Robin Martin, a former University of New Orleans student-athlete who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University, has spent more than two decades in higher education positions from head basketball coach and athletic director to professor and associate provost at the University of Cincinnati.
Now, she’s helping to direct a nearly $150 million annual budget geared toward making college more accessible and navigable as deputy director postsecondary success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Wash.
“We feel strongly about ensuring that students have an opportunity to go to college,” Martin said. “More importantly, how do you ensure that students are getting out of college so that they are able to change their economic outcomes? That’s the ultimate goal.”
The Gates Foundation, which according to Forbes Magazine, is the world’s largest private charitable foundation, operates domestically and internationally. It has approximately 1,600 employees in the U.S. and abroad in countries that include Africa, China, Europe and India, Martin said.
Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, has an estimated net worth of $105 billion, according to Forbes.
While it can be heady knowing your bosses are famous and among the world’s wealthiest people, it was not the couple’s star power that compelled her to take the job, Martin said. It was the foundation’s mission.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” Martin said. “We get to, as a team, work on behalf of all the students who are looking to transform their own individual lives through education.”
One of the goals of the foundation’s postsecondary success initiative is to use higher education as a way to improve people’s lives and increase their economic opportunities.
The foundation partners with colleges and universities, as well as other organizations, on initiatives that expand access to post-secondary education and help students complete their degree.
The foundation seeks to support partnerships with organizations that push for innovative ways to significantly improve student graduation rates, especially for students of color, adult learners and students who come from low-economic backgrounds, Martin said. Data has shown students in those groups tend to be more susceptible to dropping out, Martin said.
Those policy innovations can take the form of different student-advising techniques, or curriculum redesigns, such as how prerequisite courses are determined and offered, she said.
Three prevailing questions guide the foundation’s goals:
• How do we get students into college?
• How do we keep students on a path so that they are not spending an excessive amount of time or going into debt just trying to navigate the system itself?
• How do we get them to graduation?
“My role in all of that is to make sure we have coherent processes to support the staff,” she said. “My team ensures that all of our investments align with the strategy of what we say we want to achieve.”
Martin chuckled when describing her “operations” manager’s role on her 48-member team. She leads strategy, planning, and management efforts, focusing on operational excellence, development and execution of key elements of the team’s work.
Most people, she insists, do not see operations as “sexy.”
“They don’t,” she said. “But if you don’t have a good system in place, people can’t be successful. The best part of my job is understanding that the more we become efficient as a team, the greater the impact we can have on students that come from similar backgrounds that I come from.”
Martin, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., is a first-generation college graduate who is acquainted with hurdles, seen and unforeseen, that can cause setbacks.
She played center on the University of New Orleans women’s basketball team from 1989 to 1994, including a year as a graduate assistant. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and later a master’s degree in education.
“What I enjoyed about UNO was that I had the opportunity to be a part of the New Orleans community and a good basketball team as well,” Martin said.
In 2004, she became Dillard’s first female athletic director, while also holding the post of head women’s basketball coach.
Martin later earned a doctoral degree in urban education leadership from the University of Cincinnati. She also is an International Coach Federation-certified coach who founded her own firm, Leading Beyond the Post, Inc., a full-scale leadership development, training and executive coaching consulting company aimed at helping leaders and organizations get “unstuck” by translating corporate strategy into individualized leadership development.
Martin has authored a book called, “Navigating Courage: A Black Woman's Journey in Athletics and Academia.”
It is those leadership experiences, culled from more than two decades in higher education, that she said attracted her to the position at the Gates Foundation.
“What excites me is that I hope and pray that the investments that we’ve made today will give someone who looks like me—who has gone through my path—an opportunity to get to have access to more education; to get all the necessary credentials that they need in order for them to live a fulfilled life,” Martin said. “That’s why I’m here.”