Student Profile: Kim Waller Blends Business with Education

Kim Waller (center, red jacket) at Perspectives Charter School with students and fellow board members
Kim Waller (center, red jacket) at Perspectives Charter School with students and fellow board members.

Kim Waller, a student in the Master of Science in Learning and Organization Change (MSLOC) program, straddles two worlds. She is a successful business executive, but her heart is in education as well. Waller is chief operating officer for an Aon Corporation enterprise and an executive board member at an urban charter school.

With her MSLOC studies, which she describes as a “hybrid” between business and education, she is able to apply strategic change management skills to her passion for quality urban education. “More funding of charter schools is desired. I’m a fan of charter schools,” asserts Waller. “Charter schools give students in urban areas options they wouldn’t otherwise have and allow schools to innovate differently.”

As a board member at Perspectives Charter School on the South Side of Chicago, she seeks corporate and individual support for advancing the school. “I’m a strong proponent of schools reaching out to corporations because the corporations benefit or suffer based upon the success of the schools,” she says.

In the current pinched economy, Waller is finding the economics of school funding more daunting than ever. “This charter school, like all charter schools, has the challenges of managing a budget reflecting reduced revenues,” she says. “The main challenge is staying true to the mission of the school while having to be sophisticated stewards of the financial resources, given the restrictions posed by limited funding from individual donors and corporations.”

With fewer dollars to donate, potential funders want to see performance results, Waller emphasizes. She says charter schools must prove they are able to deliver in areas such as retention of students, increases in academic achievement, rates of acceptance into college, ACT and SAT scores, retention of faculty and education levels of teachers.

At the same time, Waller’s charter school board questions the best way to capture results: Are we educating to a test or promoting critical thinking and the joy of learning? If performance matters for funding a school, how do you measure that? As they struggle with these questions, they draw on a combination of hard metrics and soft ones, such as anecdotal evidence from teachers, students and families. With the current emphasis on performance, Waller says the MSLOC program has come to the rescue. “My work in MSLOC has framed how success is measured,” she notes.

For her role both on the board and in her company, the program has also helped her understand organizational change. “The MSLOC program has given me an opportunity to look at how organizations — whether in the corporate world or education — deal with change. In both, change is happening, whether you like it or not,” says Waller, describing changes at her own and her clients’ organizations, as well as at Perspectives, which has grown to five schools serving sixth through 12th grades. “Sometimes change looks like a freight train running down a track out of control, but it isn’t. There are patterns and ways to understand change.”

The primary change in Waller’s career has been swift movement upward. After earning a degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin, she has advanced rapidly during her 19 years at Aon. Starting as a production underwriter, she was promoted to managing director of an operating unit, then an account executive and now head of operations for Aon Cornerstone. This new unit helps to connect Aon clients with minority firms in strategic partnerships. Throughout it all, she has felt a pull toward the field of education and has toyed with the idea of a leadership position in a school organization.

“Right now, Cornerstone synthesizes my commitment to diversity and my knowledge of the insurance industry,” Waller says. As for the future, though, the MSLOC degree she will receive this winter allows her to position herself in a new way. “I was looking for an education that would allow me to take a broader view of the world and where my passions might lie,” she says.

By Marilyn Sherman