Meet Kailee Scales, a long-time advocate of equity in educational opportunities. Kailee has committed her career to mission-driven work across the globe as founder of ThinkFree Global Strategies, a firm that caters to all those interested in crafting forward-thinking solutions to complex issues, and holding prior leadership roles with Black Lives Matter Global Network, Teach for America, EngenderHealth, The Climate Group, Mentor International and Jumpstart for Young Children before joining Pencils of Promise as the CEO.
We asked Kailee about her take on everything from education to the impact of COVID-19 on global NGOs, leadership philosophy to favorite music and food. Read on!
How do you envision PoP growing in the years to come?
The sky’s the limit for PoP. I have been with a few organizations over the course of my career, and PoP has everything it takes—an ambitious and impactful mission, a talented team, strong in-country leadership, an innovative approach, stellar reputation and great partners and supporters. It’s hard to believe PoP is only in its thirteenth year! PoP is very clearly at an inflection point and I envision PoP will continue to center our communities, refine our approach and deepen our impact, while continuing to provide the highest quality education and serve the needs of the whole child.
What interested you in joining the PoP team?
First and foremost, it was the PoP family. I was fortunate to be in a position to choose my next opportunity and I chose PoP because it was very clear to me that I’d be joining a dream team—a group of diverse, passionate, creative and extremely caring people who are ready to take on any challenge in support of our global family. Also, PoP’s data-backed approach to education inequity including: building infrastructure, supporting teachers, and helping to remove the material barriers to school attendance through proven hygiene activities, is sure to have a ripple effect and immeasurable impact on providing quality primary education, to unleash opportunity and transform global communities.
If you had to describe PoP in 3 words, what would they be?
Audacious, committed and connected.
What are you most excited about for the future of PoP and global education?
I believe what people can positively achieve is directly linked to their access to education, economic opportunities, enabling conditions of good health and the encouragement and cultivation of creativity and imagination. I believe these things are intrinsically connected to freedom and are the birthright of all humankind. By helping remove the barriers to quality education, PoP helps facilitate talent and interactive ideas to the benefit of all people. This is tremendously exciting!
What is your favorite program PoP does?
How do you choose a favorite? PoP’s programming is so diverse, thoughtful and impactful. By supporting the building of schools, PoP helps create a symbol within communities that stimulates imagination, dream achievement, and helps carve the pathway toward individual freedom. By supporting teachers to deliver a pedagogical approach that not only increases academic competencies, but includes social and emotional learning that address the needs of the whole child, PoP helps develop confident, connected and globally-minded world citizens. By supporting hygiene best practices and women and girls’ health, PoP helps ensure a ripple effect that enables community health and ensures broader barriers to achievement are removed.
What is your personal superpower and how do you use it at work?
I compare my superpower to Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. Wonder Woman was able to get those who she entwined in her lasso to tell the truth about anything. While my superpower doesn’t work exactly like that, I believe I am able to “disarm” others and connect because I am authentically me and try to live confidently.
What makes a good leader?
A leader is only as good as their team, and understands they must center the teams’ needs. By building on individual strengths and the strengths of the collective, a good leader can cultivate team members so their skills shine—and when people shine, they are most effective. A good leader also knows how to curate a safe environment where people feel respected, seen, heard and cared for.
What does educational equity mean to you?
Simple: Education equity, as well as health, racial and economic equity means the freedom to self-actualize.
What are the key tenets of creating both a great work environment and great output?
Team members are able to achieve great output and, in turn, great outcomes when they feel engaged and challenged, and when they understand how their contribution fits into the vision and purpose of their organization. To achieve this, I believe in envisioning and aligning on a clear North Star, while creating an inclusive work culture where there is a strong balance between a sense of belonging and an appreciation for uniqueness and individuality. I strive to foster an environment where people are encouraged to show up as their true, authentic selves without judgment, and where they feel free to express their opinions—even when it may go against the grain—in order to advance the goals of the broader community.
How would you describe the power of a pencil?
A pencil is a tool that, if utilized, can capture the deepest, most creative thoughts, dreams and talents of the person holding it. It connects what lives inside of us to the outside world.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, which is it and why?
I could never eat one food for the rest of my life—I need something both salty and sweet to be satisfied… maybe Kettle Corn?
What is your favorite Halloween costume you’ve ever worn?
I’m obsessed with Halloween! I think it is a combination of the fantasy of it all, plus I grew up in the 90’s when goth was everything. I am usually some version of a vampire, but taking advantage of my Amazonian stature, I’d have to say my favorite costume was the She-Hulk, cousin of the more famous Incredible Hulk. As She-Hulk, I was painted entirely green, and I pieced together some white fabric that looked like I’d ripped through my clothing. It was a big hit and I even reprised the look at Comic-Con in NYC.
You’re invited to a party last minute and need to make some food to bring over. What’s your dish of choice?
I love to cook and I love small bites and elegant parties so I’d say figs with prosciutto, goat cheese and honey.
What interested you in joining If you could have a coffee with any historical figure, who would it be and what’s your order?
Too many to name! Instead of coffee, I would love to attend a cocktail party with Harriet Tubman, development economist Dudley Seers, activist Martha P. Johnson, Toni Morrison and Prince among so many others.
Favorite decade of music?
I’m a trained vocalist and I love music, so this is hard. Since my strongest memories are from the 90’s, I’d have to say that was my favorite decade. The alternative scene was a bit morose, but I love the vocalists and instrumentalists from this time.
Twitter or Instagram?
The Gram, without a doubt. You can have it all on the Gram.
Sweet or salty snacks?
I refuse to choose. I’m a salty/sweet person.
Ocean or lake?
The sound of ocean waves is so soothing. Plus, that ocean breeze…
Tropical vacation or ski chalet?
Definitely a tropical vacation. I don’t enjoy the cold.
How has PoP and its partnering communities adapted to a world impacted by COVID-19?
Schools all over the world faced unprecedented educational challenges in the wake of this pandemic. This holds especially true for schools with students that may not have easy access to the internet. We also see COVID’s impact manifest differently in all areas of the world, including in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. I am particularly proud to be part of an organization that met these obstacles head on to ensure students of all circumstances continue to have equal access to education, and PoP’s work still continues. School builds remain on-track and in-person learning has continued in many areas. Also, the radio learning programs implemented by our teams in Ghana is an example to me of PoP’s ingenuity during these difficult times. PoP’s unique service provisions also include teacher support and our teams in Guatemala, Ghana and Laos have remained in close contact with teachers in communities to ensure they have the support they need to navigate these uncertain times.
How can global teams build a camaraderie when the workplace is completely remote?
An exciting aspect of working in an organization like PoP is its global work community. While remote work can present its challenges in building work relationships (particularly when our employees work across different time zones), I am proud to say that the PoP collective has put forth a concerted effort to foster interpersonal relationships and broaden cultural understanding through global staff gatherings, removing barriers to community like language, and encouraging deep, meaningful connections between colleagues.
What is the most important part of preparing PoP for the ever-changing state of the world due to COVID-19?
The most important part is conveying that employee safety is paramount. No employee should ever feel that they would need to compromise their safety. I believe that PoP as a workplace functions best when all its employees feel valued, and that cannot be accomplished without giving them the ability to feel comfortable and safe while conducting this impactful work. Also, the global education sector is experiencing unprecedented challenges to remain connected, and it is important to continue our commitment to supporting students, families and communities.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being part of a team during the pandemic?
Assuming the role of CEO for a global organization during a pandemic is not without its challenges. I believe the most important thing a leader can be is responsive and adaptable to the needs of the team and our constituents. It is clear to me that the PoP team and our partners have been incredible at adapting to unforeseen circumstances with creativity and enthusiasm, while maintaining focus on the teachers, students and communities we partner with. It is our goal to continue to exemplify this adaptive and innovative spirit throughout our journey ahead.