By Jason Milan
Steven Wilson exemplifies a unique blend of harmony and audacity. He brings harmony to his work as he marries two fields – public education and private entrepreneurship – that seem to be almost paradoxically at odds. He reflects harmony in his speech, considering every word with careful deliberation to convey precisely what lives in his mind. And he does this with an audacity that drives the very motions of this intellect. Audacity is evident in the way Wilson applies himself to pursuits of theory, management, writing, and pedagogy with the same deep, unwavering capability.
Harmony: it is a beautiful end game. It is the guiding vision behind our work to better the world. Yet, Wilson is the first to point out that harmony is simply a finish line: it has no place in the running of the race. To achieve harmony there must first be tension. There must come stages of failure, perseverance, sweat, and tears – and these must be met with voracious audacity. Sounds quite like what Wilson affectionately terms the “curious earlier part of [his] career.”
After completing his junior year at Harvard, Wilson left to start a small business in the technology sector. His company, Data Acquisition Systems, took off in the classic fashion of Harvard dorm room startups, transforming its small team of student founders into entrepreneurs almost overnight. “I was working in the bio labs at Harvard as an electrical engineer,” Wilson recalls, “and I developed a device linking the first personal computers – the Apple 2 – to instrumentation in the lab.” At the time, this was a breakthrough with wide-ranging appeal in the scientific industry. Wilson and his roommates decided to capitalize on his ingenuity, placing an ad in Byte (one of the first tech magazines) to drum up business, and then to manufacture and sell these devices.
To say they struck a nerve in the market would be an understatement. DAS was flooded with requests and Wilson decided to stay with the company after his roommates returned to classes in the fall. Within two years, DAS joined with Keathley Instruments, and Wilson continued to drive its success until it was bought out completely. “When I walked in the room people would sometimes just shake their heads and smile,” he chuckles. “Here I was, 23 years old, the CEO of a company working with this large, conservative, well-established institution.” Suffice it to say that this was not the last time Wilson found himself commanding such esteem.
In a matter of no time, Wilson was leading yet another fast-growing startup, a company that built specialized computers for automating process plants. “There’s something brilliant, something captivating about entrepreneurship,” he says. “It’s relentless, bold, innovative – full of energy.” He leapt eagerly into this culture, and he thrived in it. Over the course of those nine years, Wilson worked non-stop to turn his ideas into reality. “I had that under my belt – real work, serious work – and I decided I really should finish my degree,” he laughs.
Aged 30, and in his final year at Harvard, Wilson took a class with Nathan Glazer, a sociologist who taught urban educational opportunity. In his work for the class, Wilson wrote about the can-do work ethic that he’d seen in the entrepreneurial field, drawing stark contrasts between this culture and the inert bureaucracy of large urban public school systems. “When people join together with a common vision, with the audacity to think that they can make something work better – that’s very empowering,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy released.” As he focused on his burgeoning passion for education, Wilson found himself losing interest in technology, science, and engineering – but would always cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit that gripped him.
Professor Glazer encouraged Wilson and helped him to more fully develop his ideas, approving a study that applied an entrepreneurial lens to the Boston Public School system. As Wilson wrote his analysis, he realized that he needed a lengthier format to develop his concept into a comprehensive argument. During his final months at Harvard, Wilson embarked on a new challenge: writing a book. This endeavor would eventually become Reinventing the Schools: A Radical Plan for Boston, Wilson’s first foray into synthesizing his two fields of choice.
For Wilson, charter schools provided the clear medium through which to perform this ongoing synthesis. The whole concept, “authority and autonomy, with strict accountability,” as he puts it, felt natural to him. “Of course that’s the way it should work: if you don’t get results, you get shut down,” he says.
In the early 90s, Wilson advised Governor Weld as his administration wrote and passed legislation to sign charter schools into Massachusetts state law. He then became the Executive Co-Director of the Pioneer Institute, a public policy think tank in Boston. During that time, Jim Peyser, now the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, hired Linda Brown to open a charter school resource center at Pioneer. “I met Linda on the subway, actually!” Wilson recalls. “I got on at Massachusetts General Hospital, and right there on the train was Jim, and he said ‘Hey, Steven, boy have I got someone for you to meet!’”
Over the next few years, Brown and Wilson built a mutual admiration and an indomitable friendship. As Wilson threw himself into the foundation of his first charter management organization, learning from every success and failure that marked his path, Brown shaped her resource center into what is now Building Excellent Schools. Together, the two created precedents of achievement and tomes of wisdom that remain fundamental to our field today.
In his role as Board Chair at BES, Wilson ensures that these tenets continue to evolve at an optimal pace. “I love that BES has returned, with gusto, to its central pillar: The Fellowship,” he says. “And I love Linda’s audacity in doubling its size this year.” He notes that it remains his duty to be a supportive skeptic in the midst of the organization’s ambitious expansion, to make sure things move as quickly as possible without sacrificing any of the quality which has so widely defined BES. “Above all else, I’m excited,” Wilson emphasizes. “BES has grown a lot in the last couple of years, and there are fantastic things to come.”
These days, Wilson broadens the horizons of opportunity through his work as Founder and CEO of Brooklyn Ascend Charter Schools, in New York City. Although his schedule is as thoroughly packed as the minds of his young scholars, Wilson finds time – every once in a while – to maintain his balance in life. In these moments he relishes the chance to restore the old house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which he and his partner bought one year ago. Wilson feels deep relaxation in creating a space; “I’m very influenced by aesthetics,” he says. “I find beauty so calming.” New York City has always had a special place in his heart, and “Brooklyn, of course, is the place to be!” So Wilson builds his own retreat, just as he has built everything in his life. He builds rooms in which to race through his vast and ever-expanding book list, and nooks in which to practice yoga, keeping his body calm through the trials of leadership.
Raised in the suburban stretches of Concord, Massachusetts by a pair of Harvard intellectuals, Wilson discovered purpose in spreading opportunity for all. He works to bring people of all backgrounds together for the betterment of themselves and of others – a value he sees reflected in New York City more than anywhere else in the world. “Everybody gets to do their own thing, but not just that; everyone gets to do their thing, and feel welcomed while they do it,” he says. With his own heart full of a most audacious sense of welcome, Wilson celebrates the power of humanity every day, and with clear eyes, forges harmony from its fragments.