Alumni Impact Story: Matthew Stephenson, WG’11

Matthew Stephenson, WG’11, was on the precipice of a lucrative career on Wall Street when he realized his job in risk management – protecting an investment bank from credit losses – wasn’t personally fulfilling.

“As exciting as my job was, my skills weren’t actually helping people,” he says.

Public service was a value instilled in him from childhood, when he volunteered at his church and in the community of New Rochelle, his hometown. And while he pondered what would be more fulfilling for him than a financial career, he focused on another priority his parents emphasized: education.

So began a journey that would lead Stephenson from the corridors of Wall Street to a high school classroom – and beyond.

Today, he’s an Associate Partner at NewSchools Venture Fund,  a venture philanthropy fund that partners with education entrepreneurs to provide all students with an excellent public education.

“I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to work alongside school leaders who are passionate about making change, and in particular, within underserved communities,” he says. “So whether they are low income, special needs, or English language learners, our focus is on providing opportunities and a high quality education, most importantly, to students who’ve traditionally been underserved.”

In the 15 years of its existence, he says, NewSchools has invested more than $250 million in U.S. public education. The nonprofit firm raises and leverages philanthropic capital to “support education entrepreneurs who are transforming public education.”

So far, the company’s DC Schools Fund has created nearly 3,000 high-performing charter school seats in the DC public school system. The three other city funds are in Boston, Newark and Oakland.

“The educational system, as it’s been says time and again, is broken. We as a nation have fallen tremendously behind the rest of the world in preparing students for high impact in the global economy,” he says. “What we’re doing at NewSchools is trying to make targeted investments in high impact organizations towards scaling the lessons learned from best practices in education management and accelerating the improvement of the educational system on a national basis.”

It was Wharton that enabled Stephenson to combine all of his passions – finance, education, public service – into one career.

The social impact ethos of the school was a perfect fit. And he was deeply influenced by classmates from widely different backgrounds who took their mission of social change very seriously.

Stephenson applied to business school to gain the operational skills he needed to be an leader in the education sector.

“I fell in love with Wharton,” he says.

“The strength of the school comes from the student and alumni body. You see everyone and anyone: Olympians, leaders in marketing, arts dealers, consultants, philanthropists, a whole range. It’s not a cookie cutter student body. Because of the diversity of interests, I found a lot of folks who were able to provide a great deal of support and information in my interest in education.”

After Wharton, Stephenson taught high school mathematics in Connecticut, to get a first-hand look at the education system from the ground up. That path led him to NewSchools, and the distinction as a Bendheim Fellow through the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.

“This for me is the perfect intersection of my skills, experiences and passion,” Stephenson says.

“I’d say that in the same way that service was embedded in my being from the time I was a child, it’s clearly also embedded in all Whartonites,” Stephenson says. “That’s what drew me to Wharton and that’s ultimately why I fell in love with the school.”

Interview and story by Jill Porter.