Now let's talk about the fellowship, so you became a Pahara fellow earlier this year so major congratulations.

Graham Browne: Thanks.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Can you please tell me a bit more about your experience on this scholarship?

Graham Browne: Yeah, sure. So I'm really grateful to be a part of the Pahara Fellowship. I am in cohort 40. Shout out to my cohort 40 folks. We call ourselves You Ought to Know, that's our cohort name.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Love that.

Graham Browne: But it's been a really interesting opportunity. And for those who aren't familiar with the fellowship, the organization, Pahara Institute works to identify and sustain diverse high integrity leaders who are thinking about public education. And the group of us that are involved in the fellowship are from all walks of life all across the entire spectrum of diversity, politically, racially, ethnically, geographically. Our philosophy about how we're going to improve education is really different and broad, and they structure the meetings seminar style.

So we have to prepare a dozen or more readings for each week-long seminar, which takes place in Colorado and discuss them and apply them to our work and our personal settings. And these are readings that are about philosophy and politics and economics and equity and diversity. And they're not necessarily about education, but they do have really valuable applications to who we are as leaders and who we are as a collective. And just being able to hear what other people say, I find I'm just developing this quote book of all this knowledge that I'm bringing back to my school and it's enhanced and improved my leadership. It's been a really valuable experience over the last, I guess, six months.

Omolegho Udugbezi: It sounds like a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing that. Okay, so let's take a more macro view. So if we think about how education has changed since onto the pandemic, it's changed in my opinion in myriad ways. Just for context, I used to be a governor at charter school where I used to live pre-business school so I saw the evolution of our school from a "regular school" to online school, back to regular school once again. So I'm curious to hear about how you think K through 12 education has changed since the pandemic?

Graham Browne: Yeah. I mean, there are so many ways that it has changed. I think the ways that students interact with one another is really different. I think where a typical student's comfort zone is in terms of the ways that they want to interact with their peers has shifted noticeably, they're much more likely to want to be in smaller groups or work independently. They prefer online interactions in a more dramatic way than they did before the pandemic.

But I think within the school building, there's a much larger focus on the impact of trauma on student learning and how we have to think about ensuring that our school setting or any school setting is able to support the entire student while they're at school. And that's something that was a priority before the pandemic, but I think it became, because it impacted so many students in such so many deep ways, and this part of New York City and Queens where we are located, at one point was the epicenter of the pandemic. And so we could see firsthand how much support our students needed when they came back to school.

I think separately, there's been a pretty dramatic learning loss felt by most students, but that's been felt disproportionately by Black and brown children and that just underscores what we already know about where we are as a country and where we need to improve educationally. But there are no glossy covers or feel good stories that can obscure the reality that we just got the state or New York City and New York State exam data from last year. And we can see that only one out of four eighth graders in New York City is on grade level in math, and that means three out of four are going off to high school not ready to perform at a level that's going to allow them to go to college and have meaningful lives. And that is a five alarm fire that is such a big need. And so I think a lot of schools, our school included, are scrambling, working really hard to figure out what we can do to shore up that foundation so that students are feeling supported and safe and able to move to the next level successfully.

Omolegho Udugbezi: You've touched on so many important points. When I think about learning loss, I think not only about reading and writing skills, I think about social skills as well that kids learn through just interacting with their peers who may or may not be similar to them in the classroom. And I think that's something that I've really noticed thinking about educational trends is how much of the social skills need to be relearned for certain students. That's something that I think is definitely top of mind for people interested in education globally, really. So if we think about trends, what would you say are the top two or three educational trends that folks can look out for in the next five to 10 years?

Graham Browne: Yeah. Well, I'm not so much of a big macro trends person, but when I think about some of the things that we're thinking about here, one is just a double down on the investment in social emotional learning, how we are rebuilding student character, student motivation, their comfort with their peers, the way that they care for one another, and how we practice that as just like we practice anything else. And there's been a lot of momentum in that space over the last few years so I think that that's something that we'll continue to see across the city, across the country.

I think there also will continue to be increased investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion training for students and how it flows through the staff and families as we think about student belonging and staff belonging as our schools and our communities become more diverse. And I think from an academic standpoint, we're going to have to figure out what we are going to do about numeracy and math instruction as a nation. It is something that is incredibly urgent and will lead to macroeconomic consequences very soon, as it has already, but I think the pandemic has accelerated the decline in the need for some new solutions.

Omolegho Udugbezi: That makes sense. I love what you said about including D&I education as part of the board education. I think it's great to have that integration because kids being more malleable, being more flexible, earlier learn about diversity and inclusion, the more it becomes ingrained in your day-to-day and it becomes less a, oh, here's the thing we can think about 1/10th at the time so I'd love to hear that. Okay. Let's take a step back. You mentioned coming to SOM looking to pivot. It sounds like you had successful pivot, which is great, but I'd love to know why you chose to attend SOM specifically as your business school of choice.

Graham Browne: Yeah. When I was applying to school, I had a few different options when I was thinking about the final rounds, and I would go to these interview days where I would get to meet other prospective students or current students. And I found that because I didn't necessarily have either a traditional background or traditional post-grad interests that often when I would talk to people at other schools or different schools, they wouldn't want to engage with me on my interests at a deeper level if it wasn't directly aligned with theirs.

And when I came to SOM, I remember this distinctly, for my visitor weekend or revisit weekend, speaking to so many perspective students who were going to work in operations and finance and investing and consulting who asked really thoughtful and deep questions about the stuff that I was doing and what I was interested in, knowing that that was not going to be what they were going to do. And I think there was a really palpable interest in being a well-rounded person, well-rounded student, and those questions and that interest was something that made me feel like I was going to be able to find a community at SOM. And that sealed the deal for me when I was applying.

Omolegho Udugbezi: I can totally relate. So I applied in 2020, so everything was virtual for me, but even on Zooms, on phone calls with people, I could really feel that interest. And my fellow, now classmates, I think that for me was a huge selling point as well. So what were your favorite classes or who are some of your favorite professors at SOM?

Graham Browne: Yeah, got to be Heidi Brooks. Interpersonal Dynamics was an amazing transformational experience. I also became close with Judy Chevalier and Sharon Oster in the Strategic Management of Nonprofits course, and since then I've come back to speak for that class. They both were really early supporters in my mission and vision and the work that I wanted to do. And just having professionals, professors, people who have seen so many different students go through the building invest their time and energy in me was really meaningful. And I'm not sure if she's still there, but Kimberly Barrow, Ms. Kimberly, she is the administrative assistant, she used to be at the front desk and anyone who could make your day better, regardless of how it had been going up until that point is, it's a legitimate superpower. So even though she wasn't a professor, she was somebody that I remember really vividly as someone who enhanced my SOM experience.

Omolegho Udugbezi: So you mentioned being involved in Education Club, but were you involved in any other clubs or student government?

Graham Browne: Yeah, I was the Gold Cohort representative. We won the Cohort Cup once, which was a great achievement.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Very nice.

Graham Browne: Thank you.

Omolegho Udugbezi: I'm in Gold, so I'm biased.

Graham Browne: Oh, yeah. We're glad that we could pave the way for you to do whatever you have done in Gold Cohort since then. I was also in the hockey club. That was super fun. I earned the most improved player award in my second year because I learned how to stop, which was a great achievement.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Wonderful.

Graham Browne: Thank you. And then in the education club, I was the content chair for the Education Leadership Conference, Yale ELC. And so that was a huge undertaking and a really, really valuable experience for me just to organize and think about the content for such a large event. And I started a band. I played the keyboard in a band called the Passion Pushers. It was SOM, FES, and law students that we put a little group together and played covers. That was a highlight as well.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Wonderful. Sounds like you're involved in many clubs, most of the experience. That's great. Okay. So if you hadn't gone to business school, hypothetically, what do you think you'd be doing now?

Graham Browne: Oh, man, it's a good question. I'd probably be in a school somewhere, or working in the nonprofit space for an arts organization that worked with schools. That was something that I had thought a lot about going into business school as a potential path if founding my own school didn't work out, but I would definitely find myself in a school or a classroom somewhere.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Makes sense. And what's one piece of career advice that you have for anyone who's thinking about attending business school, and hopefully SOM?

Graham Browne: I would say be open to every opportunity that is available to you. It's a really short period of time in your professional life or in your adult life in general and that's something that I thought two years is a long time when I was in it, and now that was nine years ago when I first started. And so there are so many opportunities to learn the perspectives of people you've never met before, to join social events that maybe you're just curious about, but wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to do, to take on projects, to try new things, public speaking, leadership, all of these, there's so many opportunities in business school that you can take advantage of. SOM is really great in that way, especially for the diversity of experiences and programs that it offers. And so I would definitely have a say yes mindset. Mindset to what you're going to do in business school for your next step.

Omolegho Udugbezi: No, that's great advice. Something that someone told me and I tell all the first years, this is say yes to everything at least once, just because you never know whether that can lead, right?

Graham Browne: Yeah.

Omolegho Udugbezi: I think once you said yes once, you can say no after that, but that first yes, it opens so many doors for you.

Graham Browne: Totally.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Amazing. Okay, so if our listeners want to follow you in your work, where's the best place to find you?

Graham Browne: Sure. Our school's website is That's F-O-R-T-E-P-R-E-P dot org. I'm on Twitter. I try to either post about school things or tennis or hip hop. Those are my interests. I'm @GrahamSBrowne, G-R-A-H-A-M-S-B-R-O-W-N-E. But Forte Prep, if you Google it, we have all sorts of social media. Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Very cool. And do you have a favorite book or podcast by any resource you'd like to recommend to our listeners?

Graham Browne: One book that I often come back to is this book by Lorraine Monroe called Nothing's Impossible. And Lorraine Monroe is a founder of a public school in New York, and she talks about the experience of building something from scratch and it's an incredibly inspirational story from her perspective about the process of founding something ambitious. And I think from a practical standpoint, anything on the Bridgespan website for nonprofit resources, especially if you need to manage a board or you're thinking about growth, I would definitely direct folks to the Bridgespan website for that.

Omolegho Udugbezi: Wonderful, thank you. And lastly, is there anything that I didn't ask you that you'd like to answer?

Graham Browne: You didn't ask me who my greatest inspiration was, and it's my mom, so shout out to my mom.

Omolegho Udugbezi: I love that, thank you for sharing. Okay, that concludes our interview. Thank you so much.

You've been listening to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you're already a subscriber, please go to Apple Podcasts and rate us or leave a review. That's a great way to let other people know about the show. Career Conversations is produced by Yale SOM, the producer of episode was me. Our editor is Miranda Shafer. For Career Conversations, I'm Omolegho. Thanks for listening and we hope you'll tune in again soon.