We need more unicorns

We Need More Unicorns

an interview with Dhyia Thompson-Phillips by Caity Henderson

Dhyia Thompson-Phillips models flexibility, one of the four habits of heart and mind at GALS Inc. She’s adaptable, having significant career wins in the nonprofit, corporate and public sectors. She’s built this habit while growing up in Chicago where she was often teased for being different because she never quite fit into any mold. Before the age of 17, she was exposed to a broad set of activities — she was among a handful of black girls competing in rhythmic gymnastics, studied improv classes at Piven Theatre, attended vegan sleepaway camps and earned college credit at the Space Academy in Huntsville, AL in high school. Based on these experience, she’s always found herself in the role of a unicorn — an eclectic mix of cultural cues and ideals that come off as mystical, yet provocative. And she’s the perfect person to stand by Liz Wolfson’s side in the next phase of GALS Inc.’s expansion. We’re lucky to have her.

Dhyia serves as the Deputy Chief of Planning and Performance for GALS Inc. She moved to Denver as part of the prestigious Broad Residency in Urban Education — selected among thousands of applicants, all vying for the coveted 72 Residencies spread across the United States. When she met Liz Wolfson, GALS Inc. Chief Visionary Officer, what stood out for her was Liz’s authenticity and unapologetic passion for gender and racial equity and that was the exact leadership she needed to make an impact in public education.

“[GALS Inc.’s] culture stands out compared to other schools,” Dhyia said. “The instructional methodology, alone, is unlike anything I’ve encountered as a Resident…it’s a new approach to educating students. In addition to the fervor by which GALS Inc. approaches equity, from enrollment to staff recruitment, is inspiring and hopeful…they are one CMO to watch at the national level.” As a graduate of an all-girls high school, Dhyia said GALS Denver is reminiscent of her alma mater, St. Scholastica Academy in Chicago. My high school was a special place, but it lacked the accessibility of a GALS school. Tuition was a major barrier for prospective students, who could have benefitted from a single-gender education. GALS emulates this special learning experience and it thrills me that girls and boys can access the single-gender learning experience. It’s a wonderful sister and brotherhood.”

Dhyia wasn’t always a unicorn on the fast track to disrupting public education. Her career interests were initially aimed at a career in STEM with the hopes of working for NASA. “I was a type A high school student, top of my class and loved science, specifically anything that had to do with space,” Dhyia states. Dhyia’s experiences while attending the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana is where she quickly discovered that college was a political hotbed of academic and workforce misalignments swirling in a pool of racial and gender inequities.

After a number of academic disappointments and lacking student supports and mentorships, she gave up on her dream of working at NASA, settled on a Minor in Computer Science and graduated with a degree in Political Science.  “I’m grateful for this tough experience because it birthed my passion to fight for greater equity in education where student success is what drives policies and systems and nothing else. It’s a bit ironic because studying liberal arts and science served me well in executing systems of equity for students,” Dhyia said. And she has the resume to prove it.  

In her previous role as a Strategist with the City Colleges of Chicago, her leadership moved the needle on completion rates for black and brown students from 7 to 22 percent within 3 years. Further, she built equitable systems, like designing a district-wide grievance system that created a transparent stakeholder feedback process impacting over 1,500 staff and 150,000+ community college students.

“As one of a handful of black women and Broad Residents serving in a leadership role within Denver’s public education system – I find myself in the unicorn role again,” Dhyia said. “I have an eclectic mix of experiences in the public and private sector, but I embrace being a new and different voice of influence that pushes for greater equity in education — this work is so important. In fact, we need more professionals of color bringing their voices of influence to the table because this will undoubtedly result in better outcomes for students of color.” Dhyia continues, “GALS Inc., is so ahead of the curve on equity because they have an eye for spotting what’s unique and different when recruiting staff. It’s beautiful to be celebrated for being a unicorn, but what really sets GALS Inc. apart from other CMOs is that I’m not the only one celebrated…there’s a wonderfully intelligent and amazing enchanted forest filled with unique and bad-ass unicorns at GALS! We need more unicorns so we scale our impact.”