(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumni citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards ceremony and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
When Constance Jones ’03 took over as CEO of Noble Network of Charter Schools, she changed some rules. To show she meant business, she dyed her hair purple.
The Noble Network consists of 17 award-winning public charter high schools and a middle school that aim to prepare inner-city Chicago students for success in college and professional careers. Before she was promoted unexpectedly from president of the network in late 2018, the schools had a reputation of being overly conformist to white corporate culture: shirts tucked in, no visible tattoos, only “natural” hair colors. Some teachers kept a supply of eyeliner to color in designs cut in students’ hair to protect teens from getting demerits.
But throughout her career, Constance often was the only woman or person of color at the decision-making table. She believed strongly in students — and teachers — learning to succeed as their authentic selves. She had never hankered for purple hair, but in relaxing appearance standards, she cleared her calendar to visit all the schools with her new look.
Constance’s authentic self is poised, gracious and unapologetic. She demands excellence of herself and others, and she can laugh at herself. She’s not above inviting a woman who tends goats to a faculty Zoom meeting to share a different perspective. As a former Harmonyx member, she uses her beautiful voice to celebrate achievements of her colleagues, literally singing their praises. She’s kind, principle-driven and doesn’t take shortcuts. She believes in unlocking everyone’s potential, her commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion unwavering.
Born and raised in Durham in a big basketball family, Constance set her sights on Carolina early, especially when a cousin she idolized went there. She saw a career in sales and worked at a Footlocker in high school and college. Next was Harvard Business School, as she followed her cousin’s lead.
She did well in sales, first as a pharmaceutical rep and then as director of spa operations for Hyatt Global until the economic meltdown of 2008 cooled discretionary spending on luxury services. Shortly after her position ended, a friend told her that KIPP, a private charter school foundation for minority and low-income students, needed a leadership director.
Throughout Constance’s upbringing and college, a seed had been germinating. Her mother was a public school teacher, and at UNC, Constance tutored kids in a low-income apartment complex near campus. Her commitment to community service was a factor in her receiving the Harvey Beech Outstanding Senior Award from the GAA’s Black Alumni Reunion.
After college, she co-chaired an organization that mentored teenage African American girls.
KIPP presented an opportunity that tied all those threads of her passion to unleash potential in others, her natural sales ability and all she’d learned about customer service from the spa industry. Her target market would be different, that’s all.
Constance worked her way up to national development director for KIPP, then took an executive role at Noble. When the founder and CEO left abruptly, Constance stepped up to restore order.
Disruption opens up possibilities to change for the better. When she joined Noble, she was the only woman and the first person of color on the leadership team. The situation was familiar to her but unacceptable in an organization in which 98 percent of the students are Black or brown. In a relatively short time as CEO, Constance has built a diverse leadership team, half of them women. She has shifted the tenor at Noble, bringing diversity, equity and inclusion to life.
The academics at Noble remain high, and Constance has broadened the school’s mission to ensure that students are prepared to succeed in life outside of its disciplined world.
Her success has caught the attention of those who keep watch for natural leaders. Crain’s named her to its 40 Under 40 leadership list. Chicago magazine cited her as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.
The pandemic hit intensely the families of Noble students, mostly Black and brown and very modestly paid. Constance began a fundraising effort that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help parents who have lost their jobs and can’t cover living expenses, medical bills or funeral costs.
So much of this past year has been uncharted territory, yet Constance has held steady in her mission to open the floodgates of opportunity to children who might not have expected it. She will ensure that Noble offers them the tools to succeed as their authentic selves, no matter what color they choose for their hair.