Former U.S. Under Secretary of Education and Guild advisor Sara Martinez Tucker on what inspires her to focus on working adults and how to uplift underrepresented communities through education.

Sara Martinez Tucker’s passion for working adults comes straight out of her experience at the Department of Education. While serving as Under Secretary she came across a survey of working adults: “The study indicated that a vast majority of working adults did not think they had the education they needed for the jobs they wanted,” she said.

That inspired her, in part, to join Guild Education’s Advisory Board. 

Tucker brings more than 30 years of leadership experience in technology, science, education and government to the advisory board. She also currently serves on several boards of directors: American Electric Power, Cornerstone on Demand, Nationwide, and Service Corporation International, as well as the University of Notre Dame’s Boards of Fellows and Trustees. Previously, she was a member of Sprint and Xerox’s boards of directors and was the former chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents.

Tucker had a long, successful career at AT&T spanning 16 years before shifting her focus to advancing American higher education, a transition that included serving as Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and CEO of the National Math + Science Initiative, an organization focused on improving student performance in science, technology, engineering, and math. Tucker has also served as the CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund where she pursued an aggressive goal to double the rate of Hispanics earning college degrees.

Tucker met with Guild to talk about her passion to create education pathways to unlock more career opportunities for working adults and from underrepresented communities.

What was your reason for joining Guild’s advisory board?

When I was working under the Department of Education, I came across a survey of working adults. The study indicated that a vast majority of working adults did not think they had the education they needed for the jobs they wanted. Since I left office, I’ve always been struck with this demand in our workforce that really was not getting addressed. While there have been a number of worthwhile efforts, I hadn’t seen a business model that was scalable across multiple companies, geographies and demographics and that could leverage the best of what was possible to create better pathways for working adults until I came along Guild Education.

Guild’s business model is solid and has the right ingredients. We are working with accredited institutions and creating a channel from corporate to higher education that leverages existing and brings in new resources. People working in corporate generally think of new talent coming in through their college recruiting initiatives or external hires and tend to forget about the talent they already have. I think this is a really important lesson, that in this space you’ve got to tap into your existing associate demand and connect associates to legitimate postsecondary education pathways and that bring them the additional resources they will need to be successful.  Most corporations have funds that they set aside for some type of education or tuition benefit. Guild takes those existing resources and brings in the care and guidance that students need while also leveraging those relationships to provide additional resources to serve the working adult population. 

What impact do you want to make as a member?

I want to be able to leverage the experience I have in corporate America particularly when it was my job to think through how organizations helped make the talent they already had even better. I learned how to bridge human resources, business needs, and the associate skill sets that were required for the strategy of the business. 

I also want to leverage my current experience with corporate America, which is sitting on a number of public and private company boards, where we understand what companies are doing around the future of work and talent development. Through my past and current experience, I hope to help Guild continue to create more pathways and opportunities for working adults to advance their careers. 

We think a lot about career progression and pathways at Guild. Can you tell me about your unique journey and how it led you to where you are today?

I feel like I am one of the luckiest people. I was born in a border town in South Texas, a community that has high poverty with poor education. However, I was born into a home with two parents who did not have any secondary education but always wanted the best for their children. They made lots of sacrifices to provide us the best education possible. They set the expectation that we would go to college at an early age and it was never “if” you go but it was “when” you go. I was valedictorian at my high school and my guidance counselor told me that I wasn’t college material and I remember my mom getting angry with them.  She called the university herself and fought and advocated for me to get into college. 

When you grow up like I did, you don’t understand what is possible with a quality education. I have been lucky to have different people in my life who have supported and given me opportunities so I could earn two post-secondary degrees while gaining work experience that has all led me to where I am today. It’s just been about preparing myself, being ready, and taking advantage of every opportunity that I was given.

You have a major focus on advancing the American higher education system. When did you realize this was a focus in your career? Was there a specific moment?

It didn’t come quickly to me. I worked in corporate for a long time and when my company went through a restructuring period, I made the decision to take early retirement. This is when I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. During this time, I worked as a free consultant to local nonprofits to try to identify what was possible.  I also spent more time traveling back to my hometown in South Texas to see my family. Every time I was there, I gained a deeper appreciation for how lucky I was to have had passionate teachers and parents who distilled the importance of education in me. Unfortunately, the rungs of opportunity are getting further and further apart for people who grew up as I did. So, as a way to honor my parents, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life focused on how to get kids that grew up like me the chance to get the education they needed to be able to create their own destinies.

If you could solve one issue for underrepresented students within education right now, what would it be? 

It’s one of the hardest challenges but improving the K-12 public education system has the potential for the greatest impact. We need to not only focus on education and upskilling working adults but also supporting and better preparing our children who are the future of work. Your zip code should not determine the quality of your education.  We are doing kids a disservice with the current required curriculum in some school districts. The pandemic really opened my eyes up even more about the challenges our public education system faces.

Drawing from your experience working as the Under Secretary of education at the U.S. Department of Education, how do you think Guild could be impacting and influencing policy decisions?

I wish there was more traction for vocational and adult education, especially since many presidential administrations focus on working Americans and upskilling. We need to have more conversations with policymakers about alternative pathways focusing more on working adults. What’s beautiful about Guild’s model is that we are partnering with universities and getting them more students as well as upskilling working adults, which is killing two birds with one stone. 

How do you envision Guild as a company in the next 5-10 years?

For me, this answer is simple. I envision that Guild will have developed such a strong brand and network of alumni students that when individuals are interviewing for jobs, they will ask the companies if they have a relationship with Guild. We will basically create a sales channel outside of our own organization.