‘Principal For a Day’ Finds Common Ground Between Industry, Education

by: Avi Kahn, President and CEO of Hilti North America

What would one of the top leaders of a multi-billion-dollar construction company (me) have in common with the students of Thomas C. Marsh Middle School in Dallas Independent School District?

Plenty, as it turns out.

I came to this realization while serving as Principal For A Day at Marsh, where, according to state data, 90 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and more than half are learning English.

Even though I grew up in what would be considered an upper-middle-class household, there were seven of us kids. Our father is a lawyer who owned his own firm. But as with all employee-owned businesses, money sometimes got tight, and we had to compromise.

Everyone had to pitch in which strengthened our work ethic at a young age. I saw that same trait in the students at Marsh.

After meeting Martha Bujanda – Marsh’s principal – I immediately appreciated what she’s doing. Martha’s energy is contagious. The school buzzes with activity, and it seems like two people are waiting to speak with her at any given time.

Still, she took the time to share her day and thoughts with me while I was Principal For A Day, explaining that many of her students come from large families living in single-parent households of limited means. Discipline might not be consistent in their homes. So, she’s seeing to it that students are assigned tasks, giving them a sense of belonging and a shared purpose. She’s bringing in teachers who can motivate students, and introducing constructive work to their days. Most importantly, Principal Martha Bujanda is bringing optimism, a sense of urgency, and hope to kids who need it most.

After spending a day at Marsh, I felt tired, yet exhilarated. I also saw our cultural overlaps, and was determined to help Martha and her students as much as possible.

I’ve made it a point to speak to Marsh students on Career Day, and I’ve invited my colleagues at Hilti to do the same. Our Plano office recently hosted female Marsh students, allowing them to shadow our female engineers. Our goal is to give them firsthand knowledge that women are earning good, meaningful livelihoods in science-related fields. We want to empower them and highlight the fact that with continued hard work and focus, the sky is the limit. We also want to have a little fun and are planning to host the entire school at a Dallas Stars game this November.

Hilti has committed to making lasting impacts at Marsh. We’ve “adopted” a Marsh student, and we’re helping to mentor her, to prepare her for a professional future. We hope to take even more under our wings soon. We’re working to be a regular fixture at the school for Girls in Engineering Day, Career Day and other such events.

Where is this leading? What are we trying to accomplish with Marsh?

We know students can benefit from our corporate culture, which emphasizes both caring and performance, and we know that Martha will be a great partner along the way. We also know that it’s important for Hilti to help others where we can, when we can. We know that by exposing these students to our culture of excellence, we become part of something bigger than ourselves. We know that Dallas’ corporate citizens need to contribute more than just tax money. We need to put skin in the game, to personally become part of the city’s future success. That’s what we’re doing at Marsh.

And what more can anyone ask for, in the work of fulfilling our callings? I’d encourage other corporate leaders follow us in the Principal For A Day program, which is an initiative of the Dallas Regional Chamber. They can get involved by contacting the DRC’s staff at education@dallaschamber.org. Orientation sessions are set for Sept. 25 and Oct. 4. This year, PFAD is Oct. 9. As more and more business professionals realize just how rewarding this program can be, we expect slots to fill up quickly. Registration is requested by Oct. 3. (Click here to get your username and password to register.)

Dallas ISD is moving professionals like Martha to places like Marsh, as part of a larger initiative to spark renewed excitement and engagement in public education. Efforts like these help improve overall academic performance and are made possible by continuing to invest in our children and their future through community support of school funding.

There will be a time when we look back upon where we spent our time and treasure in this life. Dallas ISD is giving us worthwhile opportunities to invest them in the future of our city.

Avi Kahn is president and CEO of Hilti North America, which employs 3,600 professionals and is part of a global provider of products, services and software for construction professionals.

Principal For A Day is a project of the Dallas Independent School District, in partnership with the Dallas Regional Chamber and Capital One Bank, that brings community leaders into schools across the district. Get your username and password to register.