Alum Spotlight: Molly O’Donnell


Please introduce yourself (name, year, concentration, activities you participated in at Heller, what you are doing now):

My name is Molly O’Donnell, I am a December 2015 (very recent!) MPP/MBA graduate from the Heller School with a concentration in Child, Youth, and Family Policy. I moved to the Boston area to attend the Heller School and had a clear goal upon arrival to build a Boston based network. Heller was a great place to do that – I worked briefly for the Admissions Office and participated on the Diversity Working Group and worked as a TA for a Carole Carlson’s Strategic Management course. In 2014, I was selected as a Segal Fellow and placed at Root Cause for the summer, a non-profit research and consulting firm. I continued working with Root Cause for the remainder of my time at Heller and also joined the Associate Board of a local youth services organization called Breakthrough Greater Boston. A few months before leaving Heller, I was asked to join the team at New Profit, a venture philanthropy firm, on their Reimagine Learning Fund, which develops an impact framework for their work. Since then, I have joined the team full time as a Senior Associate. Through my role on the New Profit Reimagine Learning Team, I coordinate our regional strategy by doing a case study in Lawrence, MA and supporting a strategic planning process with Salem Public Schools. I also work to shepherd  our capacity building support for our grantees to improve their ability to serve students who have been systematically underserved in our current school systems – students with learning differences, low income students, and students exposed to trauma.


What were you doing before you came to Heller?

Prior to coming to the Heller School, I was working as a Lead Advocate in a youth services organization called Open Meadow (now Open School) in Portland, Oregon. As a part of this role I had a caseload of 25 students annually who I would work with through tutoring, mentoring, advocacy with teachers, leadership development, and in depth parent partnership. I also served on the organization’s Equity Committee providing professional development for educators on culturally competent teaching and working collectively towards closing racial achievement gaps in Portland schools. I had previously served two terms of AmeriCorps service in education organizations which helped put me on a path towards a career in advancing educational equity.


Why did you decide to come to Heller?

Leaving my work with students in Portland was one of the hardest career decisions I have made to date and looking back I feel very excited by where I have gone in the few years since making that choice. In my direct service role I felt often that I was bumping up against numerous barriers – some had to do with educational policy and social policy that kept putting roadblocks in the way of my students’ successes, others were organizational challenges about strategy and funding choices and challenges to achieving the appropriate scale for impact. These challenges together made me look at programs that would allow me both the policy vantage point to understand the environments in which I work and the need for real business skills. The Heller MPP/MBA is a unique program that provides you an opportunity to go deep in both of these areas. The Children, Youth, and Family concentration was also a huge attraction for me – many schools focus on education policy specifically and my experience clearly indicated to me that the systems that impact students’ experiences in school are often outside of the school building and I wanted to take a more holistic view of the challenges facing children, youth, and families. Finally, I have always been a huge fan of Boston and it is truly a hub for great thinkers in the youth services space. These factors made Heller an obvious choice for me!
What are some of the classes/activities that really enjoyed at Heller?

I have to admit that the classes I liked most I could never have predicted! My current boss makes fun of me because I talk about how much I loved my accounting classes – something I never expected! I loved Carol Carlson’s strategic management course – so much so that I sat through the four hour classes a second time as her TA. One of the best classes I took was a small class on Children, Youth, and Family Policy with Marji Erickson-Warfield, it allowed our class of 10 to dig deep on policy issues and really think of how we would rethink and redesign policy for those who are most under served by our current systems. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a more in depth look in this content area! What struck me most across all of my classes was the level of care and intention Heller professors bring to their work. Mike Doonan who directs the MPP program exemplifies this in the way he redesigns his courses each year to ensure he incorporates student feedback – a sign of a deeply committed teacher!


Can you say a little about where you were and what you did for your summer internship?

I was fortunate enough to be selected as an Eli Segal Fellow through Heller School. The Segal program helped place me as a resident at Root Cause in Boston. I worked with Root Cause on a few really exciting projects that helped spark my interest in working in the nonprofit capacity building space. The bulk of my work focused on a capacity building initiative for youth workforce development programs in the city of Boston. I worked with a team including another Heller alum, Alex Motter, to create a youth survey for 4,000 students across the city about their summer work experience in community based organizations and to implement a training on trauma-informed workplaces and informal mentoring for  300 supervisors of youth workers across the city. During my summer with Root Cause, I also had the opportunity to read and rank proposals to the Social Innovation Forum’s accelerator program and work on a few memos for MENTOR (in partnership with yet another Heller alum from MENTOR!) on the importance of mentoring for preventing youth violence. After my summer with Root Cause, I was fortunate to stay on the following year and continue to work with youth workforce programs doing program assessment and running the capacity building program for a second year.


How do you use the skills you learned at Heller in your profession?

As I am only a few months into my post-Heller life, I feel like I am still learning about all of the points of connection from my academic work to my current work. One thing I can say for sure is that the Heller network helped me arrive in this position and I continue to come across Heller alums everywhere I go! Some of the immediate skills I have used from my Heller experience really draw on my strategic management coursework and upon the consultative skills I developed through the Team Consulting Project in the MBA program. Susan Curnan also tells you over and over in Children, Youth, and Family courses that understanding evaluation and logic models will be valuable in your work – she couldn’t be more right! I have spent the majority of my first few weeks on the job working on an impact framework and logic model. I feel very fortunate that the work I am currently doing feels like the perfect intersection of my two degrees and my content area – I work closely with organizations to build capacity, I have to bring a deep understanding of education policy, and bring the general writing and analysis skills developed throughout the MPP program. It truly could not have worked out better for me and I have to thank the Segal Program and the Heller School for that.  



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