“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.

President & CEO

Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report. 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 Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. 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 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 served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. 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.