10 Questions with Alexa Sykes - Manager, Data and Impact, Teach For America

What does a typical day look like for you?

I typically try to start my day with some form of exercise - could be something as laid back as a walk through my neighborhood or something more intense like spin or barre class. After I’ve had a chance to wake myself up (and get my steps in on my FitBit, let’s be honest, that’s the real priority here...), I’ll shower and head into work. On Mondays, and Wednesdays, I travel to Teach For America’s office located in the American Tobacco Campus in Downtown Durham, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays I travel a couple of feet to my home office. Although I’ve been with TFA for two years as a recruiter on the National Recruitment Team, I recently switched gears and started a new position as the Manager of Data and Impact on the Eastern North Carolina regional team. This essentially means that I help quantify a lot of the anecdotal evidence that informs our strategies, and make recommendations to our functional team leads to ensure we are executing strong, data-driven tactics to achieve transformational outcomes for our students. How do I do this? A lot of conversations, a lot of surveys, a lot of observational testing, and a lot of collaboration. I am tasked with “telling the story” of our teachers and students in Eastern North Carolina, so it critical for me to understand how we are training our teachers and how they are responding to our training and support, and if our training is directly correlated to improved student outcomes. I’m never really “done” working because the work that I do is so close to my heart - the majority of students that we teach in Eastern North Carolina are African American students who demographics have already placed negative indicators on their life trajectories. As an African American woman who is very aware of structural racism and systemic oppression, I work with urgency to ensure that we are creating an ecosystem that will help them thrive and disrupt a system that was not created for them to do so. But I guess outside of work I absolutely love cooking and hosting friends for dinner at least once a week, spending time with my incredible boyfriend, and planning events for young professionals in the community through the company that we own.

What are you working on right now?

So, this is a really exciting time at work because a) I just started, so everything is new and shiny to me, and b) this is the first year in the entire history of our region at TFA (which is about 25 years) that we have hosted our own Summer Institute (that’s TFA jargon for summer training). Institute consists of 5-6 weeks of intensive and immersive training and knowledge building. In previous years, our corps members would attend one of our national institutes in the Mississippi Delta or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since we are hosting our own this summer, they are really able to get to know Eastern North Carolina and become invested members of the community. This also means that there is a LOT of learning that is happening that will inform how we manage this program in years to come. So, I have my hands full capturing trends, assessing wins and identifying opportunities, and traveling to our placement schools quite a bit to spend time with our corps members and students.

What was your path to get where you are today?

I majored in Strategic Communications at Elon University, where I was the Director of Live Oak Communications, our full-service, student-run public relations agency, and where I was heavily involved in diversity education work. I also worked as a student ambassador for Teach For America, which was my introduction to the nonprofit sector. While at Elon, I held several summer internships, including working in Account Management at McKinney, an advertising agency based here in Durham, and working in Merchandise Planning at Target at their headquarters in Minneapolis. I quickly learned that networking and relationship building were the keys to opening the doors I was interested in. After accepting a full-time offer at Target as a Business Analyst, I quickly realized that I not only desired a fast-paced and challenging work environment, but I also needed to feel the impact, urgency and necessity of my work, which is how I found my way back to Teach For America full time.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

The first thing that comes to mind is that my position is completely new, and I am the only one in it, so just getting through my day to day requires a lot of problem solving and thriving in the unknown. Additionally, being charged with developing and quantifying strategies that affect all ~200 of our corps members is challenging because they each have unique experiences and our region is so large. We place teachers in 14 different districts spanning hundreds of miles; I am constantly finding the small details that are driving significant trends and figuring out the most digestible ways to articulate the complexities of what’s happening.

How do you effectively balance your time?

I try to be extremely intentional about ensuring that I have a solid work-life-balance. The only way that I'll be 100% at work is if I am refueling myself outside of work. Joining Ride Cycle Studio really helped, because it is a daily hour that is set aside just for me to focus on my health, both mind and body. Additionally, as a Type A planning time, I like to map out my week ahead of time which includes all of my "extracurricular" post-work activities, including YNPN events of course, other meetings for boards that I sit on, community service, and supporting projects at my boyfriend's business.

What are five tools you use on a regular basis?

Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook, Google Drive, LinkedIn, and more recently, MailChimp.

What is the best career advice you have been given?

My first manager out of college told me to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. Personal and professional development and growth is all about learning to thrive in the uncomfortable stages of a learning curve, and not letting a challenging environment define you. In my career, I've learned that the most growth typically happens during situations that are unfavorable or uncomfortable.

Who or what inspires you?

As a Christian, my faith is what drives, inspires, and motivates me. I believe that with God, I can do all things, and I completely trust whatever God's plan is for my life, even if it doesn't seem aligned with my own vision. That said, I am always inspired by Christian women who are sharing the gospel while chasing their professional and personal dreams, and who are unafraid to demonstrate and share the love of Christ with those around them.

Why do you do what you do?

Simply put, I believe that every human deserves the opportunity to figure out who they are. It shouldn't require privilege to be exposed to different people, places and environments. I understand that my identity as an African American women who grew up with privilege and access to upper middle class norms is complex, and I am passionate about unpacking and understanding the socioeconomic and racial disparities that inhibit more individuals that look like me from obtaining what is their human right. I do what I do because it is personal and because it matters.

Who should we interview next?

Franchesca Jones Gentry, one of my brilliant colleagues at Teach For America

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