Less than five months after Fatema Basrai was hired as the executive director of Leadership SAISD, a reporter for Forbes contacted her in October to inform her she had been nominated for the business magazine’s esteemed 30 under 30 in education list.

“I actually still don’t know who nominated me,” Basrai told the Rivard Report. Forbes revealed its 2018 cohort of more than 600 young “game changers” in 20 industries this week and Basrai’s name was at the top of the education list.

At Leadership SAISD, she works with staff to organize annual, nine-month educational programs for people interested in getting involved in the education system: from school board structure to school finance, educational equity to state and federal policy. Many go on to become school district board members or serve on nonprofit boards; after Basrai took the training, she went on to lead Leadership SAISD.

Basrai, 27, was born in India and moved with her parents to the U.S. when she was 4 years old.

“They were just looking for better opportunities,” she said. “At the time in India, it was hard to move upwards socially.”

She lived in small, rural towns in Oklahoma and Texas with her family until she was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a bachelor of science degree in advertising and minored in economics. She also received business and finance degrees from John Cabot University in Rome and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Basrai moved to San Antonio to become a teacher through Teach for America, teaching for three years, and worked for several education-focused nonprofits, including City Year and P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County.

After being part of the Leadership SAISD cohort last year, she “knew that it was important for people to be educated about different aspects of education that people might not know about: “the bureaucracy, the politics, the challenges, the rewards, et cetera.

Fatema Basrai.
Fatema Basrai. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“When the opportunity arose to lead the program, I felt very strongly about it,” she said. “Once people go through a class, they have a bigger understanding about the issues and things they can do to make their neighborhood schools better.”

Basrai is committed to Leadership SAISD’s mission, said Victoria Moreno-Herrera, board chair of Leadership SAISD. “Since she came on board, she’s looking for ways to grow and expand the program.”

The current class consists of 36 members, and Basrai wants to increase the class size to 50 next year. Classes start every September and the application period for 2019 cohort will open in June 2018. Initially, the program was only for residents of the San Antonio Independent School District, but has expanded to other districts including Edgewood and Southside independent school districts.

“After our former [executive director] left, we set on a search to bring someone on board who understands SAISD, its challenges and opportunities and someone who is passionate about public education in San Antonio,” Moreno-Herrera said. “The great thing is that Fatema graduated from our program, has taught in public school, and worked for P16, so her experience stood out to us from the beginning.”

One the biggest challenges Basrai notices in the current culture of education is that people look at the education of children as someone else’s responsibility, she said.

“I think it really comes down to that mentality of ‘it takes a village,’” she said. Instead of our kids, it has become their kids or my kids. “The way to really make a difference now is to go back to that.”

What’s most exciting about the being on the Forbes list, Basrai said, is that under-30s get to become part of a network, an alumni group of sorts, to share ideas and opportunities.

“It’s a great opportunity to talk to other people doing cool things,” she said.

Forbes’ annual Under 30 Summit will take place next October, and she hopes to attend.

“The competition is extremely fierce: 15,000+ nominations for just 600 spots,” wrote Caroline Howard for Forbes. “That’s an under 4 percent acceptance rate, making the 30 Under 30 harder to get into than the nation’s two most selective colleges, Stanford and Harvard University.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org