By Aasimah Navlakhi
Stephen Kramer has always been motivated by the desire to help people.
Fresh out of Babson College, it seemed that he would follow the traditional path laid out for a young man armed with a management degree. His move to join Arthur D. Little – a renowned, international consulting firm – strengthened this perception. Being admitted to the best business school in the country, at Harvard University, nearly sealed the deal.
But at each step in his early career, Kramer stayed true to his driving force. He consulted primarily in the healthcare sector and chose a path at Harvard that allowed him to work in the venture capital group at Fidelity Investments. Here, Kramer worked to identify high-growth education companies worthy of investment.
Here is also where Kramer first became interested in education reform.
When looking for educational opportunities for investment, he happened upon and quickly gravitated towards charter schools. Wanting to learn more, he began connecting with leaders in the field.
“My number one conversation, not surprisingly, was with Linda Brown,” he recalls. “She introduced me to Steven Wilson and, just like that, three of my ultimate worlds collided.”
— Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of Ascend Learning, serves as chairman of the board at Building Excellent Schools. When he met Kramer, he was founding Advantage Schools, a charter network in which Fidelity had invested. One of the seed investors in Advantage Schools was Bright Horizons – the company that Kramer would sell his own business to several years later. Shortly after his meeting with Brown and Wilson, Kramer joined the BES board. —
The pièce de résistance of Kramer’s career was born in 1998, when he created College Coach with his best friend and college roommate Michael London.
“It was a very hot time in education,” he recalls. “There were a lot of entrepreneurs who realized that the system was broken and wanted to make a mark. I needed to decide whether to draft off the excitement and enthusiasm around me, or to go out and do something on my own. Eventually, I decided to leave Fidelity and start my own organization.”
In studying the existing college consulting market, Kramer and London concluded that the landscape was highly fragmented.
“Different communities had different counselors, working with 20 to 30 families a year,” Kramer explains. “The counselors are typically ex-principals or moms who were particularly successful in the process with their own children.”
This meant that counselors were relatively unregulated and un-credentialed. College Coach professionalized the service by hiring former college admissions officers who had real expertise and delivered high-quality advice. The program was very successful, but only in affluent communities. In and around Boston, for example, the demand was highest in areas like Newton, Wellesley, and Weston.
“We found that we were not having an impact on the broader set of people who could really benefit from this program,” Kramer said. “Very quickly, the model morphed into offering free educational advice services as an employee benefit paid for by employers.”
Kramer and London were able to convince companies that having to focus on the college admissions process distracted employees and impacted their productivity.
“We emphasized that they could create a real sense of loyalty with employees if they entered into this process with them,” Kramer said.
It worked. College Coach’s first two clients were the American International Group and the New York Stock Exchange. Soon after, they expanded into larger financial services companies where employees were either well-educated themselves or recognized the value of a high-quality education for their children.
After a successful eight year run, Kramer and London were acquired by Bright Horizons, an organization providing work/life solutions including early education and preschools, employer-sponsored child care, and educational advisory services.
“We were very interested in aligning with a company that prioritized early childhood education and expanding that focus to impact employees at more than one life stage,” explains Kramer. “The vision was really to bring additional life stage opportunities to employees and their families who were part of enlightened companies.”
One year into his work with Bright Horizons, Kramer transitioned out of the educational advisory business and moved to England to manage the organization’s overseas operations. Over time, his role grew more robust, especially in the areas of growth and acquisition. In January 2016, he was named president of the organization.
Most of Bright Horizons’ work outside the U.S. involves operating centers on behalf of client partners. Across the UK and Ireland, the organization manages 206 nurseries, including those at the University of Oxford, HSBC, and Goldman Sachs.
“We essentially take full responsibility for managing what is an employer-sponsored, employee-used sector,” Kramer explains.
When Kramer got involved in 2007, Bright Horizons opened up centers in two new countries – the Netherlands and India – with the aim of becoming the highest-quality provider in those geographies. This goal is made affordable by third-party support in the form of employer contributions and/or government subsidies.
Kramer sees the impact of his work every day, specifically with his work in India, a country that is still to clearly define and prioritize early childhood education. Kramer attributes this to the fact that children in the country are generally looked after by maids, mothers, or grandparents. The idea of center-based education has only recently made an appearance.
“When I first visited and surveyed the market, I realized that most of the centers in India are created by businesspeople without any level of regulation or background,” says Kramer. “The current state is not as high as it is in the western world. We created what I would describe as a true oasis, delivering international standard, high-quality child care. Not unlike charter schools, right?”
Bright Horizons also runs a Foundation for Children that supports nonprofit organizations in creating programs for children and families. One such initiative is Bright Spaces, through which the foundation creates safe, warm, and enriching spaces within homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters to give parents and children the opportunity to spend some quality time together.
“We have the privilege every day of serving over 100,000 children to ensure that they are getting the best start in life,” says Kramer.
When asked where this desire to make a difference comes from, Kramer immediately credits his family and the emphasis his parents always placed on volunteerism and the importance of education.
“My father was the first in his family to go to college,” he says. “So he recognized how important that was to his ultimate ability to provide for his family. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my sister went into social work and that we are both incredibly focused on making an impact on society.”