Monday, Aug. 22, 2005

Sara Martinez Tucker

Ten years ago, Sara Martinez Tucker was the first and only Hispanic female executive at AT&T. But the job wasn't fulfilling. "I hit 40 and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life," she recalls. So she took early retirement and tried her hand at half a dozen nonprofit projects. One was the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (hsf), which back then handed out $3 million a year to 1,000 needy Latino students. As Martinez Tucker discovered, it wasn't nearly enough to cope with a growing education crisis. By 2010, 1 in 5 high school students will be Hispanic — but if the dropout rate stays the same, only 11% of them will finish college, way below the national average of 27%. "Our kids just don't see that college is possible," Martinez Tucker says.

Martinez Tucker, 49, now the president of the fund and its CEO, threw all her business smarts into expanding its operations. She reached students — she calls them customers — by conducting town-hall meetings in 51 key markets. Meanwhile, corporate donors like Ford and Coca-Cola praised her for speaking a language they understood: return on investment. The Lilly Endowment, a private philanthropic foundation, was impressed enough to write a $50 million check. Celebrities like Jeff Garcia and Cheech Marin joined the HSF board.

Result: 7,500 students get a share of nearly $30 million in scholarships yearly. But that, as far as Martinez Tucker is concerned, is only a start. She wants to increase the proportion of Hispanics holding college degrees to 18% by 2010 and believes that will take another $260 million a year. "I'd rather be in the business of creating role models than be a role model," she says. That is exactly what makes her one.