Education’s Greatest Champion

Described by the BBC upon his retirement as “perhaps the biggest worldwide star in [tennis] history,” Andre Agassi is also one of the most charitable athletes of all time. He is the founder of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which has raised over $177 million dollars to transform public education in the US. The eight-time grand slam champion, Olympic gold medalist, and self-professed perfectionist sat down with HLM to discuss his incredible passion for learning and education and to share some of the wisdom he has gained in life.

The Unintentional Leader

Tennis is a lonely sport.

Just ask Andre Agassi, one of the game’s all-time greats. For 20 years, Agassi competed on the Association of Tennis Professionals World Tour, winning 60 titles, 8 of them grand slams. Since retiring, the former World No. 1 has compared tennis to solitary confinement.

And yet, over the course of his lifetime, Agassi has demonstrated a tremendous ability to be a team player. Agassi has channeled his influence and resources into improving K-12 education for the nation’s most disadvantaged kids by rallying celebrities, politicians, teachers, and investment bankers alike to his cause.

Agassi insists, however, that he is not a leader. “It was never a function of trying to be a leader. It was just a function of doing the right thing. Usually I was leading with my chin; my heart felt something, and then I had to get my head around it. And then, get my life around it.”

“It’s surreal to be talking about leadership,” he continued. “I spend a lot more time thinking about how I choose to live.”

Agassi’s choices are influenced mainly by what he considers most important—people. To him, helping others is not simply a lofty idea, but a way of life. Against the backdrop of his incredible personal evolution, Agassi’s journey into the education sector has taken him down an unpredictable path.

Starting the Foundation

Against the advice of many people around him, Agassi started his foundation early in his professional tennis career. The Andre Agassi Foundation was officially launched in 1994 when Agassi was only 24 years old. Instead of waiting until retirement, Agassi chose to take on the responsibilities of his foundation in the midst of his professional career, because he believed he was at the time in his life when he could make the greatest impact.

“I looked at it as a great opportunity. I held the most leverage in relationships and the greatest ability to facilitate and bring agendas together for a greater good,” Agassi said.

Agassi did not know right away that the focus of his foundation would be education. At first, he just wanted to do something to help his hometown of Las Vegas.

“I took a broad sweeping, instinctual reaction to the things I cared about and gravitated towards. I thought, I know I’m passionate about helping children, and I’m just going to start this journey somewhere,” he said.

It’s very rare to meet somebody who has accomplished a great deal who isn’t shocked at the path their journey took them on.

At its inception, the foundation raised money and awareness for community programs that helped underserved children in Las Vegas, including a campaign to clothe children, an after-school program, and a shelter for abused and neglected kids.

“In my particular case, my foundation was a function of fundraising. It was a function of not just resources, but awareness. I wanted to shine a light on organizations that were doing great work,” he said. “I wanted to connect myself to them, so I used the media as a spotlight, and I used my celebrity as a way to ask people for resources.”

While Agassi knew the general direction he wanted to take, he had no idea where he would end up – and that was fine.

“We always feel the need to be very precise about our decisions, but we should be thoughtful about them instead. We have to always allow ourselves the flexibility to be nimble and to adjust because we never know what life brings our way, and we never know where we will find ourselves,” he explained. “It’s very rare to meet somebody who has accomplished a great deal who isn’t shocked at the path their journey took them on.”

Several years later, Agassi would have to call upon that flexibility to adjust the trajectory of his philanthropy. Although the foundation continued to expand its support of community programming, over time, Agassi grew frustrated by the scalability and sustainability of his work.

“I felt like I wasn’t being proactive. These kids were having problems, and we were trying to adjust to them. It felt like we were sticking band-aids on significant issues. It felt like we were chasing our tails,” he said.

That was when Agassi realized that he needed to change his focus. “The last step I made before morphing over was at Boys & Girls Club, talking to the person who ran it. It was hearing him say to me, ‘It’s one step forward, two steps back every day. We take a step forward at the end of the afternoon, but then they take two steps back. We just need to occupy more of their day.’ At that point I said the only way to get to the nucleus of these issues is to give the tools. The only way to make systemic change is to educate.”

By July 2000, education became the primary focus of the Andre Agassi Foundation.

A Second Chance

Agassi’s own lack of education also motivated the shift. At the insistence of his father, an Iranian immigrant and former Olympic boxer, Agassi began playing tennis as a toddler. By age 13, he left home to attend Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy, a prestigious tennis training camp in Florida. Agassi dropped out of school in ninth grade and turned pro a few years later.

In an interview with Katie Couric, Agassi described his father’s reaction when then 16-year-old Andre him called asking for advice after being offered the chance to go pro. “He was like, ’Hello? Who am I talking to? What are you going to do, be a doctor? You don’t go to school, take the money and turn pro.’”

Mike Agassi, Andre’s father, saw professional sports, not school, as the quickest way to the American dream. But for Andre, the life of a professional athlete was one that he did not choose. As he revealed in his 2009 autobiography, Open, despite his talent and success, Agassi spent most of his life hating tennis with “a dark, secret passion.” As far back as he can remember, tennis was the unnecessary burden that his father forced him to carry.

“I was made to be a tennis player. I wasn’t born to be one. As a result, [tennis] took a lot from me early in my life, and I resented that,” he said.

After turning pro, Agassi was thrust into the media spotlight as a teenager. Young, flashy, and charismatic, he quickly became a fan favorite, but fame did not come without a price. By his mid 20s, Agassi started down a dark path, struggling with depression, drug abuse, and an unhappy and failed marriage to actress Brooke Shields.

At 27 years old and ranked No. 141 in the world, Agassi hit rock bottom. After losing in the first round of an indoor tournament in Germany, his coach gave him an ultimatum: start over or quit tennis forever.

But as it turns out, it was not tennis itself that Agassi truly resented, but the feeling of being trapped in a life he did not choose. At that moment, Agassi made the decision to choose tennis, finally allowing himself to accept the bad and embrace all the good that came with his career.

“Looking back now in hindsight, I’m quite grateful for the path that I went down. It’s taught me a lot, and it’s given me an incredible platform. It gave me the ability to have my foundation. It gave me the ability to take care of my family,” he explained.

Most profoundly, tennis gave Agassi a second chance. Without a proper education, Agassi had no choice in the path he took early in life. Years later, when he could finally accept tennis, Agassi had an incredible career to fall back on as well as many opportunities to fulfill other passions in his life. But the millions of children growing up without access to quality education in the United States will not be equally fortunate. Today, Agassi’s goal is to give those children a choice: a better life facilitated by the opportunity to have a better education and the power to choose their own path.

Breaking Down Barriers

In February 2001, construction broke at 1201 West Lake Mead Boulevard in Las Vegas on a project to build a new charter school—the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. The Agassi Foundation was going to build its own school.

It was a huge risk. Nevada had one of the worst drop out rates in the country: for every 100 students entering ninth grade, only 50 would be expected to graduate high school and only 10 from college. Agassi, himself a high school dropout, set out to learn everything he could about best practices in education and policy.

“When I first got into education, the first thing I had to do was learn about our state’s charter school laws to make sure we had a platform to succeed. It was about reaching out to local legislators and putting people around me who could fight and push up these battles, all the while fundraising, all the while being clear on my mission, all the while communicating that mission,” he said.

Agassi’s plans took an unexpected turn when he learned that a component of charter school law directly interfered with that mission.

“When I built the school, it was in the poorest and most economically challenged area in the whole town. The last problem that I ever thought I would run into was people from the suburbs commuting to go, because it was a complete lottery,” he said.

In the United States, charter schools do not receive public funds to build or maintain their facilities, but they do receive “head” funds (a certain amount of money per student) and therefore are subject to several of the same rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to public schools. Therefore, when enrollment is over-subscribed, admission is allocated based on an open lottery.

“That was an issue for me, because there are a lot of children who have more than others,” Agassi said. “…I had to backtrack. I had to fight for legislation that gave a logistical lottery so that the student body was representative of the children that the foundation was focused on helping and reflective of the community that it existed in.”

Agassi and his foundation began lobbying for reform right away, but it did not come in time. In August 2001, Agassi Prep opened its doors to 150 elementary school students selected by an open lottery, and the same occurred when the middle school building opened in 2003. “So now, all of a sudden, what percentage of the kids I was trying to help were actually going to be the ones that were being helped?” Agassi said.

Throughout this ordeal, Agassi was simultaneously “starting over” in his tennis career, traveling 38 weeks a year to play tournaments around the world. “I didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time. I was trying to be the best in the world at something at the same time. My heart and passions collided with my circumstances and limitations,” he said.

In his professional life, Agassi was climbing back to the top of the tennis world, winning the US Open and French Open in 1999, becoming only the third male player in the Open Era to win all four Gram Slam singles titles during his career. In 2000 and 2001, Agassi won back-to-back Australian Open titles. Things were coming together in his private life as well: in 2001, Agassi was remarried to former tennis player Steffi Graf. Soon after, his son Jaden was born and two years later, his daughter Jaz.

When asked how he managed to balance his personal life, career, and charity work, Agassi responded, “In the same way all these students I saw walking around the [Harvard] campus today do. I look at them and I see the same things I was going through constantly. They all look stressed out. I wonder how they do it, you know, but you find a way.”

Finally, in 2009, the Nevada Legislature passed SB 391, authorizing charter schools to enroll children in a particular category of at-risk pupils, thereby allowing Agassi Prep to target the demographic of its choosing.

On June 12, 2009, Agassi Prep celebrated its greatest success yet: graduating its first class of high school seniors with a 100% graduation and college matriculation rate.

Facilitating Change

In recent years, Agassi has found a new way to expand his impact on education nationwide.

Together with Canyon Capital, an investment management firm, Agassi created the Canyon-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, designed to act as a for-profit “bridge developer” of educational facilities for charter school operators.

Because charter schools do not receive public funding to build or maintain their facilities, they can expand only as quickly as they can access the large amounts of capital needed to build new schools. Agassi and his partners at Canyon Capital developed a business model that lowers this barrier by raising money in the private sector and investing it in the construction of charter school facilities. The fund covers 100 percent of project costs to build the school and subsequently charges a scalable rent that increases with enrollment.

“We are giving them ownership as opposed to being landlords. The dynamic of it is we take your rent, redirect it toward tax-exempt bonds, and give you a purchase power to purchase back the facility for slightly more than what we built it for,” he said.

Investors in the fund get a small return and make a big impact on education. “You create a win-win with a like-minded investor, somebody who says, ‘I don’t want to give away my money, and I’m not looking for a big return, but I want to see societal change.’”

Best of all, the model is both scalable and sustainable. By August, the fund will have deployed about 20 facilities. Through the next four to five years, they expect to build about 60 schools.

“At the end of the day, I am not an educator. I am not an operator; I do not operate my own charter school. I have come full circle and realized that what I am is a facilitator. It’s all about facilitating and impacting more children. And this is allowing great operators to expand at an unparalleled rate,” Agassi said.

I think, education, it’s not a ripple effect, it’s a tsunami effect.

The Road Ahead

Agassi believes there is still a long way to go.

“I think what we’re doing in charter school space is a piece of it, just a piece of it. Building schools in one offs, or even hundred-offs, for those who know how to educate our kids, is great, but it’s a drop in the ocean,” he said.

Agassi never takes for granted the value of education.

“I think, education, it’s not a ripple effect, it’s a tsunami effect. Something small happens at a given place, and it just picks up momentum. And the impact that it has is immeasurable. I don’t know if there is anything more important than education,” he said.

So what else must be done? For one, Agassi believes we must continue to bring this issue to the attention of our legislators.

“We vote with our feet. We have to prioritize education in the big picture. Elections can be won on economic issues, human rights issues. Education is, to me, the human rights issue of our time,” he said. “If a leader doesn’t have your views on how important education is and if you don’t like their plans, then vote accordingly because we all have to start coming to the table. We all have to put aside our agendas and figure out how we’re going to serve our children better.”

We can also help incentivize more talented young people to go into education. As Agassi puts it, “When you think back over your life, it’s nearly always somebody that impacted it, not some thing. It’s always a person. And our teachers, we remember the good ones, and we hate that we remember our bad ones. A teacher who cares more than they have to leaves an indelible mark. It’s remarkable to watch that dynamic.”

The teachers in Agassi’s own life have certainly left an indelible mark. Despite his lack of formal education, Agassi has learned from formidable teachers all his life.

“I’ve had great teachers. The three most influential people in my life were my father, my trainer [Gil Reyes], and my wife. And in all three cases, English wasn’t their first language. You’d be shocked who the great teachers are,” he said.

As Agassi battles on, he is no longer plagued by the demons of his youth. A lifelong commitment to learning has given Agassi the tools to take ownership of his life, day by day, and to enjoy not just the high points, but his entire journey.

“The truth is, my definition of success is how I choose to engage with my life every day and that never changes. So I find a great deal of comfort in allowing myself to be a work in progress. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and I have to offset that somehow. I’ve learned through life how to do that.”

“But yes,” Agassi added after a pause, “there is more to do.”

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