Educated quest

After proving herself on Wall Street, Kate Kingen is out to reform America’s schools

Kate Kingen

It is likely that no young finance prodigy has ever followed up a promising analyst program at a prestigious Wall Street firm such as Deutsche Bank by going to work for the Newark Public Schools.

Until Kate Kingen (BA 2009).

But then, Kingen has never followed a script. The daughter of Seattle restaurateurs (Red Robin, Salty’s) chose to study accounting at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, earning the Most Outstanding Accounting Graduate Award at the top of a long ledger of accolades. But when an internship with Deutsche Bank’s Mergers & Acquisitions group turned into a job offer, she packed her bags for New York City.

Finance phenom

The analyst program is Wall Street’s trial by fire for the elite young members of a testosterone-fueled fraternity of high finance—“mainly male, very aggressive,” asserts Kingen.

Those who survive write their own ticket. Kingen thrived.

She rocketed to the top of her class at Deutsche Bank, and was named lead analyst on a number of marquee deals, most notably the $9.7 billion announced merger of Deutsche Boerse and NYSE and the $8.8 billion sale of Bucyrus to Caterpillar.

When she emerged triumphant from this two-year crucible, a gold-plated career at an investment bank or hedge fund or private equity firm was hers for the taking.

But Kingen had something more in mind. “I really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot,” she says. “But I wanted to apply my finance skills where they could make the most impact.”

Something more

Kingen had been raised to revere education. So when she was invited by the new chief operating and financial officer of the Newark School District—a Morgan Stanley veteran named Photeine Anagnostopoulos—to help implement sweeping reforms in finance, operations and strategy, Kingen jumped at the opportunity.

“If I wanted to be part of the coming change in education,” she says, “there’s no better place to start than Newark.”

After a 360-degree analysis of one of the nation’s poorest-performing districts, their team cleaned up the nearly $1 billion budget and closed under-enrolled schools. Kingen introduced a more equitable funding model that gives principles more autonomy and developed a graduation tracker that now allows parents, teachers, and students to monitor academic progress.

Going to state

With knowledge of their breakthrough work in Newark, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education hired Anagnostopoulos and Kingen to analyze the critical links between funding and performance across the state. They’re currently studying a cross-section of districts in search of the best practices that can be replicated elsewhere in the state.

“Most studies and reform efforts are focused on instruction—as it should be,” Kingen says. “But I believe that connecting finance and resource allocation to performance is going to be the next big step in education reform.”

Systems education

More than just some quixotic idealist tilting at academic dysfunction, Kingen may be onto something big.

The past year’s efforts are revealing a possible new paradigm: an interdisciplinary “systems” approach to education management that marries the wisdom of pedagogy and social science with the insights of data analytics, organizational behavior, accounting and finance. Its potential to improve student performance is transformational.

Once her work in New Jersey is complete, Kingen is planning to go for an MBA. She’d also like to start a company in this new area of expertise. “When you’re in education reform, you’re working against the clock,” she says. “Because every day you don’t make progress is another day lost for a child. So we need to keep pushing to make these changes.”

It will take some serious pushing. But Kingen—experienced, smart, energetic, ambitious, and appropriately impatient—is more than game.

“I’ve learned that management and finance acumen are sorely missing in K-12 education,” she says. “There’s a huge opportunity. It’s exciting to be at leading edge of something so important.”