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Thomas Darden is a long-time entrepreneur, and most recently was involved with initiatives to turn-around troubled schools in the Philadelphia area.
Though he comes from the world of venture capital and entrepreneurship, Thomas Darden is equally as passionate about education. He is, himself, the recipient of a fine education, and he has served in a leadership role for a couple of excellent educational organizations in the Philadelphia area; for more on this, check out the Past section of his profile. With that said, he is perhaps best known for his work with the Renaissance Initiative in Philadelphia.
The Renaissance Initiative in Philadelphia was an effort with a singular goal—namely, to turn around urban schools that are troubled, distressed, or lagging behind in their educational standards. The Renaissance Initiative has successfully transformed an astonishing 17 area schools in just about three years’ time.
Through this work, Thomas Darden invests in the people of Philadelphia—not just the students, but the teachers, the parents, and all who share this community. Of course, the act of turning around a troubled school is never easy. According to Thomas, there are several goals that he seeks to reach at each and every school he goes into:
- Increase parental engagement by making parents an integral part of the decision making process
- Change the culture of the school to focus on academic achievement
- Make needed staffing changes—including principals—to set a new tone that is focused on achievement that ensure students are college and career ready
- Build a culture among staff based on higher expectations for students
- Create a “continuous improvement” mindset among teachers that utilizes data-driven instruction to accelerate student achievement
- Structure professional development around the individual needs of teachers based on formative student data
- Create leadership teams that are focused on supporting high quality instruction and individual teacher development
And of course, there is even more to it than all of that. This is the work that Darden is involved with, at the present time, and he is nothing if not passionate about the chance to make a difference in the lives of kids across Philadelphia!
He may be known to many as a powerful and positive force in Philadelphia’s educational ecosystem—but long before he got into education, Thomas Darden was an entrepreneur. Indeed, for as passionate as he is about his work in the school systems of Philly, he still considers himself a leader and change agent, above all else. Given his lengthy and impressive track record, this is not a bit difficult to understand.
His own educational background prepared him for his work. He holds a BS in Engineering, from the General Motors Institute, as well as an MBA, cum laude, from Babson College. He is someone who understands and advocates for the value of a good education. His enthusiasm is not only exemplified by his current work in Philly, but, specifically, in his appointment to the board of trustees for the Community Preparatory School, a private, inner-city school that focuses on preparing middle schoolers for their future. What is more, Thomas serves on the board of directors for the Center for Venture Education.
Looking back over the resume and career history of Darden, it is not difficult to make the case for his twin passions of entrepreneurship and education. He has launched successful venture capital endeavors, and he has proven himself an instinctively smart business leader. At the same time, he has helped make a difference in the lives of kids wherever he has worked, but especially in Philadelphia.
Before he really got into education in earnest, Darden was the founder of Reliant Equity Investors. This is a management-centered private equity firm, known for investing in later-stage, middle-market companies. In conjunction with this work, Darden served on the board of directors for numerous noteworthy enterprises, among them Saginaw Holdings, Inc.; Craft Cast, Inc.; Metal Spinners, Inc.; Rocore Holdings; and Specialty Tools, Inc.
Thomas Darden worked in venture capital long before the advent of Reliant. In fact, he amassed more than 6 years of experience at other noteworthy venture capital firms. This experience includes the time he spent as a Managing Director for Wind Power Partners; he also led five Wind Point investments. What’s more, Darden served as a Vice President in the Boston office of Advent International, where he focused on industrial and technological investments.
As for the years before he got going into the high risk-high reward world of venture capital, Thomas Darden spent 17 of them working in a range of management roles. These roles included tenures at several prestigious companies, and experience with a range of industries and business models. Indeed, Darden worked in management roles for both tech-related start-ups and for large Fortune 100 companies.
In particular, he held management and engineering positions at three high-profile technology startups. These included UltraCision Inc., GTech Corp., and Suriglase Inc. UltraCision currently produces over $1 billion in annual revenue and the latter company, Surgilase, twice made the Inc. Magazine list of 500 Fastest Growing Companies in America. All three of these tech companies were financed by venture capital investors, which is partly why Thomas developed his own interest in VC.
During his career working with these startups, Darden was involved with the development, market introduction, and successful growth of a dozen new products. All of this comes as a result of his promising career beginning as an engineer; he spent seven years with the Detroit Diesel Allison Division of the GM Corporation.
For as rich and diverse as all of this experience is, Darden considers it, in many ways, a precursor to what he is doing now. His time working in venture capital cultivated in him key strategies for leadership and change management, all of which he implements today, in his work in public education.
Thomas Darden made this career transition just a few years back, when he became a member of the 2009 class of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Since making the plunge into public education—a field he is truly passionate about—Darden has served on the executive staff of The School District of Philadelphia, which serves around 160,000 students in 240 different schools. Here, Thomas was responsible for leading the successful turnaround of 17 of the district’s lowest-performing schools—work done as part of the Renaissance Initiative of Philadelphia, an effort he proudly and enthusiastically supports. Moreover, Darden was responsible for ensuring the equitable distribution of the district’s resources and compliance activities across the district’s schools.
As you might imagine, Darden is proud of the work he was able to do through the Renaissance Initiative. He believes in the importance of public education, and is dismayed by what he has seen in many public schools—dismayed, but not hopeless. He is, in fact, leading the fight to get many struggling schools back into shape, and the track record of the Renaissance Initiative speaks for itself in this regard.
Moreover, he is proud to be using the skills he learned in VC to help turn these schools around. Darden loves business and he is nothing if not happy about the experience he amassed in VC, but he is also glad to now be using those previously learned leadership skills to more directly and positively impact his community.
He cares about this work as much as he cares about any work he has ever done—and that level of dedication is a large part of what has made these endeavors so successful.
His past has proven rich in surprises, in opportunities, and in achievements, but his present-day work is some of the most rewarding of his career. As such, Darden intends to remain committed to his work in public education, for as long as he is able. Thomas Darden is a business professional and a venture capitalist, through and through—but these days, he is just as zealous about education.
It is hard for anyone to predict what the future holds, especially for a man like Thomas Darden, whose past is so filled with unique and noteworthy achievements. His roots remain in venture capital, and as such, it is not difficult to imagine that he will find further success as an investor and a business professional. Indeed, Thomas remains very much committed to the idea of entrepreneurship, and is excited to see where the future takes him, in this regard.
With all of that said, he has made a career transition into public education, and that’s where his heart is. He is a member of the 2009 class of the Broad Superintendents Academy, and is currently excited to be working with Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania supporting their work to transform urban schools. He plans to continue working with this organization for the foreseeable future, building on its already-impressive record of turning around several troubled schools over the past three years!
The future for Thomas likely holds more appointments similar to this one. He may be a businessman, deep down, but his zeal for public education is unmitigated and unmatched. Thomas Darden hopes to continue finding opportunities in Philadelphia and everywhere children are in need.
10/2012 to 12/2099 - Executive Director
07/2012 to 07/2012 - Deputy Chief, Strategic Programs
03/2010 to 07/2011 - Deputy Chief, Innovation & Partnership Schools
03/2009 to 02/2010 - Deputy Chief, Process Improvement and Compliance
01/2000 to 01/2009 - Founder and Managing Director
01/1997 to 01/2000 - Vice President/Managing Director
01/1995 to 01/1997 - Vice President
01/1991 to 01/1995 - Director of Quality
01/1988 to 01/1991 - Quality and Field Engineering Manager
01/1986 to 01/1988 - Quality and Reliability Manager
01/1984 to 01/1986 - Reliability Engineer
01/1977 to 01/1984 - Production Engineer
N/A to N/A
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