We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Sophie Allen-Etchart a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Sophie, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. Along with taking care of clients, taking care of our team is one of the most important things we can do as leaders. Looking back on your journey, did you have a boss that was really great? Maybe you can tell us about that boss and what made them a wonderful person to work for?
I started working in casual jobs when I was 14 years old, but my first job in a professional office setting came after I graduated from university. I worked in a financial and talent management consultancy, AMG, helping C-suite executives manage their careers and their leadership teams.
My boss at AMG was a driver of excellence. I am so grateful to have learned from him the amount of work and iterations that it takes to ensure a high-quality outcome. There were many tears shed over red-lined drafts, but each time I got tougher, tried harder, and performed better. I still remember him saying, “if I’d had more time, I’d have written something shorter”, to remind us that clear, concise language was the hardest to craft and the most effective for impact.
This gentleman held the highest standards of execution but was always kind in his pursuit of those standards and resolute in his belief that we could meet them. I hope that one day my colleagues might say the same of me.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your back background and context?
Sophie Allen-Etchart was born in Connecticut but raised and educated in England, receiving her B.A. in Modern Languages from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. She began her career working at Armstrong Management Group where she had exposure to community leaders and forward-thinking companies early on in her career. Soon she began working with, Impetus—The Private Equity Foundation, and quickly developed her lifelong passion for the nonprofit sector.
In 2010, Sophie moved to Peru and began running the education department at Supporting Kids In Peru (SKIP), an international development organization. While in Peru, Sophie met her husband, an Arizona native. They moved to Phoenix in 2012, where she spent the next two years managing the JA BizTown® team at Junior Achievement. While there, she noticed that an alarming number of students being served lacked foundational reading skills, a critical factor for lifetime success and achievement: students who do not read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate high school. Sophie quickly identified the need for basic reading comprehension support in Arizona and took action.
In 2014, Sophie founded Read Better Be Better (RBBB), a non-profit after-school program with the mission to connect young readers and youth leaders to inspire a love of literacy and learning. According to 2021 AzM2 ELA assessments, 65% of 3rd graders in Arizona do not read at grade level and are often unable to make the necessary transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by 4th grade. However, with proper reading intervention, there is an 89% chance that students who can read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade will graduate from high school, irrespective of socio-economic status.
In its first year, RBBB helped 16 students at one school in one district. Since then, RBBB has served over 7,500 students and currently provides programming to 66 schools in 10 districts in Maricopa and Pinal counties, as well as several community-based organizations across the state. As Founder and CEO, Sophie has facilitated the growth of the nonprofit to now employ over 50 staff members, maintain a 13-member Governing and Advisory Board, and manage an over $1.5 million budget.
Throughout Read Better Be Better’s founding and program expansion, Sophie has given birth to two children and continues to live a healthy personal life dedicated to change. In 2017, Sophie’s hard work and achievements were acknowledged by the Phoenix Business Journal when she was awarded a 40 Under 40 award.
What do you think helped you build your reputation within your market?
An absolutely relentless commitment to quality. I obsess about delivering a product of the highest quality to our students—the children and families that we serve deserve nothing less than the absolute best. This is truly what drives me and my team.
We accept failure in pursuit of a better iteration and that, more than anything, is what has allowed us to give ourselves grace. I believe that effective, consistent communication of our constant pursuit of excellence has helped others to give us the same grace if/when we get it wrong. I like to think of our reputation as something along the lines of “the little engine that could”. We care deeply and we’ll keep trying to discover different, better ways of getting it right.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
I think the most amusing story of our resilience is the story of how we got our start. I lived opposite an elementary school in the Phoenix Elementary School District at the time, and while working with the 3rd-grade teachers on other programming I had a teacher tell me, “I have kids reading at 6 words per minute…I don’t have the luxury of teaching reading comprehension.” This statement is what drove me as I developed the curriculum, in collaboration with some of the same teachers from that school, among many others. I was determined that it was the role of the community to wrap around our public schools and somehow alleviate some of the burden on these under-resourced teachers.
We developed a reading comprehension curriculum that was so simple and structured that it could be implemented by middle-school children on the same campus after school. The curriculum was based on evidenced strategies, strong theory, and some of the work that I had implemented first-hand running a nonprofit in Peru. I even tested every part of the curriculum on a 3rd grader in the neighborhood. Now, I just needed a school to allow me to run an actual pilot.
Schools, however, are naturally skeptical of an unknown, unproven idea. I had tried to contact my neighbor school’s principal a couple of times by phone and email but received no response. I had tried to contact different administrators in the district but reached dead ends there too. I had done enough research and outreach to know that this was an idea worth testing—I was determined to keep trying. So, I decided to try something a little different.
At that time, I used to run my two matching-white Pitbulls alongside my bicycle for their exercise. We would run around the neighborhood, usually returning to our house opposite the school right around the time the kids were arriving in the morning. The principal at the time welcomed the students in-person at the gate every day. So, every day we would wave and say hi. The next time I emailed her, I introduced myself as “the neighbor with the matching Pitbulls that run alongside the bicycle”. Just making myself a “real” human was all it took. She took the meeting and we developed programming for her school that was implemented just weeks later. Seven years later, we have delivered programing to over 7,500 students and currently provide programming to 66 schools in 10 districts and 11 community-based organizations across Maricopa and Pinal counties. All it took was a little determination (and a lot more since!).
- Website: https://www.readbetterbebetter.org/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/readbetteraz/
- Facebook: https://facebook.com/readbetterbebetter
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/read-better-be-better
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/readbetteraz
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGOI-Ayo78D7soEXXuaZ7HQ
Headshot Credit – Rick D’elia