Kaya Henderson (SFS’92, EML’07) on Maximizing Purpose in Leadership

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Georgetown McDonough joins the nation during the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. For the School of Business, this history began in 1960 when the newly formed school awarded its first business degree to a woman. This historic moment set the stage for the extraordinary achievements of six decades of female graduates, who continue to break barriers and pave the way for future generations of women business leaders. 

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we are highlighting several stories of McDonough alumnae who pushed boundaries and found success in their personal and professional lives. 

Kaya Henderson (SFS’92, EML’07)

Kaya Henderson (SFS’92, EML’07) is a lifelong educator, a double Hoya, former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, a Samuel Halsey Award Winner, and served on the Georgetown Board of Directors. Currently, she is CEO of Reconstruction, an education technology company that delivers a K-12 supplemental curriculum centered on Black people, culture, and contributions in an authentic, identity-affirming way for students. Her love for Georgetown and vision as the former leader of the D.C. Public Schools led to the creation of a customized version of the Executive Master’s in Leadership (EML) program designed specifically for local principals and school leaders.

What led you to Georgetown?

I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, where I went to public schools for most of my life. My mom was a single parent, teacher, and a principal — with a passion for travel. By the time I graduated from high school, we had traveled to a plethora of countries around the world. My experiences abroad, learning about other people and cultures, led to my decision to pursue a degree in international relations. I was a freshman in high school when I decided that Georgetown was my number one choice. When the time came, I applied “early decision” and got in. On November 1 of my senior year, I knew I was going to Georgetown University, so I didn’t apply to any other schools.

“Service, leadership, friendship, community, faith, and academics were all of the dimensions of my maturing life that flourished at Georgetown.”

Did Georgetown live up to all your expectations?

Georgetown allowed the various dimensions of my life to come together in a powerful way. I always have been serious about academics, so I was able to pursue an education on the Hilltop that challenged me intellectually and stretched my thinking.

As a social butterfly, it was important for me to find community at Georgetown, and what I found exceeded my expectations. The Black community at Georgetown nurtured me, protected me, provided social and service opportunities, and mentored me in ways I would have never imagined. In fact, my first job at Teach for America was inspired by a leader of the Black Student Alliance on campus. I currently serve on Teach For America’s national board.

I was raised by a strong Christian faith, going to church and Sunday school, and also was active in youth ministry. Georgetown provided a space for me to explore and to develop my faith. Service, leadership, friendship, community, faith, and academics were all of the dimensions of my maturing life that flourished at Georgetown.

Henderson was chosen as the featured speaker for the D.C.Public Schools EML graduation in 2013.

In what way was Georgetown able to support you during your time at D.C. Public Schools?

After Georgetown, I began my teaching career, but maintained a relationship with a priest, Father Raymond Kemp, who was teaching social justice theology courses. Every year he asked me to come back and guest lecture, which is how I found out about the Executive Master’s in Leadership (EML) program. In 2006, I started the year-long program, where I gained skills to maximize my purpose in leadership. What I learned in the EML program was critical to my success in leadership at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). 

The preparation I gained in the EML program was so strong that I wanted DCPS principals to experience the caliber of leadership development that the EML program provided. I shared that desire with President DeGioia and his team, and they partnered with me on the creation of the Executive Master’s in Leadership Program for DC Principals at the McDonough School of Business. We started with just DCPS principals, but I am proud to say that we are in the fifth cohort of principals across Washington, D.C., which is the only place in the District where charter leaders and traditional school leaders are working together to improve education for the entire city. We also created the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship, a certificate program in leadership for aspiring principals.

I departed from DCPS feeling like I had left the school district a much better place than I found it by building sustainable institutions, with Georgetown, that will continue to ensure a strong human capital pipeline for the city.

What came next?

When I left DCPS, President DeGioia invited me home to the Hilltop, where I served as a distinguished fellow working in the President’s Office on special projects. I consulted with philanthropic organizations, supported aspiring superintendents and education entrepreneurs, and explored other areas in the education arena. I eventually took a full-time position in 2018 at Teach For All, which is the international version of Teach For America. That role afforded me the opportunity to combine everything I had learned in education with everything that I had learned studying international relations at Georgetown. I supported our programs in 53 countries to work collaboratively with their communities to bring about educational change. It was my dream job.

After two years running around the globe helping other communities, I felt a strong calling to come back home and help my own community. I now serve as the CEO of Reconstruction.US, an education technology company that empowers students and their communities through an authentic and unapologetically Black education.

“When I look at my life, my closest friends are my Georgetown friends. Those friendships helped shape my network. Georgetown is the gift that keeps on giving.”

What advice would you give to young women?

The advice I would give to young women would be not to worry about what is going to happen tomorrow, or where you are going to be in five years, but instead to focus on what is in front of you. It is important to surround yourself with people who provide you with opportunities that will take you to the next step. Georgetown was all of that and more for me. When I look at my life, my closest friends are my Georgetown friends. Those friendships helped shape my network. Georgetown is the gift that keeps on giving.

This is an excerpt from the 60 Years of Alumnae: Memories, Milestones, and Momentum book, which shares the experiences and accomplishments of six decades of trailblazing women at Georgetown McDonough. Order your copy of the 60 Years of Alumnae book today to receive $15 off during Women’s History Month.