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“Doing Better Together”, an Interview with Dr. Katherine Bihr, VP, Programs and Education, TGR Foundation

This month, we held the 7th annual Close It Summit, in La Ciudad Diferente, also known as Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was an honor to host over 500 amazing leaders from across the globe focusing on ensuring equity, access and opportunity in the future of working and learning.

I had a chance to catch up with Dr. Katherine Bihr, Vice President of Programs and Education at TGR Foundation, A Tiger Woods Charity, where we discussed her Close It 2019 session with Native American and New Mexican professional golfer Notah Begay III. Moderated by Susanne Thompson, Senior Vice President at Discovery Education, the session topic was a timely one – The Power of Creating Unlikely Partnerships.

When I think of unlikely partnerships, I think it is really cool that Tiger Woods inducted Begay, “his brother for life,” into the Stanford University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014. From meeting on the golf course as junior golfers to both have their own foundations working in education and ensuring equity and access in teaching and life, Woods and Begay highlight the importance of forging partnerships to making lasting change within communities of need. Dr. Bihr expanded on the power of partnership as I spoke with her in the interview:

Jamai: You bring such an amazing background to a foundation that has a focus on providing career exploration and college prep programs to low income youth and their families. Can you tell me a little bit about how you found your role at TGR Foundation?

Kathy: My background is in K12 education. I am an educator.  And, in 2004, I was a middle school principal working on my doctorate.  A friend of mine sent me a job posting from TGR Foundation. She actually sent it as a joke because I grew up playing golf.  Well, I took it and ran with it. I thought, well it might be a risk, but you never know.  I have been with the Foundation for 15 years now, and I have never looked back. I have enjoyed every minute, and it has been such a journey.

Jamai: When was TGR Foundation established?

Kathy: The foundation was established by Tiger and his father Earl in 1996 after Tiger turned pro. Known at that time as the Tiger Woods Foundation, they supported junior golf clinics across the country. When the tragedy of 9/11 happened, Tiger realized the foundation could do so much more. With education being a pillar in his own upbringing, Tiger knew he could impact many more lives through educational programs.

Jamai: So you have been there almost from the beginning, really. Have you seen a big SHIFT in the way the foundation has been addressing things over the last 15 years?

Kathy: Yes, I have definitely seen a shift in what is important to the foundation. At the beginning, there was a big push to distribute funds with grants to communities that were doing work in education or health. Now, it is much more focused on this idea of building skills for kids in school and connecting it to workforce. I think we were really at the front end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) movement 15 years ago, asking “what does that mean?” and “how can we help?”. We learned pretty quickly that we were really doing great work, seeing 8,000-10,000 kids through our program yearly, and focused on our responsibility to reach more kids. Tiger wants to reach millions of kids around the world. With that in mind, we have to change the way we are delivering education. The hard part is that most teachers teach the way they were taught. Their skill sets need to be rebuilt beyond just teaching content. It is an economic imperative.  In order for us to compete globally, at least in the U.S., we have to think differently about the importance of teachers and the impact they have on the world.

Jamai: The subject of your mainstage session at Close It 2019 was on the “power of partnerships”. You noted that “in order to have lasting, effective change, especially in underserved and at-risk communities, we must open ourselves up to unlikely partnerships.” Can you explain this a little more?

Kathy: The idea around unlikely partnerships really comes from the notion of what sparks innovation. You find innovation in places where you are not really looking for it. You start by comparing notes. In fact, those you look to might not even be doing something in education. And, then you wonder how we can teach what they are doing to millions of kids. It is about creating innovative learning models and innovative experiences for kids. It is real-life stuff happening in workforce and industry around the country. So, the importance of finding unlikely partnerships is really about finding new ways to work together.

For example, at the beginning we were thinking about after-school and out-of-school programs. We love working with the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and others.  But we thought “how can we go beyond an after-school program?”  We thought about how to be a continuum for learning. We began to break down the barriers of preconceived notions of “these things are silos”.  We should cross paths as many times as we can, and look for new opportunities to impact the lives of kids all over the country.

Jamai: So often we go where we are most comfortable, we create partnerships that are in our own space. I agree that true innovation happens when you say “oh, that doesn’t fit…but it sure is interesting.” Have you been in a situation in which you felt this?

Kathy: That is a great question. It’s like when someone saw a wheel and a pair a tennis shoes and decided to created rolling tennis shoes. That’s an innovation that is unlikely but worked. For the work we do, I think education is ripe for unlikely partnerships. Often times the levels of education don’t talk to one another (pre-k to elementary, K-12 to higher education, etc.). Some of our quick and easy partnerships have been in just closing those gaps – that continuum of learning. A lot of times the surprising partnerships have come about when we take on new pieces of technology and apply it to the classroom.  A lot of times, it is really just piecing it together – doing a lot better together.

One of the partnerships that comes to mind is a company that manufactured DNA Sequencer equipment. They said, “Hey, can we donate this piece of equipment because we aren’t getting enough young people thinking about research as a career. So, can you help think about how to develop something to engage young people in medical research as a career pathway?”  So, we took in the DNA Sequencer, trained staff and went down this pathway for developing AP Biology curriculum for both the classroom as well as using the equipment out of school as well. This equipment engaged youth and has led kids to major in medical research in college.

Jamai: But, I think it takes someone to say “yes” to see what can exist. That is what unlikely partnerships are to me – taking the time to explore the “unlikely” to lead to a “yes”. Were there any moments at Close It that you felt you made a new ‘unlikely partnership’ and can you tell us a little about that?

Kathy:  Well, to be honest I’m still flushing them out, but I think there have been more opportunities with this Close It than ever before. I think it is also because you are open to partnership. For example, I sat down with a team working on an emotional and social learning platform that was fascinating. So many people are doing great work. I had quite a few interesting conversations that will impact our programs as I work through it.

Jamai: Kathy, you travel all over the globe, in fact you recently were in Ghana creating new partnerships. Can you talk a little about your vision in global expansion?

Kathy: Tiger’s vision is really to reach kids around the world, to help them find their place, so that we have a global economy that is thriving –regardless of where you live.  The goal in Ghana was to be there, participate and to look at their educational system.  We were invited to come by the Ashante Kingdom to look at not only what is happening in Ghanaian education, but look for ways that we can help as they create a master plan for the future that requires everyone to SHIFT to make it successful. We went to get a broad landscape view of the current state of education, and we want to see how we can work together and support that work and their vision. We want to be involved in the amazing world of learning and what is happening in careers of the future.

We want to be part of the SHIFT.

Jamai: Anything else, Kathy?

Kathy: It’s pretty simple. I believe in the power of collaboration and partnership, and the extended idea of unlikely partnerships. That is one of the things I have really appreciated about Close It. You assemble such an interesting mix of folks. And I think bringing those people in and providing them potential really creates an opportunity for amazing work. I always want to be in that place where I am around amazing, smart people wanting to do good work. I want to champion the work we are all doing. We make a better world that way.

Jamai: I know everyone said Close It is too packed, but I too believe in the power of voice. Thank you for bringing Notah as well. He was so amazing. Thank you, Kathy, and thank you to TGR Foundation for all you do.

You can watch the full panel which was filmed “live” at Close It 2019