Power in Relationships
"... I was always trying to peddle something."
Rivero used to make stilts out of discarded 2x4s.
“I would walk around on them, trying to get someone to buy them,” she said during a recent interview at the Miller-Ward Alumni House after meeting with her fellow members on the Emory Board of Trustees. “Remember the bean bags in the 70s? I made them from dried black beans and sold them at school. I was always trying to peddle something. And who can pass up the kid knocking on your door?”
Her efforts as a child continue to pay dividends. Rivero is well known for building valuable relationships among key individuals.
By the time she graduated in 1987 from what was then Emory Business School, Rivero was known throughout Emory for connecting with and across diverse groups. To many she was known by “T.” Her leadership skills blossomed first at Oxford, then the Atlanta campus as an undergraduate. She went on to the Rollins School of Public Health when she added a master’s degree. She later entered the MBA program at the now-Goizueta Business School at Emory.
Today, as lead senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rivero is one of the nation’s key influencers in public education reform. Providing equal access to quality education for students of color and low-income students is Gates’ top priority in the United States. The foundation launched a $1.7 billion, five-year public education funding effort.
Rivero connects Gates money to innovative efforts that tackle the country’s educational shortcomings. The mission? Raise the national high school graduation rate and help all students, regardless of race or family income, graduate ready for college.
"Teresa Rivero wonderfully blends the analytic excellence and quantitative skill of an Emory BBA in finance with the empathetic concern for diverse people emblematic of her Emory MPH degree,” said Associate Professor of Finance Jeff Rosensweig.
“I have watched Teresa grow from a junior program person at the Woodruff Foundation — where the leaders saw her great potential — to her role at Gates, where she is now a nationally recognized expert in K-12 education. Teresa has a total commitment to quality education for all kids, not just those born into fortunate circumstances. She is one of the most talented, compelling and authentic individuals that I know.”
"We are breaking barriers and building a common ground with partners..."
Authenticity, Rivero will tell you, is rooted in her Emory education.
“We are breaking barriers and building a common ground with partners to have a strategic, sustainable impact on public education, and we need to know how to invest wisely and be flexible. There’s some venture capital in this, because there’s permission to fail. Emory and Goizueta taught me to find my authentic voice and an identity to want to do good, to impact the community. I’m very grateful to my alma mater.”
Risk-taking is in Rivero’s blood. Her grandfather, Andres Rivero Aguero, was Cuba’s president-elect when the Fidel Castro-led revolution took hold.
The Riveros were exiled.
“Like a lot of families who have to leave their countries, we came to the United States with nothing,” she said. “My parents had nothing to prove their education, and we literally started over. Typical of a lot of people who come here, our whole family survived through our entrepreneurial nature.”
Her father, who had attended law school in Cuba, reinvented himself by creating and distributing classroom materials for high school Spanish teachers in the United States. The rest of the family—including Rivero’s mother, who had left behind her own embroidery factory in Cuba with 15 employees—helped make Cruzada Spanish Publications a success.
“It was so entrepreneurial, serving teachers all over,” Rivero said. “I realized no one has to be tied down to the past. Even in tough circumstances, you could find the way. That’s the gene I got from them, and that always translated for me that I wanted to be in business.”
Rivero received a full Pell Grant as a first-generation student. Her first visit to Oxford was the day she moved in as a freshman.
“No one was speaking Spanish or talking about Cuba, and there were only a few Latinos, so I had to figure out that environment,” she said. “I was doing the same thing my family had done in Miami, jumping into a new community and figuring out solutions. Oxford offers so many ways to participate, and I made great friends, had rich experiences and learned to have the college experience.”
"“I realized no one has to be tied down to the past. Even in tough circumstances, you could find the way..."
As a junior on the main Emory campus in Druid Hills, Rivero “had a reputation for being a charismatic, effective leader and a respected free spirit,” said Joe Moon, then the assistant dean of campus life and director of residence life, who hired her as a resident assistant. He watched her rise as one of the most recognized students at Emory, who moved easily between groups and made friends with faculty, administrators and students.
“She clearly was brilliant, so capable intellectually, and yet Teresa was always humble and embarrassed by praise or attention,” he said. “In all situations, she focused her extraordinary interpersonal gifts on helping and supporting her friends and hallmates. For Teresa, others’ needs came before her own.
“With all her successes post-college, Teresa remains the grounded, humble, approachable person she has always been. I am so lucky to have her as my friend.”
To Emory Religion Professor Bobbi Patterson, Rivero stood out as a “creative thinker with a twist toward problem-solving pragmatics.” This skill came in handy as she served on the Honor Council, as the yearbook’s business manager and was selected by her peers as the student speaker for Emory’s Sesquicentennial celebration.
“Her steady kindness translated into willing service in a range of roles, and her early realization of the power of individual commitment in community stands out to me,” Patterson said. “Through the magic combination of on-the-ground work and a consistent eye to broader values for us all, Teresa has kept her love for good work in the world as a long-haul commitment.”
Indeed, directing private money to change the world is a long-term mission rooted in interpersonal relationships.
"... I learned to listen for the human condition."
To help manage its record-setting charitable giving ($41.3 billion through 2016), the Gates Foundation hires practitioners with deep knowledge of the people, places and problems that they seek to serve. After graduating from Emory with her business degree, Rivero started gaining invaluable experience by joining the Peace Corps, where she guided a microlending program for 100 female entrepreneurs in rural Honduras.
Many of the women and their families lived in extreme poverty, and their situations were more complex than the inefficiencies she spotted at first. She soon discovered that what they needed most from her was to be present, to spend time hearing their stories and to know what they were up against.
Rivero stopped wearing her Swatch and began gaining an understanding of privilege. For example, a $200 cash loan could make a Honduran woman a target for crime.
“That’s where I learned to listen for the human condition,” Rivero said. “If you have a family to feed, balancing a checkbook doesn’t matter. These were people who face barriers and their own fears, and my job was about listening and supporting, and not having a prescribed answer. You have to learn the local context of what matters to a person. It shifted how I thought about community.”
In a nearby village, a public health nurse helped the local people become educated about physical, social and emotional health. To Rivero, public health became a cornerstone for creating profound change in under-resourced communities.
Her MPH led to a CDC research grant that introduced her to George W. Brumley Jr., chair of the Emory School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics and a recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award for service to the university. Brumley hired her as a community organizer and health educator at a free clinic in the Whitefoord community. She was back to knocking on doors and reaching out to strangers, and eventually connecting to a name she recognized from her childhood.
When she moved into management as senior director of programs and development for the Latin American Association in Atlanta, and as a junior officer with the Woodruff Foundation, Rivero became friendly with Olga Goizueta, Roberto’s widow.
“On learning trips, Mrs. Goizueta would sit next to me on the bus or in meetings and tell me about Cuba and my grandfather,” Rivero said. “Latinos are typically very entrepreneurial, super creative. Every person has a different way. There are barriers until you find a solution, and that’s the lens that was highly formed in me by my family.”