“When you take the elevator up in life, you should always send it back down for others to follow,” says my friend Dario Collado of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.

True leaders, mentors, do just that. I thank Irma Zardoya for being one of those leaders, for sending the elevator down to me and countless other current and aspiring educational leaders over her 45-year career. Her role as a Latina leader and mentor has had particular importance given the racial leadership gap in this country. Fewer than 20% of board members and CEOs of nonprofit organizations in the U.S. are people of color. Women of color fare even worse. The reasons for this are largely rooted in deep systemic inequities, about who has traditionally had access to leadership opportunities, but a lack of role models and networks, which are so important for becoming a leader, certainly plays a part.

Irma has been a natural role model. She came from humble beginnings, grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of Puerto Ricans, and when New York State issued a call for bilingual teachers, she seized the opportunity to teach in her home borough and her impact didn’t stop there. Over her career in education, she has served as a paraprofessional, teacher, school leader, superintendent, regional superintendent, and central office administrator before taking the helm of the Leadership Academy.

I first learned about Irma in a Harvard Business School case study I read during my doctoral studies. The piece highlighted the work of the NYC Department of Education under Joel Klein’s leadership, including the inquiry team process under the Children’s First Initiative which Irma led. In my studies, I rarely came across Latina names, let alone Latina women who had come from backgrounds similar to mine and who had dedicated their careers to working in their home communities, as I had done for the first decade of my career.

Irma became my North Star. I admired her for the “street cred” she earned in the field and for the wit and courage that enabled her to expand her influence and impact, all on behalf of her community.

Over her 45-year career in education, Irma has made a remarkable impact on students and educators. She has had a deep longstanding commitment to developing leadership in others, in building and encouraging others to build learning communities within their schools and districts. At every step she has spoken of the value of mentors and coaches, and she has been those things to those of us lucky enough to work with her, lucky enough to catch the elevator she sends down.

Leaders like Irma show other women of color that it is possible, that we can be true to our identities while developing and expanding mission-driven organizations that support our communities. I am indebted to Irma for forging this path, for defying the “sal si puedes” (get-out- if-you-can) mentality—that success is not about leaving one’s community but about using any and every opportunity to represent who we are—to change the narrative and inspire others by always sending the elevator down for the next generation of leaders.

*El Ascensor meanselevator” in Spanish

Nancy Gutiérrez will take over the role of President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy from Irma Zardoya on Oct. 1.


Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.

Lead Executive Officer & President

Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & Lead Executive Officer (LEO) of The Leadership Academy, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and developing culturally responsive school and school system leaders to create the conditions necessary for all students to thrive. Since 2003, The Leadership Academy has done work in more than 375 school districts, state education departments, and education organizations across the country, reaching over 12,000 educators in 39 states.

Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrators’ Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. In 2014, Nancy joined The Leadership Academy and served in various roles before being named President & CEO in October 2018. Prior to her tenure with the Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.

Nancy is a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and was named one of the top 100 most influential leaders in education in New York in 2020. In 2023, Nancy was named San Jose State University’s Distinguished Alumna.

Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She has served as an adjunct professor for NYU, Teachers College and American University as well as an expert guest at various Harvard Principals’ Center Institutes. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership for publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, Learning Forward’s Learning Professional, District Administrator, and Hechinger Report. She is also the co-author of Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed, a revolutionary guide to disrupting harmful mindsets and practices in our schools to ensure that students can thrive in their home communities.

Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at the Hunt Institute, brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC), and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.

Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.