CASE alumnae puts her non-traditional background to good use

Lauren Gardner M.B.A. '06 is a striver now helping strivers at the Emily Krzyzewski Center.
October 31, 2017

When Lauren Gardner M.B.A. ’06 was living in a fishing village in St. Lucia, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer for small-business development, she realized she lacked some of the concrete skills needed to make a big social impact.

Gardner began researching M.B.A. programs to gain those skills. “The more I read about Fuqua’s reputation as a challenging, team-oriented program with a cutting-edge commitment to social entrepreneurship, I knew that I wanted to apply,” she says.

Gardner is now the chief operating officer at the Emily Krzyzewski Center, a nonprofit organization that serves as a hub to help propel academically focused, low-income K-12 students toward success in college. But she credits CASE with providing her that opportunity.

“I’m not sure I would have been accepted at Fuqua without CASE,” Gardner says, explaining that she was a non-traditional M.B.A. candidate. Her work experience was not finance, marketing, engineering, or business.

But after reading about Greg Dees, the founder of CASE, she knew Fuqua had the best professor in the country for teaching social entrepreneurship.

Gardner had a bachelor’s of science in foreign service with a focus on international economics from Georgetown University. While she benefited from scholarship and family support for her undergraduate degree, for her graduate studies she only had a readjustment allowance from the Peace Corps to start her life in Durham.

Fuqua’s Loan Assistance Program, which provides financial support to graduates who take jobs in the social sector, offered a path. “I had this safety net on the other end that meant I didn’t need a big corporate job in order to pay off these loans. I wanted to take a job that matched my passion and to use my skills for a nonprofit.”

During her first summer at Fuqua, Gardner found that opportunity at the Emily K Center. It was 2005, and the center was operating out of a trailer behind the construction site for its new building. Outfitted in a hard hat, Gardner assisted in needs assessments, developed marketing materials, and helped create programs.

By Gardner’s second year at Fuqua, the bricks had been laid. Construction on the Emily K Center was completed in February 2006, and by the end of that spring semester, the center had found money to pay for an operational staffer. Gardner started working full time that summer.

Back then, there was one program and thirty-eight kids. The program, Pioneer Scholars, was designed to help elementary and middle- school students prepare for high school and college.

Now, the center offers four programs, including Scholars to College and Scholars on Campus, and works with students from first grade through college. And last year when some seniors in the Scholars to College program realized their classmates also needed support to get to college, the center started the Game Plan: College program to help even more high-school students.

“We went from an empty building to an organization that is changing the face of college access in Durham—opening our doors to any high-school student who wants to go to college and working with more than 700 elementary, middle, high-school, and college students this year alone,” says Gardner.

Last May, thirty seniors in the center’s intensive Scholars to College program walked across the stage in their caps and gowns and announced where they would be attending college. “Most of these students will attend college on a full scholarship and graduate with little or no debt,” she says. Two students from the Scholars to College program are attending Duke this fall. They’re both the first in their families to go to college.

As she continues her work, Gardner keeps showing how her education has made her a premier teammate. Just ask the coach. “We have personally benefited at the Emily K Center from the top-notch business education Lauren received at Fuqua,” says Mike Krzyzewski, chair and founder of the center. “We are so grateful she had the opportunity to join our team.”